Russia’s storming of the Ukrainian naval base in Crimea just as Iran and world powers wrapped up another round of negotiations in Vienna represent seemingly contradictory bookends to a world that some believe is spinning out of control.
It’s hard not to argue that the world seems a bit trigger-happy these days. Vladimir Putin’s Russian mafia thugs armed with weapons bought with oil money calmly annex the Crimea. Chinese warships ominously circle obscure shoals in the Western Pacific as Japan and other countries look on nervously. Israel and Hezbollah appear eager to settle scores and start another war in Lebanon. Syria and Libya continue their descent into a medieval-like state of nature as the world looks on not quite knowing what to do.
The icing on the cake is outgoing Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai’s telling the United States to get stuffed and leave his country — after we’ve spent billions dollars of borrowed money and suffered thousands of casualties over 13 years propping up his corrupt kleptocracy. Karzai and his cronies are laughing all the way to their secret Swiss banks with their pockets stuffed full of US taxpayer dollars. Why the United States thinks it needs to maintain a military presence in Afghanistan remains a mystery — but that’s another story altogether.
In the United States, noted foreign policy experts like Senator John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Condoleezza Rice have greeted these developments with howls of protest and with a call to arms to reassert America’s global leadership to tame a world that looks like it’s spinning out of control. They appear to believe that we should somehow use force or the threat of force as an instrument to restore order. Never mind that these commentators have exercised uniformly bad judgment on nearly all the major foreign policy issues of the last decade.
The protests of these commentators notwithstanding, however, it is worth engaging in a debate about what all these events really mean; whether they are somehow linked and perhaps emblematic of a more important structural shift in international politics towards a more warlike environment. For the United States, these developments come as the Obama administration sensibly tries to take the country’s military off a permanent war-footing and slow the growth in the defense budget — a budget that will still see the United States spend more on its military than most of the rest of the world combined.
The first issue is whether the events in Crimea are emblematic of a global system in which developed states may reconsider the basic calculus that has governed decision-making since World War II — that going to war doesn’t pay. Putin may have correctly calculated that the West doesn’t care enough about Crimea to militarily stop Russia, but would the same calculus apply to Moldova, Poland, or some part of Eastern Europe? Similarly, would the Central Committee in Beijing risk a wider war in the Pacific over the bits of rocks in the South China Sea that are claimed by various countries?
While we can’t know the answer to these questions, the political leadership of both Russia and China clearly would face significant political, economic, and military costs in choosing to exercise force in a dispute in which the world’s developed states could not or would not back down. These considerations remain a powerful deterrent to a resumption of war between the developed states, events in Crimea notwithstanding– although miscalculations by foolhardy leaders are always a possibility. Putin could have chosen some other piece of real estate that might have led to a different reaction by the West, but it seems unlikely.
The second kind of inter-state dispute troubling the system are those between countries/actors that have a healthy dislike for one another. Clearly, the most dangerous of these situations is the relationship between India and Pakistan — two nuclear-armed states that have been exchanging fire directly and indirectly for much of the last half century. By the same token, however, there is really nothing new in this dispute that has remained a constant since both states were created after Britain’s departure from the subcontinent.
Similarly, the situation in the Middle East stemming from Israel’s still unfinished wars of independence remains a constant source of regional instability. Maybe one day, Israel and its neighbors will finally decide on a set of agreeable borders, but until they do we can all expect them to resort to occasional violence until the issue is settled. Regrettably, neither Israel nor its neighbors shows any real interest in peaceful accommodation.
The third kind of war is the intra-national conflicts like those in Syria, the Congo, and Libya that some believe is emblematic of a more general slide into a global state-of-nature Hobbesian world in which the weak perish and the strong survive. If this is the case, what if anything can be done about it?
Here again, however, we have to wonder what if anything is new with these wars. As much as we might not like it, internal political evolution in developing states can and often does turn violent until winners emerge. The West’s own evolution in Europe took hundreds of years of bloodshed until winners emerged and eventually established political systems capable of resolving disputes peacefully through politics and national institutions. The chaos in places like Syria, the Congo, Libya, and Afghanistan has actually been the norm of international politics over much of the last century — not the exception.
This returns us to the other bookend cited at the outset of this piece — the reconvened negotiations in Vienna that are attempting to resolve the standoff between Iran and the international community. These meetings point to perhaps the most significant change in the international system over the last century that has seen global institutions emerge as mechanisms to control state behavior through an incentive structure that discourages war and encourages compliance with generally accepted behavioral norms.
These institutions, such as the United Nations, and their supporting regulatory structures like the International Atomic Energy Agency have helped establish new behavioral norms and impose costs on states that do not comply with the norms. While we cannot be certain of what caused Iran to seek a negotiated solution to its standoff with the international community over its nuclear program, it is clear that the international community has imposed significant economic costs on Iran over the last eight years of ever-tightening sanctions.
Similarly, that same set of global institutions and regulatory regimes supported by the United States will almost certainly impose sanctions that will increase the costs of Putin’s violation of international norms in Russia’s seizure of Crimea. Those costs will build up over time, just as they have for Iran and other states like North Korea that find themselves outside of the general global political and economic system. As Iran has discovered, and as Russia will also discover — it’s an expensive and arguably unsustainable proposition to be the object of international obloquy.
For those hawks arguing for a more militarized US response to these disparate events, it’s worth returning to George F. Kennan’s basic argument for a patient, defensive global posture. Kennan argued that inherent US and Western strength would see it through the Cold War and triumph over its weaker foes in the Kremlin. As Kennan correctly noted: we were strong, they were weaker. Time was on our side, not theirs. The world’s networked political and economic institutions only reinforce the strength of the West and those other members of the international community that choose to play by the accepted rules for peaceful global interaction.
The same holds true today. Putin’s Russia is a paper tiger that is awash in oil money but with huge structural problems. Russia’s corrupt, mafia-like dictatorship will weaken over time as it is excluded from the system of global political and economic interactions that rewards those that play by the rules and penalizes those that don’t.
As for other wars around the world in places like Syria, we need to recognize they are part of the durable disorder of global politics that cannot necessarily be managed despite the awful plight of the poor innocent civilians and children — who always bear the costs of these tragic conflicts.
We need to calm down and recognize that the international system is not becoming unglued; it is simply exhibiting immutable characteristics that have been with us for much of recorded history. We should, however, be more confident of the ability of the system (with US leadership) to police itself and avoid rash decisions that will only make these situations worse.
James A. Russell is an Associate Professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA, where he is teaching courses on Middle East security affairs, nuclear proliferation, terrorism, and national security strategy.