New rules or old?
In the last crisis of the 1930s and 1940s--the subject of my forthcoming book, due out exactly one month from today--the government of the United States stood unreservedly for international law, against international anarchy. That had been Woodrow Wilson's goal during the First World War. The Roosevelt Administration had practiced what it preached, most notably in Latin America, where it brought more than three decades of armed intervention to an end. That gave the United States credibility when it warned against the spread of aggression in Asia and Europe beginning in about 1937. Again and again President Roosevelt and Secretary of State Hull called upon nations to respect one another's territorial integrity, and warned that anarchy, once unleashed, was bound to spread to the western hemisphere. In 1938 the American government, as my book shows, began planning to meet that threat.
We live in a very different world today. The United States and the western hemisphere are not threatened with invasion, but anarchy threatens much of the world, including Ukraine. The first Gulf War in 1991 was based upon the same principle stressed by FDR and Hull: the restoration of the territorial integrity of Kuwait. That was no accident: President George H. W. Bush had fought in the war Roosevelt declared. Boomer pretenders to his throne like Paul Wolfowitz and his own son, however, regretted and resented Saddam Hussein's survival, and began scheming to remove him from power. Then in 1999 Bill Clinton led NATO into war against Yugoslavia to stop the ethnic cleansing of Kosovar Albanians. The Russian government and the UN Security Council did not bless that war, and thus began a chill in Russian-American relations. For a few years before 1999, the foreign officer program at the Naval War College had included a Russian officer. None ever returned after that.
There is no need to revisit the disastrous intervention in Iraq, but a variant of the Bush foreign policy has survived--like so much else--into the Obama years. Wicked dictators, we still believe, must go as soon as a few hundred thousand people demonstrate against them in the street, and democracy will naturally follow. Unfortunately in practice our embrace of this policy is inevitably limited by our interests. Even at the height of the Arab Spring we allowed the Saudis to put down the Shi'ite revolt in Bahrain. In Egypt the first democratic elections put the Muslim Brotherhood in power, and we stood by when the military overthrew it, killed several hundred of its followers, and jailed its leaders. Then in the last few months we applied the same policy towards Ukraine, where an unpopular President had rejected closer ties with the EU. The government of the United States, as a released Russian phone tap showed, was discussing the membership of the new government of Ukraine that took power after the elected President fled. This was too much for Vladimir Putin.
I do not have any real credentials as a Russian expert and I cannot say for sure what Putin is up to, but he has publicly decried the collapse of the USSR--which he loyally served in the KGB--and it seems to me he wants to restore Russia to a position broadly comparable to the one Prussia occupied in the German Empire from 1871 to 1918 within at least some of the former Soviet Union. He snipped two small provinces away from Georgia in 2008 to show who was boss, and he now seems determined to teach the world a comparable lesson about Ukraine. He wants Ukraine in his Eurasian Union and out of the EU, and he wants a friendly government there. While I still think it unlikely that he wants to detach Crimea from Ukraine and annex it to Russia, the referendum he has called on independence will be a club in his attempts to intimidate the government in Kiev. As I heard a Russian explain patiently on NPR the other day, Putin also believes he has considerable influence in western Europe, exercised through his own financial resources and those of Russian oligarchs. Many distinguished retired European statesmen are on his payroll, and the London banks profit enormously from the Russian underground economy. I think Putin must know that an attempt to subdue Ukraine by force would be disastrous. He does not have the military resources to hold a nation of 40 million people captive. But he is playing a traditional game of power and influence in which his troops in Crimea and on the Ukraine-Russian border are one of several assets. And he does not intend to allow street demonstrations in Kiev, backed by western governments, to drive out a friendly ruler.
When Franklin Roosevelt explicitly went on a crusade for the defense of democracy in 1940-1, he disposed of another enormous asset: his stature as by far the most effective and inspiring democratic leader in the world. Alone among elected leaders, he had struggled against the depression with some success and rallied a great nation behind him. When he announced the Four Freedoms in early 1941--freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want and freedom from fear--they struck his countrymen and the world as much more than a slogan. The millions of peoples conquered and oppressed by Hitler and the countless millions still unconquered, a world leader told FDR's envoy Harry Hopkins in the last few days of July 1941, “could receive the kind of encouragement and moral strength they needed to resist Hitler from only one source, and that was the United States. . .. .The world infl uence of the President and the Government of the United States was enormous.” It was not Winston Churchill who spoke those words, but Josef Stalin, and he was right.
The stakes today are not nearly so high as in 1941, when either racist totalitarianism or democracy might rule the industrialized world for decades to come. Yet the future of a broad swath of the world is at stake, and the United States could exert far more influence if its domestic picture were the least bit inspiring now. In contrast to 1941, we are deeply divided, deadlocked in Washington, and suffering the increasing influence of a financial and energy oligarchy. American and Russian economic giants, it seems, have reaped the benefits of the American victory in the Cold War. Putin is betting that Europe will not fill the void, and the evidence suggests that he was right. The form democracy that ruled the industrialized world in the second half of the twentieth century did not simply having as the result of an evolutionary process, as the Bush National Security Strategy, following Francis Fukuyama, seemed to claim in 2002. It arose because men and women in the United States and Europe consciously built it. It shall not return until new generations do the same. Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin will inevitably win some victories in his very traditional, utterly cynical struggle for power and influence.