Michael Gerson: The consequences of a retreating America


WASHINGTON — With the facts on the ground now established in Crimea — several thousand facts in the form of Russian troops — the question now becomes: Will sustained economic, political and military isolation of Russia work? Will it reverse Vladimir Putin’s adventurism and deter future aggression?

Here there is a recent historical precedent. President Barack Obama’s “reset” with Russia was designed to end the economic, political and military isolation of Putin’s Russia after the invasion of Georgia in 2008. Russia did not keep the terms of the cease-fire ending that conflict. But Obama was determined to unfreeze the post-Georgia relationship, particularly since Russian cooperation was needed on issues of mutual concern such as Iran and Syria.

The appropriate signals were sent. Normal diplomatic relations and military-to-military engagement with Moscow were resumed. Obama would not emphasize possible NATO membership for Georgia or Ukraine. Missile defenses were canceled in Poland, indicating that the Russian relationship was more important to America than was Eastern Europe. Putin took these signals, naturally and accurately, as American movement toward recognition of a Russian sphere of influence along its borders.

Putin has long believed that Russia is being purposely encircled and dismembered. One of his primary foreign policy goals is to relitigate the end of the Cold War. His intervention in Ukraine will press toward that objective until serious resistance is met. Like international aggressors before him, Putin would prefer the fruits of war without its costs.

Does Putin have reason to believe the resulting isolation of Russia will be sustained? The history of the “reset” says “no.” The weariness of the American Congress and public with conflict — which Obama emphasizes and encourages in his own rhetoric — says “no.” America’s humiliating dependence on Russian influence in the Syrian crisis says “no.” The desire for Russian help in the Iranian nuclear negotiations says “no.” The dependence of Europe on Russian natural gas says “no.” European Union vacillation and disunity say “no.”

It is, perhaps, this confidence that has led Putin not only to intimidate but to humiliate. To sponsor Edward Snowden. To follow a 90-minute telephone conversation with Obama with troop movements. Many Russian goals in Crimea might have been achieved by intelligence assets and paramilitary forces. The use of Russian troops was intended as a broader message to Eastern Europe, Central Asia and the Middle East: Don’t waste your hopes on the West.

Criticisms of the Obama administration’s foreign policy are now coming in waves. It is improvised and feckless. Or it consists of cliches (“an interdependent world”) and condescension (“19th-century behavior”).

But Obama deserves more credit for good intentions and intellectual consistency. His foreign policy does have a theory. He believes that as American power retreats from the world, a variety of good things will fill the vacuum. Allies and international institutions will take more responsibility. America will be better able to promote liberal norms, unburdened by discrediting military power.

This vision gives permission for drastic defense cuts, abandoned red lines, a scramble for the exits in Afghanistan and the ceding of leadership in crises such as Syria. It dovetails with domestic political imperatives — for Obama to be the ender of wars, focused on nation-building at home. Over the years, polls have often favored Obama’s global disengagement. They also reflect five years of his arguments for retrenchment.

The problem is this: When enlightened liberal norms are divorced from American power, liberal norms do not win out. The vacuum is filled by:

(1) Radical Islamist groups such as al-Qaida and Jabhat al-Nusra, which prosper in chaos. In an atmosphere like Syria, the most brutal are the most successful, and eventually become regional and global threats.

(2) Despots such as Bashar Assad, who still believe in military solutions — such as using chemical weapons and barrel bombs filled with oil and metal shards on civilians — because these solutions are working for them.

(3) Nationalist powers such as Russia and China, which is now throwing its military weight around East Asia. Japan is experiencing an upsurge in nationalism.

In the 20th century, the United States was both unique and irreplaceable because it exercised great power without the blood-and-soil nationalism of Russia, Germany or Japan. It stood for universal, liberal, democratic ideals. We should not expect those humane ideals to thrive in the vacuum left by a retreating America.

Michael Gerson’s email address is michaelgerson@washpost.com.