Paul Pillar

Crimea, Credibility, and Intervention

The Crimean crisis has energized those who wallow in a conventional wisdom that, as Fareed Zakaria noted last week, had already become a familiar theme on the opinion pages. This is the theme that the United States is in retreat, that it is insufficiently assertive, and that this lack of assertiveness is having awful consequences around the world. The crisis is tailor-made to encourage such wallowing, involving as it does a use of armed forces by the successor to the old Cold War adversary. So no time has been wasted by those who complain that soft U.S. policies have brought things in Ukraine to this juncture and who cry for more U.S. assertiveness in response, including saber-rattling with U.S. armed forces.

The conventional wisdom prospers, despite empirically mistaken aspects of it that Zakaria points out, partly because of the difference between punditry and incumbency and the related difference between posturing and policy-making. Pundits can do grand hand-wringing about supposed decline without the hard labor of thinking through which specific alternative options really exist with regard to specific problems and what their specific results are likely to be. It prospers also because of conceptual sloppiness that, as Paul Saunders notes, tends to equate leadership with the use of military force.

Most fundamentally, this conventional wisdom is one manifestation of a longstanding American tendency to view international politics as a single global game that pits the United States against sundry bad guys. The bad guys have taken various identities—the Soviet Union and world communism for the most part during the Cold War, and more often Islamists of some stripe today—but the distinctions don't seem to matter all that much if it is all seen as one big contest in which setbacks for one side somewhere on the global playing field mean that side is losing overall.

One of the major flaws in this perspective is that much of import that happens in the world, including much that is violent or disturbing, is not the work of the United States and is not within the power of the United States to prevent. Another major flaw is that there is not nearly as much of a connection between what happens in a situation one place on the globe and how players assess credibility and motivations in a different situation someplace else. Governments simply do not gauge the credibility of other governments that way.

Much more important than any vague global reputation are the specific interests and options involved in whatever is the situation currently at hand. And so, regarding the Crimean situation, rather than calling for more saber-rattling as if it were some sort of general elixir that boosts U.S. influence worldwide, it is better to ask exactly how it would relate to any actual moves it would make sense—in our eyes, as well as Vladimir Putin's—to take. Is anyone seriously contemplating, in a sort of updated replay of 1853, the introduction of U.S. military forces in Crimea? If so, let us hope that sanity can be restored. If not, then how does any threatening gesture involving military force either help to deal with the problem in Ukraine or to enhance U.S. credibility anywhere else?

Also, rather than simply tallying every apparent advance by presumed foreign adversaries as if it were yardage gained in a football game, we need to ask what a particular move does to affect the adversary's interests and, even more importantly, our own. This means asking, for example, as Jacob Heilbrunn does, what Putin actually would or would not be gaining if he were to make more of a military move into Ukraine.

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