Crimea: It’s About US Power

The debate about the US response to Russian actions has more to do with the US role in the world than the future of Crimea.


Here at “The Bridge,” Jack Hays has a provocative piece where he claims allowing Russia to annex Crimea is poor policy-making on the part of the United States. Indeed, while Crimea may not be of geostrategic importance to Washington, “things that don’t matter in themselves do matter outside themselves,” says Hays. In other words, letting Putin get away with what he’s doing lowers the barrier for other despots to take over any land they see fit, especially since the threat of US-led retribution is so low (thus the “credibility” arguments when Obama failed to act after his “red line” was crossed).

And thus we get to the heart of the matter: this debate is not about losing Crimea, it’s about losing the United States’ historic power. While a cliche, it is true that the United States has been the world’s undisputed power since the end of World War II. But now that power is in dispute, somewhat because of the success of US power in the postwar period. Between the liberal economic order and worldwide security guarantees, the United States helped underwrite a world where the size of the middle class will surpass the size of the impoverished class by 2030, and where other regions will be able to play a more prominent, if situational, role in global security.

The success of the United States in making this world consequently eroded American power. Ultimately, that’s a good thing. Yet now we have situations that demand US attention like Crimea where an American ability to influence the situation is diminished, short of full-on war.

Why is this the case today? For one, as explained, the success of the “world America made” gave others new levers of power to pull. The traditional ways the United States used its power around the globe may no longer work as they once did. Not only does this lower Washington’s ability to lead in the world, but it also requires a rethink in US grand strategy, of which there appears to be none.

Second, President Obama’s “cold warrior” realism. The president knows that, unless NATO allies are willing to send troops into Crimea, the world can do nothing to stop Putin’s “manifest destiny.” Obama will not sacrifice US blood and treasure for anything not in the purest US interest. He may try to do “something,” like organize a multilateral sanctions regime against Russia which would do no more than hurt an already poor economy. In fact, in a globalized world, if business is not being done, the vacuum will attract another suitor, and there is no doubt those suitors would be sent from Beijing. Thus, sanctions, the policy de jour, might hurt the United States more so than Russia.

Finally, because Americans are tired of war. Americans see more “failure” in Iraq and Afghanistan than they did before, and they were even against Syrian airstrikes last year even when Obama was for them (normally, the American public is behind a president when war is afoot). The conclusion is simple: the American public is a war-weary public. If Russia’s intervention in Crimea turns very bloody, the public might change its mind, but Obama would have to sell it as a vital interest (recall, Ukraine is not a NATO ally) and victory would have to come quickly. The chance of all of that coming true, however, is remote.

In the end, Crimea is another example, along with Syria and the Chinese ADIZ, of a period in time where US power is challenged by tyrants and other provocations. As the United States retreats, others take its place. That is not intrinsically bad, unless those filling the void are bad, which seems to be the case. This is merely the start of a long, tumultuous period in global affairs where power is distributed more evenly allowing other countries to push and prod in the world until they achieve their goals.

The United States has a choice that the Crimean case illustrates very clearly: the US can help shape this new world, or it can continue to be shaped by it. Based on the debate and news that the White House has not asked for any military options in Crimea, it looks like the latter is coming true (although, it should be said, there are some interesting non-military options, too). In the end, the endless debate about Crimea is truthfully not about its future, but about the decline of US power. The United States only has its postwar self and current self to blame.