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This is the lesson the liberal world needs to relearn, a quarter-century after the fall of the Berlin Wall: none of its choices, be it military cuts, inaction, or diplomatic posturing, happens in a vacuum. While perceptions of Western irresolve or weakness don’t necessarily create conditions of instability by themselves, their real danger is that they make aggressive opportunism seem a more attractive path for revanchists like Putin or revisionist powers like Beijing.
The toxic brew of negative perceptions of Western/liberal military capability and political will is rapidly undermining the post-1945 order around the world. Reduced military budgets, global perceptions of American and European weakness, the outright dismissal of presidential redlines, and memories of total inaction like during the 2008 Georgian invasion or Syrian civil war have set the stage for future opportunism. More than one commentator has noted the similarities between Hitler in 1938 and Putin in 2014. Like Hitler did, Putin is playing a weak hand, though it is relatively stronger than the object of his aggression, and even token opposition by the West could cause him to fold. We now know that Hitler would have pulled his troops out of the Sudetenland in the face of any British or French opposition. Thus, what may matter most to global stability is the reaction of the West, and in the case of inaction, it abets opportunistic aggression.
A world in which dissatisfied powers seek to redraw old maps or restore national “honor” will be immeasurably more dangerous when they correctly gauge that the West can offer only moral outrage and little else. Neither China nor Russia may be so reckless as to act aggressively without any cause, but there are myriad “causes” out there, many of which we dismiss because they don’t fit our definition of rationality or national interest, and onto which Beijing, Moscow, Tehran and others can latch.
Policymakers and analysts too little take account of the poisonous connection between perceptions of Western credibility and the festering disputes that can be used as a casus belli for those seeking advantage. Crimea has been a sore spot for Russia (in recent history) since Nikita Khrushchev transferred it to Ukraine in 1954. It is hard to imagine a scenario whereby Vladimir Putin would be able to get away with fomenting a crisis out of whole cloth. But, as he showed in Georgia, he will respond with military alacrity when given the opportunity. Western capitals, for their part, chose not to believe that he would be so reckless as to press his advantage in Ukraine as forcefully as he has, in no small part because they have few options for opposing him.
One can only assume that China, Iran, and North Korea are watching Crimea just as closely as Putin watched Washington’s reactions to East and South China Sea territorial disputes, Pyongyang’s nuclear provocations, and Syria’s civil war. Putin knows that fewer than 70,000 U.S. military personnel are currently stationed in Europe, and many of those are support positions. Western European countries, meanwhile, have shrunk their militaries to the point where they are essentially home defense forces.
The question the Western and liberal world must face is whether it is willing to surrender the coming decades to increasing uncertainty and insecurity. How much will it accommodate and accept changes to the global order? Ongoing weakness will only abet more and drastic change. Putin will not re-form the Soviet Union overnight, but history is a long-run thing, and taking Crimea today and maybe eastern Ukraine next week is just the opening act. Beijing may not be driven by ideology, but successfully controlling disputed islets throughout Asia could be the precursor to larger changes to regional power patterns. How many decades before the West (and by extension its liberal allies in Asia) feel truly threatened?
Maybe the bottom line for future Western governments is a paraphrase of Trotsky: you may not be interested in the world, but the world is interested in you.
Michael Auslin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.
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