HONOLULU, March 27, 2014 — One of the persistent political generational curses of Western international relations is the tendency to develop foreign policy based on Western notions of “rational” and “reasonable.” American policymakers in particular usually remember three months or less of world history and constantly attempt to short circuit historical patterns with tried and failed policies perfumed with the cheap incense of idealism over real-world applicability.
The latest fallacy to seduce the West is the belief that Russia, now “increasingly isolated” and banished from the G8 is somehow “feeling the heat” and cannot hold Crimea for long. That logic might apply if a Western democracy were slapped with sanctions and expelled from global counsels, but it fails to take into consideration that the current leadership of Russia cut its teeth during a time when the Soviet Union was an isolated and opposing economic, political and military system.
As a former Soviet officer, Vladimir Putin first joined the KGB in 1975 at age 23, during the most militaristic and successful years of the Soviet Union. Putin’s career saw Leonid Brezhnev’s go-for-broke nuclear buildup when the USSR vastly outpaced NATO missile production and aggressively pursued development of first-strike weapons such as the Delta III submarine.
The time that Putin rose through the officer ranks was one of such extraordinary Soviet military expansion that U.S. political scientist Richard Pipes in 1977 would red team the Cold War and pen a white paper eerily titled “Why the Soviet Union Thinks It Could Fight and Win a Nuclear War.” Putin’s leadership was formed in a time when the Soviet system appeared to be winning the Cold War. For Putin, this period of success amid isolation could have only reinforced a belief in the superiority of Russian values and military power.
By contrast, President Barack Obama grew up in an era of intense Western social and political division, when anti-nuclear protests were common in NATO countries and U.S. unilateralism was shunned as a fallout of the Vietnam War. Later, the decline of Russia followed by the resurgence of the West gave rise to a belief in a democractic end of history where utopian visions of world consensus were taught in academia. Where Putin learned that strong leaders go it alone, Obama learned that the world must work together as one.
In The Audacity of Hope Obama wrote that “the end of the Cold War made Reagan’s formula seem ill suited to a new world” saying “when the Berlin Wall came tumbling down, I had to give the old man [Reagan] his due” and adding, “By the time Bill Clinton came into office, conventional wisdom suggested that America’s post-Cold War foreign policy would be a matter of trade than tanks, protecting American copyrights rather than American lives.”
The contrast between the leaders of the West and the East couldn’t be more stark than from Obama’s writings. The West believes that globalization and mutual economic interdependency is the key to success; Russia believes that independence and balance of power is vital to preventing another fall of their system.
To assume then that Russia would respond to sanctions and isolation with revulsion in a globalized economy when its most powerful political leader is an alumni of the glory days of Soviet power is an epic miscalculation. Putin knows that the West is subject to demographic mood swings that are heightened by the frequent incompetence and gridlock of Western governments.
The People’s Republic of China proved Western weakness when it reminded U.S. leaders on multiple occasions that huff and puff as Washington may over Taiwan, America is not willing to trade Los Angeles for Taipei. Putin also knows that NATO would never trade Brussels, Berlin or London for Crimea, and that U.S. and European bickering is so-self defeating that he can do anything he wants.
The Obama Administration’s own Nuclear Posture Review publicly states that the U.S. will operate on “reduced reliance on nuclear weapons” and “reduce the role of nuclear weapons” – the exact opposite posture of Russia, which during the Yeltsin years announced that Russia would use nuclear weapons to “de-escalate” conventional wars it could not win.
The recently released U.S. President’s 2015 proposed budget plan for the Navy also reveals that though the West speaks of “serious consequences” for continued occupation in Crimea and so-called “Asia pivots” against China, the actual intention of President Obama is to downsize. The proposed plan will purchase no further conventional Tomahawk cruise missiles, a mere 105 of the Joint Strike Fighter and no additional purchases of F/A-18E/F Super Hornets over the next four years, all which are essential as “kick in the door” weapons against Russia and China.
In 2008, Republican Mitt Romney remarked “I am convinced that unless America changes course, we will become the France of the 21st century: still a great nation, but no longer a leader of the world, no longer a superpower.”
Putin knows that the real “isolation” is to be found in the Obama Administration, where distrust over skyrocketing prices, massive unemployment, decadent political elites and government scandals leave no stomach to stand tall against Russia.