I know this might disappoint many readers, but the truth is, Putin is acting rationally based upon his cost-benefit analysis of the status of balance of power politics in the international arena.
What has led to the current crisis, in which one country can essentially “peacefully invade” another country and partially annex it? Several causes must be considered.
THE FIRST IS THE United States’ response to seemingly democratic revolutions spanning the globe in the past three years. Starting with the Arab Spring, the United States has supported popular overthrows of governments where the people had problems with the governing regime. Even though many of these regimes were less than “legitimate” in their authority, by the United States supporting popular uprisings, it sends a message: It is OK to overthrow a government if one is not happy with it.
This is a dangerous position to have. In fact, one can assume the U.S. government would not support this type of policy if it occurred on its own territory. Governments, for better or worse, provide stability in the international arena. Overthrowing these governments creates chaos and instability. Worse, one can never be sure that the new government will be better than the old. Any country that participated in the Arab Spring revolutions evinces this point.
It also is worth noting that popular revolutions are something that our Founding Fathers worried about. One reason our sacred Constitution was formed was in response to what the Founders called popular tyranny, or tyranny of the majority, to echo Alexis de Tocqueville. In their case, it was Shay’s Rebellion that inspired amending the Articles of Confederation, resulting in the Constitution that provides us with our current constitutional structure: a limited, federal, democratic republic.
LIKE OUR FOUNDING Fathers, Putin fears popular tyranny (he prefers the authoritarian type). When the Ukrainian people protested its governing regime last month, it became clear that the United States would support the overthrow of the government. This caused concern for Putin, who believes in stability and a Russian sphere of influence more than anything else. He also sees a window of opportunity to regain prominence of power within the international arena. The United States’ influence is waning. It appears weaker than in the past, and President Obama, in an attempt to reverse the direction he believes President George W. Bush put the United States on, has decided to handle the world in a highly diplomatic and prudent manner. He wishes to rely on international norms and institutions and global alliances to resolve problems. Here, force is the last resort, and in many cases, it is ruled out of the question – period. He behaves according to how he wishes the world to be, rather than how the world is.
The problem with this is, sometimes, a powerful state must have a legitimate threat of force to bargain with. The United States has many treaties and agreements where if its friends are threatened, it comes to their aid. This is its agreement with NATO, and with other territories around the world – i.e., Taiwan. But with the United States’ seemingly negligent responses to international crises such as the civil war in Syria; the attacks on the American Consulate in Benghazi, Libya; ambiguous commitments to Israel; and an apparent overabundance of caution concerning Iran and North Korea; the United States’ credibility has been downgraded.
THIS IS PERHAPS the most important factor influencing Putin’s actions. Putin sees the United States on the decline, and he wants Russia to regain its international prominence. Thus, the rational move is to take a calculated risk to increase your power at the expense of the declining international actor. It is a brilliant move by Putin.
What can the United States do about it now? Nothing. It is too late. The world sees that Obama is too hesitant to act with much andreia in the face of essential, though nonexistential, threats to U.S. security interests. In an attempt to reverse course from the Bush administration, where the world hated but feared U.S. hegemony, Obama has decided to act in a manner to decrease hatred for the United States – a noble and fine policy, but in a realist world, a quite damaging one as well if not executed perfectly.
Now, with a weak and pathetic response to the Russian takeover of Crimea, we must ask: What will Putin do next? How much further will he try to extend his boundaries and Russia’s power? Further, what will other countries do with the fact that the United States may no longer take every measure necessary to defend its allies? We may see a domino effect of aggressive annexation.
Although I personally admire Obama’s intent with U.S. foreign policy, he must remember that we still live in an anarchical global order – one in which power rules. And in this type of environment, one must be prepared to act as the executive: the executive in a Machiavellian sense. Prudence is a critical component of foreign policy, but sometimes prudence requires a grand display of force. A display of this type does not demand military action, but it certainly does require more than sanctioning several dozen individuals and perhaps a few institutions connected to Putin. Why so few? One can assume sanctions were so limited so as not to worsen the situation.
BUT WHEN AN aggressive state already disrespects another state, caution-as-prudence becomes negligence. It smells of weakness. One must remember Niccolò Machiavelli’s grand remarks on love, respect and fear: concerning whether it is better to be loved or feared, I interpret Machiavelli as hoping that one can be both love and feared. However, he is clear on one point: If one cannot be loved and feared, it is better to be feared.
Obama certainly has achieved his intent of making the United States seem friendlier in the international arena, but he has done this without increasing the world’s love for it. Now the United States is in a situation where the world does not love it, but it also does not fear it.
This is a sure sign of its future decline in power politics. It is up to the reader to determine whether this is for better or worse.
(The writer is an assistant professor of political science at Georgia Regents University.)