When I was a kid, we had A bomb drills in school. The fear of a Soviet sneak attack was that great. It was part of our national psyche. My parents didn’t build a bomb shelter in the backyard but we wouldn’t have been alone if they had.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, it revealed the weaknesses of an economic and political system that ignored sound principles of economic freedom and human rights. We have had little to fear from Russia since. Not only are they weak economically but also they are weak militarily.
The Russian sphere of influence has shifted east and west for centuries. It has never extended so far to the west as it did during the Cold War and it has never been so far east as it is now. The Russians would like to change that.
Toward that end, they have struck deals with countries like Ukraine, Poland and Germany to sell them oil and gas. And, they haven’t been shy about using their customers’ reliance upon them for energy as a means to influence international events. Energy exporting nations in South Asia and the Middle East are their economic competitors. So, they seek to extend their sphere of influence southward as well.
By contrast, the United States is an economic and military juggernaut, a maritime nation whose integration into the global supply-chain (and our ability to keep it secure) makes it in everyone’s interest to be our ally.
So, how does Russia end up taking us to school over the handling of Syria? Or, to put it differently, why we are playing a weak hand when we have a strong one?
The U.S. has a conflict between ideology and military strategy. Our beliefs – the why of what we know we should do – are based on human rights, the manifestation of which, at least in the case of Syria, is our opposition to weapons of mass destruction. Moreover, we’ve been sensitized to the specter of mass genocide. Many people – despite their opposition to war – think we could have prevented the death of hundreds of thousands if we had acted sooner in Rwanda and Bosnia.
So, there is constant friction between what we believe and what we do. Firing missiles, dropping bombs and sending in the Marines is not the best way to promote human rights.
Our original strategy vis-à-vis Syria was to strike in a limited way. It would not have had a big effect. It wouldn’t have destroyed the chemical weapons and wouldn’t have toppled the Assad regime. It would have been painful while it lasted but not debilitating to a dictator who is in the middle of a long war and who would easily be resupplied by his Russian allies.
So, why do it? Like most diplomatic moves played out on the world stage, it’s a gesture. A gesture to express our unhappiness.
Unfortunately, the result was to send a signal it doesn’t really matter if we are unhappy! Our military power should be feared but our diplomatic waffling undermines our intentions. The outcome has been to hand Russia an opportunity to appear to be our equals (or perhaps our superior) by brokering a solution that allows us to back down in the face of popular opposition.
Our President seems unable to decide if he wants to be George W. Bush or Jimmy Carter and is, therefore, ineffective at being either. Nations with a strong interest in becoming reliable allies in the region – from Azerbaijan to Turkey to Poland – may now see us as unreliable partners. The image of Russia forcing us to back down and appearing to be our equals for the first time since the Cold War is bound to have an influence for a very long time.
International diplomacy is a game of carrots and sticks. We should reserve our carrots for those who mirror our values and reserve our sticks for those who pose a serious threat.
The economic and military power of the United States provides us an opportunity to LEAD. Our values, our economic and political systems are based on human rights, economic freedom and the rule of law. Promoting these values and helping our allies develop liberal institutions to implement them will lead to global stability and prosperity. Our long-term national and economic security depends upon it.
WHO WILL LEAD?