‘The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back,” President Obama told Mitt Romney on October 22, 2012.
And now Ukrainians are calling to ask for their country back.
The pictures tell a tale. Ukrainian Marines besieged in their barracks. Russian troops patrolling ports and towns and entrenching on the border. An empty chair in the Oval Office.
But what we’re witnessing isn’t simply an invasion. It’s a testament to the four defining truths of international relations.
1. States act in their own interests.
Rarely in the 21st century has such an important truth been so regularly ignored by so many.
Informed by a never-ending paper phalanx of international-relations theorists, the political fashion now declares power politics to be a thing of the past. “Mutual reliance” and “global complexity” are the buzzwords or “norms” of the new world order.
Yet the evidence is clear. Lip service to multilateral interdependence does not make interdependence real. Putin has invaded Crimea because he believes it’s in Russia’s interests to do so.
But it’s not just Putin who encapsulates this first truth. The EU’s waffling reaction to the invasion, though little noted, has been instructive to watch.
Take Germany. Faced with a choice between the norm of human rights and risking continued access to Russian energy supplies, Germany’s answer has been unequivocal.
Russia, Germany’s foreign minister has explained, must be allowed to remain in the G8.
2. Circumstances are shaped by those who hold the initiative.
Consider the contrast. Putin sends military forces to seize Ukrainian territory. NATO calls for him to withdraw. President Obama promises standard-fare vague consequences. Putin consolidates.
What Putin has done here is to seize and retain the initiative.
He’s gambling that the international community is too divided to act — too weak. Where the rest of the world is rudderless, allowing desperation and fear to corrupt opportunities for good policy, Putin is certain in his agenda: He wants Crimea under Russia’s orbit of power. And he wants Ukraine’s new government to know that, revolution or no revolution, he’ll challenge any effort that seeks his alienation.
Putin is shaping this crisis on his terms.
3. America is the world’s indispensable power.
“American exceptionalism” has become the bogey phrase of the modern era. Seen as an excuse for imperialism by the global Left and derided as egotistical propaganda by American isolationists, it is under consistent attack.
Yet, in the end, the exceptionality of America is also clear.
Without America, Ukraine is slowly being torn apart. The EU pontificates. China takes notes for its own ambitions in the Pacific. The emerging powers of Brazil and India apparently couldn’t care less. And the rest of the world is silent. But just as American power is the critical component of global order, the absence of our power is the portal to despotism.
4. It’s never too late to act.
With insipid glee, many commentators are expressing their willingness to effectively surrender Ukrainian sovereignty. It’s too late to change the reality on the ground, they claim. Indeed, some say, the ethnic representation of Crimea justifies what the Russian president is doing.
But this energetic clarification that we have very few options isn’t statesmanship. It’s the opposite — the codification of weakness. Discouraged by Putin’s courage, we’ve accepted a metastasis of timidity. Correspondingly, while Putin conquers a nation, we talk of a pull-out from June’s G8 summit.
It’s almost farcical. Yet the fourth truth tells us it doesn’t have to be this way.
Somewhat ironically, Putin’s own policy in Ukraine offers a textbook for how Russia’s invasion can be counteracted. When Yanukovych’s government fell, it seemed that Putin had lost. The West celebrated and the revolutionaries took power. Then, in one day, with one gamble, Putin changed everything. The United States can do the same.
First, the president could make use of the military staging options at his disposal. Were Obama to order the George H. W. Bush on a short detour to the Eastern Mediterranean, or the 75th Ranger Regiment’s quick-reaction battalion to Kiev (or both), he’d send an unmistakable warning to Putin. He’d also render his red lines as something more than 50 shades of invisible. The historical overtones would be undeniable: Just as America once stood the watch in West Germany, America would stand ready to support its allies in Eastern Europe.
Second, the president could take decisive diplomatic action.
Replacing worthless condemnations — which reinforce the Kremlin’s supreme confidence in the lack of American courage to do anything substantive — the president could begin proceedings to expel Russia from the G8. At the same time, he could join Kerry in making a tour of Eastern Europe (including Ukraine) in order to offer his solidarity with America’s allies.
The president has one more extraordinary tool at his disposal: American energy.
Were the president to unleash America’s energy boom into the export sector, fast-tracking energy supplies to Europe, he’d pull the rug out from under Putin’s feet. No longer subject to Putin’s energy protection racket, Europe would be free to take a tougher stand against his intimidation. More important, removed of the foreign capital flows born of his own energy exports, Putin would be unable to support his increasing military expenditures and continuing support for Assad’s rampages in Syria.
It would take time, but with commitment and leadership, the constitution of American power would find unprecedented new meaning.
Ultimately, all four of these truths are tied together. Fused into action, they offer a world that’s more peaceful and secure. Separated into inaction, they invite a world subject to the whims of tyranny.
It’s not hyperbole, it’s a lesson proved in endless history.