On March 2 the Washington Post editorial board opined that “President Obama’s foreign policy is based on fantasy, the fantasy being: “Invasions, brute force, great-power games and shifting alliances — these were things of the past.”
It is hard to believe Obama is that naive, since we have practiced our own invasions, brute force and great power games in recent years, but let’s not complicate the Post’s simple fantasy of reality just yet.
When people talk about reality, they barely get the half of it, not to mention the nuanced complexity revealed when a given situation is truly examined. The reality ignored by the Post is that these countries, at least Russia and China, are integrated into our global economy for the most part. Yes, they rely on brute force, but again so do we. And this being a global economy makes little if anything simple in terms of foreign policy because ramifications abound since we are so interlinked. This limits our options when it comes to taking decisive actions in a crisis like Ukraine because hurting Russia economically, in this case, is also likely to hurt our allies. It is hard for us to get tough, when they have little or no inclination to do so.
The armchair warriors seem upset by Putin’s ability to play us as seems the case in Crimea, implying that Obama should be able to act with similar decisiveness. Putin is a brutal dictator with no one in Russia effectively blocking his moves and no international considerations that he is unwilling to ignore for passing glory. He is also acting on his doorstep, so actions are simple to take and, given the historical ties with Crimea, with a sliver of justification.
Obama, on the other hand, is constrained by actual relations with many other countries whose interests he takes into account, while about half of our Congress carps at everything he does, including his failing to come through on the “red line” statement in Syria even though they would not back his acting in Congress. They blame Obama for projecting a weak national image, while they do their best to weaken that image with their politically driven propaganda assailing him for being weak.
While there are various economic sanctions that we can muster against Russia, much depends on our allies’ willingness to string along because we don’t trade all that much with Russia and some of them do. Germany in particular has a lot of trade with them, but you may have noticed Angela Merkel is not talking tough. She is barely audible at all. For her to put economic sanctions on Russia is to also shoot Germany in the foot. Along with much trade, Germany depends on Russia for a sizable share of its natural gas which is piped through Ukraine, by the way. Angela is all about letting things cool down rather than warm up. Her inclination is to make a deal and tough talk does not help, it hinders.
In short, our options to be tough and decisive are limited because we have gotten mostly past the cold war them-or-us reality to a point of economic integration with the likes of Russia and China. But Putin has remained a law unto himself. He operates with no concern for anyone but Russia and even then is willing to risk Russia’s future for gleaming moments of super power like glory now. Reportedly Angela Merkel has said he lives in his own reality. We have to somehow come to terms with that.
If I have persuaded you of nothing else, hopefully you realize how any talk of reality that hinges upon being tough and decisive vs. weak and slow moving in foreign policy is the most dangerous fantasy of all.