Who’s surprised that the Obama administration, evolved, urbane and forward-looking, is having a hard time dealing with Vladimir Putin’s unreconstructed Cold War mentality in Ukraine? “We’re hoping that Russia will not see this as sort of a continuation of the Cold War," John Kerry said last week. Even before the Russian invasion of Crimea, Obama was warning of the dangers of seeing the world in terms of Great Power conflict. “We’re no longer in a Cold War,” the president said at the U.N. General Assembly in September. “There’s no Great Game to be won.”
Well, to paraphrase Leon Trotsky, you might not be interested in the Cold War, but the Cold War is interested in you. In foreign policy you never get to dictate the rules entirely since the other players also have a say. That’s true even for superpowers, and doubly so for superpowers that choose to lead from behind. If you don’t want to be backed into the Cold War, then don’t choose a former KGB officer as your dance partner.
The unpleasant fact is that Putin has not only bested the White House, but that Obama has enabled him from the very beginning of his first term. “Reset” with Russia, with the intended goals of getting Moscow to agree to Iran sanctions and to keep open the northern transport route to and from Afghanistan, made the administration subject to Putin’s whims. The White House wouldn’t dare cross the Russian strongman lest it risk policy aims the importance of which the “reset” had only underscored.
With the Syrian conflict, the White House turned Putin into the indispensable Russian. First, the administration begged him without success to abandon his Arab client. There was only a political solution to the crisis, said the White House, and Russia had the answers. Accordingly, traditional U.S. allies flocked to Sochi to petition Putin for relief. The Saudis promised to buy $15 billion worth of Russian arms if only the Russians would temper their support for Assad. Putin turned down the Saudi offer because what was more valuable than the cash was the public show that Obama couldn’t keep his allies in line and happy. Not Russia—Putin would back Bashar al-Assad till the very end which, given American impotence, virtually guaranteed Assad’s survival.
By the time Putin offered Obama a joint initiative to rid Assad of his chemical weapons, thereby saving Obama the embarrassment of not getting congressional authorization for strikes he never wanted to launch in the first place, the Russian was just telling Obama to turn over his king because the game was over. The situation in Ukraine is the culmination of “reset” and Syria.
The White House may be correct—this is not the Cold War. But history shows that, contrary to what Obama professes, the world is more often than not “a zero-sum endeavor.” There are clear winners and losers, and right now the White House is losing.
The administration’s confused response to the crisis in Ukraine suggests that it may finally have come to understand the role of American power. U.S. foreign policy has a dual nature that, says my colleague Christopher Caldwell, is something like the medieval idea of the king’s two bodies. The king is a real man, with a body subject to the pleasures and afflictions of all men. But the king is also a symbol of the divine order that ties man to God. Similarly, the United States is at once both a nation-state like any other that pursues its own interests, while it is also something much larger, the guarantor of global security—in short, order. There are growing numbers on both the American right and left who announce they are tired of the United States having to serve as “the world’s policeman.” However, events in Ukraine are evidence that without a strong America things occur that seem distasteful and dangerous to all, like the violation of national sovereignty.
The United States has no narrow national interest in Ukraine, but as caretaker of the world’s security architecture it has a vital interest in pushing back against Putin. In order to send Putin a message in a language that will make sense to a man who has repeatedly posed bare-chested, political and diplomatic measures need to be integrated with hard power. Putin needs to be hit hard somewhere. Cold War thinking shows that there are a number of vulnerable pieces on the board and possible moves for the White House to make. The most obvious is to go back to the origin of Putin’s campaign—Syria.
Assad is not getting rid of his chemical weapons as Putin promised, so the administration should move to show that, in fact, it’s the Russian’s word that can’t be trusted, not America’s. The strikes on regime targets that Obama planned last September could serve as the White House’s notice that as far as the United States is concerned the deal’s off. Destroying the air force that Assad has used to drop barrel bombs on innocent civilians would not only restore some order to the international system, but also highlight the fact that, contrary to his boasts, the former KGB officer is incapable of protecting his allies. American allies on the other hand, from the Middle East to Asia and central Europe, will once again be reassured that their interests are safe in American hands. What a gift for Obama to bear the Saudi king when the president visits Riyadh later this month: “I told you—I got your back.”
For America and our allies, the most salutary effect of Putin’s machinations is to remind the White House of what the Cold War looks like in reality. If the administration believes that it can contain and deter an Iranian nuclear weapon, it has to reckon truly the costs involved. As it stands, Obama administration officials have an academic conception of containment and deterrence, meaning that it’s the opposite of anything like military action. As the half-century-long U.S.-Soviet standoff showed, real containment and deterrence of a nuclear power is bloody and expensive. Ensuring that the Iranians never acquire the bomb, whether that’s through sanctions and a credible threat of force, or more perhaps eventually a bombing campaign to show that the regime in Tehran will never get there, means safeguarding the global order. Let Putin and Assad serve as an example to put Iran on notice.