Convincing? It would certainly be nice to believe that, as President Clinton suggested in 1997, great-power territorial politics are a thing of the past. A new era had dawned, he said, in which “enlightened self-interest, as well as shared values, will compel countries to define their greatness in more-constructive ways.” In fact, the realization that the Russian bear can bite as well as growl is timely. It is a reminder that a multipolar world in a time of transition, when popular resentments are rising over joblessness and inequality, is a dangerous place indeed.
The international system does not look particularly stable. The Cold War’s bipolar confrontation, despite its crises, was predictable. Today’s world is not. It features a United States whose power is dominant but no longer determinant; a one-party China that is a rising hegemon; an authoritarian Russia giddy on nationalism and the idea of a restored imperium; and a weak, navel-gazing, blasé Europe whose pursuit of an ever closer union is on hold and perhaps on the brink of reversal.
Pacifist tendencies in western Europe coexist with views of power held in Moscow and Beijing that Bismarck or Clausewitz would recognize instantly. After the genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia, the UN General Assembly ratified the concept that governments have a “responsibility to protect” their citizens from atrocities. But in the face of Syria’s bloody dismemberment and Ukraine’s cynical dismantlement, idealism of that kind looks fluffy or simply irrelevant. The Baltic countries are front-line states once again. The fleeting post–Cold War dream of a zone of unity and peace stretching from Lisbon to Vladivostok has died. As John Mearsheimer observes in his seminal The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, “Unbalanced multipolar systems feature the most dangerous distribution of power, mainly because potential hegemons are likely to get into wars with all of the other great powers in the system.”
In this context, nothing is more dangerous than American weakness. It is understandable that the United States is looking inward after more than a decade of post-9/11 war. But it is also worrying, because the credibility of American power remains the anchor of global security. The nation’s mood is not merely a reflection of economic hardship or the costs of war; it is also determined by the president’s decisions and rhetoric. There was no American majority for involvement in World War I or World War II—until the president set out to forge one (helped decisively in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s case by Pearl Harbor). As Jonathan Eyal of Britain’s Royal United Services Institute says, “If a president stands up and says something, he can shift the debate.”
President Obama has made clear he does not believe in military force. His words spell that out; so does his body language. He asks, after Iraq and Afghanistan, what force accomplishes. These are fair questions; the bar must be very high for unleashing military power. But when an American president marches allies up the hill to defend his “red line”—as Obama did regarding Syria’s use of chemical weapons—and then marches them back down again, he does something damaging that the world does not forget. And when Obama, in response to a recent question about whether declaring that the United States would protect the Senkaku Islands risked drawing another “red line,” gives an evasive answer, he does something so dangerous that his words are worth repeating:
The implication of the question, I think, … is that each and every time a country violates one of these norms, the United States should go to war or stand prepared to engage militarily, and if it doesn’t, then somehow we’re not serious about these norms. Well, that’s not the case.
If these treaty obligations do not constitute a red line triggering a U.S. military response—the only way to prove the seriousness of “these norms”—all bets are off in a world already filled with uncertainties. A century ago, in the absence of clear lines or rules, it was just this kind of feel-good hope and baseless trust in the judgment of rival powers that precipitated catastrophe. But that, it may be said, was then. The world has supposedly been transformed.