A quarter-century after the fall of the Soviet Union, authoritarian rulers such as Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad are showing they can and will defy international norms, suppress dissent, and use military force. American policymakers are struggling with how to respond.
"It's a big philosophical question about how to deal with a strong state with anti-Western and autocratic proclivities," said Michael McFaul, the most recent American ambassador to Moscow. "I would say on that score we are kind of confused as a country."
Citing the sweeping unpopularity of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, American officials have embraced economic sanctions as their primary means of pressuring foreign governments. In an interconnected, 21st-century global economy, President Barack Obama argues, economic sanctions are more powerful than ever. If Russia continues on its current course, Obama warned last week, "the isolation will deepen, sanctions will increase, and there will be more consequences for the Russian economy."
He may be proven right. Over the course of 2014, the threat of economic sanctions may result in Putin backing down in Crimea and Ukraine. And historic sanctions against Iran—which slashed oil sales and cut the country off from the world banking system—could produce an accord that halts Iran's nuclear program. If not, a 16th-century Machiavellian truism will reassert its dominance: The party most willing to decisively use force will prevail over a noncommittal opponent.