Best Defense

More nutty beliefs about the Ukraine crisis: No. 2, that it is fault of U.S. government

More nutty beliefs about the Ukraine crisis: No. 2, that it is fault of U.S. government

By Christopher J. Fettweis
Best Defense guest columnist

2) Washington has to shoulder some of the blame for this crisis.
A consistent theme of President Obama’s critics has been that perceptions of U.S. weakness brought this crisis on. A variety of analysts have agreed with former Vice President Cheney’s assertion that there is “no question” that Putin believes Obama is weak, and that weakness encouraged Russian aggression. This criticism, which comes mostly but not exclusively from the most hawkish voices in the marketplace of ideas (Charles Krauthammer, Bill Kristol, John McCain), also suggests that resolve and strength could somehow have deterred this action in the first place.

Another form of this criticism comes from the other end of the spectrum, from political realists, who have asserted that NATO expansion, the deployment of missile-defense systems in Eastern Europe, and other misguided U.S. policies in the 1990s and 2000s led to a deterioration of bilateral relations and ultimately to the current situation. Eighty percent of the Russian people had a positive view of the United States in 1991, former Ambassador Jack Matlock pointed out, but that number had dropped to 20 percent by 1999 (other events, like the utter collapse of their economy, apparently had nothing to do with this). Unwise policy choices by the United States, therefore, are the root cause of this crisis.

Both sides overestimate the role Washington has played in Putin’s calculations. One of the most basic observations from political psychology is what is called centrality, or the belief that we are central to their calculations. The natural human tendency to put ourselves in the center of their universe prevents real, deep appreciation of their motivations, whoever they are. While it is certainly true that Putin takes Washington into consideration before acting, it is not at all clear that U.S. actions are the primary drivers of his decisions. In fact, it is almost certain that we overestimate our importance. No matter what the United States had done in the 1990s, or how it responded to this crisis as it began, events probably would have unfolded in roughly the same way.

That also means, unfortunately, that we might not have as much influence on how it ultimately ends, either.

(And more to come.)

Christopher J. Fettweis is associate professor of political science at Tulane University in New Orleans. The thoughts in this essay are extensions of his latest book, The Pathologies of Power: Fear, Honor, Glory and Hubris in U.S. Foreign Policy.