America Is Fated to Lead

December 22, 2014 Topic: DiplomacyForeign Policy Region: United States

America Is Fated to Lead

Culture and geography really do matter. Great statesmen may attempt to rebel against these limits, but their skillful diplomacy constitutes an implicit acceptance that they exist.

THE SLEEP of any president, prime minister or statesman is haunted by what ifs.

What if I had only fired that defense secretary sooner, or replaced that general in Iraq with the other one before it was too late? What if I had not wholly believed the air force when they told me that the war in southern Lebanon could be won from the skies? What if I had more troops on the ground in Iraq from the start? What if I had called off those fruitless negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians a few months—or even a few weeks—earlier than I did? What if I had asked more questions at that meeting, and listened sooner to the pleas of my assistant secretary or whoever it was that said something could be done about Rwanda? The whole world, and my reputation, would be different.

Counterfactuals haunt us all in the policy community. We all want to be right, and assign failure to someone else. We all want to deny fate, even as we recognize that it exists. For example, we know that despite Isaiah Berlin’s admonition against the very idea of vast impersonal forces, such as geography and culture, these forces really do matter, and they affect the tasks ahead: whatever the intervention strategy, Iraqis will never behave like Swedes, and Afghans or Libyans will never behave like Canadians. And sometimes it is that simple. While individuals are more real and concrete than the national groups to which they belong, group characteristics actually do exist and must play a role in the foresight of any analyst. For group characteristics are merely the sum total of a people’s experience on a given landscape throughout hundreds or thousands of years of history.

But that is only the half of it. We also know that grand historical events can turn on a hair’s breadth, on this or that contingency. While the destiny of Afghanistan or Libya might never be that of Canada, better or worse outcomes in such places are possible depending upon the choices of individual policy makers, so that all of us, as Berlin rightly suggests, must take moral responsibility for our actions. And because wrong choices and unfortunate opinions are part and parcel of weighing in on foreign policy, we go on torturing ourselves with counterfactuals.

WHAT IS fate—what the Greeks called moira, “the dealer-out of portions”? Does it exist? If it does, Herodotus best captures its complexities: from his geographical determinism regarding the landmasses of Greece and Asia Minor and the cultures they raise up to his receptivity to the salience of human intrigues, he skillfully conveys how self-interest is often calculated within a disfiguring whirlwind of passion, so that the most epic events emerge from the oddest of incidents and personal dramas. With such a plethora of factors, fate is inscrutable. In Jorge Luis Borges’s short tale “The Lottery in Babylon,” fate means utter randomness: a person can get rich, be executed or tortured, provided with a beautiful woman or be thrown into prison solely because of a roll of the dice. Nothing appears to be predetermined, but neither is there moral responsibility. I find this both unsatisfying and unacceptable, despite the story’s allegorical power.

How can a great episode in history be determined in advance? It seems impossible. The older I get, with the experience of three decades as a foreign correspondent behind me, the more I realize that outside of a class of brilliantly intuitive minds—including the late Samuel Huntington, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Henry Kissinger—political science is still mainly an aspiration, and that Shakespeare’s tragedies and histories offer a much better guide to the bizarre palace maneuverings of the last Romanov czar and czarina of Russia, of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu of Romania, of Slobodan Milosevic and Mirjana Markovic of Yugoslavia, or of Zviad and Manana Gamsakhurdia of Georgia. In short, there is no scientific formula to understanding international relations. There is primarily insight, which by definition is Shakespearean.

Yes, geography and culture matter. Tropical abundance produces disease, just as temperate climates with good natural harbors produce wealth. But these are merely the backdrops to the immense and humming beehive of human calculation, the details of which can never be known in advance. And yet, over the course of my life I have known people who are abrasive and confrontational, and generate one crisis after another to the detriment of themselves and their relations, even as I have known others who are unfailingly considerate and modest, who go from one seemingly easy success to another. Character, which itself is partly physiological, can indeed be destiny, and that is fate.

It is this very contradiction concerning fate that produces our finest historians: men and women who discern grand determinative patterns, but only within an impossible-to-predict chaos of human interactions, themselves driven by the force of vivid personalities acting according to their own agency, for better and for worse. A classic work that comes to mind is University of London historian Orlando Figes’s A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891–1924. “It was by no means inevitable that the [Russian] revolution should have ended in the Bolshevik dictatorship,” he writes. “There were a number of decisive moments, both before and during 1917, when Russia might have followed a more democratic course.” Nevertheless, Figes adds,

Russia’s democratic failure was deeply rooted in its political culture and social history . . . [for example, in] the absence of a state-based counterbalance to the despotism of the Tsar; the isolation and fragility of liberal civil society; the backwardness and violence of the Russian village that drove so many peasants to go and seek a better life in the industrial towns; and the strange fanaticism of the Russian radical intelligentsia.

Figes gives us the determinative forces, but then, like a good novelist, he provides in capacious detail the other factors, without any one of which such seemingly determinative forces might have been stayed. Had only Czar Alexander III not died of kidney disease at the age of forty-nine, long before his son Nicholas II was temperamentally ready to rule. Had only Nicholas truly supported Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin and recognized the talent of another bureaucrat, Prince Lvov, early on. Had only the Czarevitch Alexei not had hemophilia, forcing the royal family to rely for treatment on the mystic Grigory Rasputin, whose baleful influence fatally weakened the regime. Had only Alexander Kerensky been better grounded emotionally and less in love with his own rhetoric, and had only his provisional government not bet its fortunes so completely on the spring 1917 offensive against the Germans. Had only Lenin’s past as a member of the nobility not awarded him such a “dogmatic” and “domineering manner,” and had Lenin only been arrested or even temporarily detained by a nighttime patrol while he walked in disguise to the Smolny Institute in Petrograd, to take control of the squabbling Bolsheviks and declare an insurrection in October 1917. And so on. Again, we are in the realm of geography and culture, until we are in the realm of Shakespeare, and finally in the realm of sheer chance. Although Figes says that “historians should not really concern themselves with hypothetical questions,” his textured rendition of history allows the reader to ponder other outcomes.

HUMAN EVENTS, because they involve human beings, will not be reduced to formulas. That is ultimately why historians are more valuable than political scientists. Of course, the Holocaust had its roots in centuries of anti-Semitism in Europe that were, in turn, the partial result of determinative social and cultural patterns. But would the Holocaust—or World War II in Europe, for that matter—have happened without the singular character of Hitler, who combined an obsession with killing Jews with a talent for operatic, megalomaniacal leadership in the teeth of a massive depression?

So, are we back to the so-called great-man theory of history (or dreadful man, in Hitler’s case)? That would be far too simplistic. For the most forceful personalities always operate inside geopolitical contexts that are mechanistic and deterministic. Liberal internationalists credit Richard Holbrooke as the great man who stopped the slaughter in Bosnia in 1995, and whose behind-the-scenes spirit drove the murderous Serbs out of Kosovo in 1999. But there was a fatalistic geopolitical context to this, without which Holbrooke could not have succeeded quite as he did. That context was Russia’s weakness, brought about by the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The 1990s saw Russia in the enfeebled chaos that was Boris Yeltsin’s rule. Had Russia been able to exert its usual historical influence in the Slavic Balkans, Holbrooke and the West would not have been able to act with such impunity. The discussions the Clinton administration held with the Russian government over the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s were about saving Russia’s face—not about fundamentally compromising with it. Were Russia in the 1990s like the Russia of Vladimir Putin’s aggressive and centralizing rule, that certainly would not have been possible.

That is a counterfactual, obviously. It is interesting because, like all counterfactuals, it shows how complex and even metaphysical such a thing as fate can be. But we are still left with history as it has actually turned out. Great character, after all, is character that deals heroically with the situation at hand, not with a theoretical situation that can only be imagined.

BOTH SUPPORTERS and opponents of the Iraq War can agree that the leading figures in the George W. Bush administration did not have outstanding characters. Their mistakes were serial. It wasn’t only that the Iraqi army was disbanded and the Baath Party outlawed. To give the administration the benefit of the doubt, the Iraqi army did, in fact, disintegrate on its own and the Baath Party at the upper levels had to be removed, if only to win the support of the Shia in the early phase of the occupation. But so many other things were done wrong. The occupation simply wasn’t planned and staffed out in advance. The Coalition Provisional Authority competed with rather than complemented the military occupation forces. Too much faith was put in the hands of returning exiles. The critical first phase of the occupation was handed over to an inexperienced three-star general, Ricardo Sanchez. Then came George W. Casey Jr., a stolid peacetime general if ever there was one, who utterly lacked the intuitive and cultural skills to deal with Iraqis or the larger situation at hand. Given the quickened pace of modern war, President George W. Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld did not fire and replace generals with sufficient speed. The list goes on and on.

I supported the Iraq War. I mention this whenever publicly discussing the issue. I was not in favor of exporting democracy. Anyone who knows my work knows that I have seen the benefits of enlightened dictatorship in many instances, and still do. But Saddam Hussein’s regime was not a dictatorship: it constituted a suffocating totalitarianism somewhere south of Stalin and north of the Assads in Syria. I knew it intimately from several reporting trips to Iraq in the 1980s, and thus I was a journalist who had gotten too close to his story. In short, I became committed. Yet, no matter how Iraq turns out in the future, even if there is a sharp improvement and the Islamic State is defeated, the price America paid there will still have been far too steep. The war as it turned out—not how it might have turned out according to some counterfactual—was a disaster.

But that is where my certainty ends. The what ifs, because there are so many, are indeed tantalizing, even as the sheer amount of mistakes in prosecuting the war leads one inexorably to the conclusion that the decision to invade in the first place was just that, another mistake. But grand themes, because they are teased out of a plethora of intricate little details, must remain an interpretation, not a fate. Maybe the Iraq invasion, precisely because of the many mistakes involved with it, was not even given a chance to succeed. I desperately want to believe this, given my previous support of the war, but at the end of a sleepless night I can’t. I sense instead that the legions of mistakes were inherent in the hubris of the conception.

Here is a counterfactual: Bush, in the summer of 2002, decides not to invade Iraq. Saddam’s regime soldiers on. The sanctions against him are gradually lifted. And so the fact that he has no weapons of mass destruction does not become known. The Arab Spring arrives in 2011. The Shia and Kurds in Iraq immediately revolt. Saddam—in his trademark sanguinary fashion—kills proportionately more or as many people as Bashar al-Assad kills in Syria. The Bushes, father and son, are then blamed for not dealing with Saddam when they had the chance (remember that the elder Bush’s wisdom of not pushing on to Baghdad only became apparent after his son had gotten bogged down in Iraq).

In other words, there may never have been even the possibility of a soft landing for the Baathist regimes in the Levant, given how much these regimes pulverized society, eviscerating all forms of intermediary social organizations except for the state at the top and the tribe and extended family at the bottom. Whether we acted militarily or not, in Iraq or in Syria, the result in any event was going to be anarchy. This is fatalism, I know. It denies human agency—and, therefore, moral responsibility on our part. But while that might be reprehensible, it does not necessarily make my assertion false.

Libya and Syria are the current poster children of this conundrum. We intervened in Libya with airpower, special-operations forces and logistical assets in order to prevent dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi from killing masses of civilians in the Benghazi area. We then aided and abetted the toppling of his regime. The result has been sheer chaos in Libya, the undermining of Mali and the spread of weaponry throughout the Sahara. Tripoli is no longer the capital of a country, but a mere dispatch point for negotiations among tribes, gangs and militias. Chaos in Benghazi led to the murder of U.S. ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. Thus, was the decision to help topple Qaddafi a mistake—not only in geopolitical terms, but in moral terms as well? Proponents of the intervention claim that had we put more effort into stabilizing Libya after Qaddafi was killed, much of this would not have happened. But I seriously doubt—especially given the experiences in Vietnam and Iraq—that we have ever been capable of engineering reality on the ground in complex, alien societies. Germany and Japan were destroyed, defeated and occupied countries—and thus exceptions to the rule. And they had the tradition of being modern, industrialized societies and economies, unlike the countries of the Greater Middle East. At some point, at some level, we must respect the workings of fate, if only to restrain our vanity. It is for the same reason that we believe in God.

The question of Syria is harder. We did not try in earnest to help politically moderate fighters amid the Grand Guignol of forces battling to topple the Baathist Assad regime. Had we done so, the chances of being drawn into an intractable and infernally complex conflict, with dozens upon dozens of different militias arrayed, would have been substantial. But had we done so, there was also a chance of both toppling Assad and undermining both the birth and spread of the Islamic State. And yet there was also a chance of toppling Assad, even as we would have been unable to micromanage events on the ground, therefore helping to midwife a Sunni jihadist regime to power in Damascus. Take your pick. The truth is unknowable. And because it is unknowable, we cannot assume what fate has held in store for Syria since 2011.

WHAT IS the answer to all of this?

Determinism, as Berlin writes, may have been argued about since the Greek Stoics identified two seemingly contradictory notions: individual moral responsibility and “causation”—the belief that our acts are the unavoidable result of a chain of prior events. The French philosopher Raymond Aron wrote of what Daniel J. Mahoney described in these pages in 1999 as a “sober ethic rooted in the truth of ‘probabilistic determinism,’” because “human choice always operates within certain contours or restraints such as the inheritance of the past.” That is, Aron believed in a soft determinism that accepts obvious differences between groups and regions but, nevertheless, does not oversimplify, and leaves many possibilities open. That may be the best answer available.

Whether we admit it or not, we are all soft determinists. That is the only way we could survive in the world and at the same time, for example, be good parents: by assuming that if we or our children behave in a certain way, some outcomes are more likely than others. And we adjust our actions accordingly. Therefore, the other term for soft determinism is common sense. To take a dull and ordinary illustration, if our son or daughter gets into the best college to which they applied, we generally encourage them to go there, since the likelihood of him or her going on to a good career and earning more money increases. We make such decisions every hour of every day—decisions based on the assumption that the record of the past indicates a certain result in the present or future. This is all to some degree fatalism. And we’re all guilty of it. Why should this commonsensical fatalism, that is reasonable and hesitant, rarely dogmatic, not apply to foreign policy?

Just consider the case of promoting democracy abroad: it took England nearly half a century to hold the first meeting of a parliament after the signing of the Magna Carta, and more than seven hundred years to achieve women’s suffrage. What we in the West define as a healthy democracy took England the better part of a millennium to achieve. A functioning democracy is not a toolkit that can be easily exported, but an expression of culture and historical development. Great Britain’s democracy did not come from civil-society programs taught by aid workers: it was the offshoot of bloody dynastic politics and uprisings in the medieval and early modern eras. In a similar spirit, whatever indigenous cultural elements India possessed for the establishment of democracy, the experience of almost two hundred years of British imperial rule under the colonial civil service was crucial. Certain other countries in Asia had many years of economic and social development under enlightened authoritarians to prepare them for democracy. In Latin America, the record of democracy remains spotty, with virtual one-man rule in some places, and near chaos and social and economic upheaval in others. African democracies are often that in name only, with few or no governing authorities outside of the capital cities. Holding elections is easy; it is building institutions that counts. Given this evidence, and with the Arab world having suffered the most benighted forms of despotism anywhere in the world, how can one expect to export democracy overnight to the Middle East?

Yes, all this is determinism of a sort. It is also common sense.

In sum, foreign policy cannot function properly without a reasonable level of determinism. Determinism constitutes an awareness of limits: limits to what the United States can and cannot do in the world. This is a searing reality. And because it is so, whether we know it or not, we define great statesmen as those who work near the edges of those limits, near the edges of what is possible. Great statesmen rebel against limits, they rebel against determinism, even as their very skillful diplomacy constitutes an implicit acceptance that such limits exist.

OF COURSE, many will try to break through these limits, in statesmanship and in other pursuits. President Theodore Roosevelt’s famous “man in the arena” speech was in a larger sense a tribute to all those who have fought the good fight, even if they failed. But not many take heed of that worthy sentiment. For example, one of Bill Clinton’s secretaries of state, Warren Christopher, made more than twenty trips to the Middle East in search of a deal between Israel and Syria that proved just out of reach. His efforts have been completely forgotten, as Secretary of State John Kerry’s failed attempt to make peace between Israel and the Palestinians will be. In those cases, determinism appears to have ruled.

Henry Kissinger, on the other hand, demonstrated that what was first seen as merely a vague possibility could actually be done. Kissinger became legendary because he succeeded against fate. Strategy, ground down to its essentials, is merely a road map for overcoming fate. Kissinger saw the opportunity created by the Sino-Soviet split and negotiated an understanding with China that balanced against the Soviet Union, even as he used détente with the Soviets to keep both the Chinese and America’s Western European allies honest. By granting China implicit protection against both the Soviet Union and an economically rising Japan, and by conceding that there was only one China (and it wasn’t Taiwan), the actions of the Nixon administration provided the basis for China, in this new and more secure environment, to focus internally rather than externally. That would enable Deng Xiaoping to introduce a form of capitalism to the most populous country on earth, something that would lift a billion or so people out of poverty throughout Asia. For the Asian economic miracle of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries is impossible to even imagine without President Richard Nixon’s 1972 trip to China. Thus does an amoral strategy, in the service of a naked national interest, have a moral result.

Because what drove Kissinger was the amoral pursuit of the national interest, he is respected without being loved. Holbrooke, on the other hand, is beloved by those who put moral humanitarian goals above amoral national interest. Kissinger was interested in the survival of his country in an anarchic world that lacks a night watchman to keep the peace; Holbrooke took such survival for granted and, by doing so, was able to pursue universalism. And because intellectuals and liberal journalists are generally universalist rather than nationalist in spirit, Holbrooke became their romantic avatar. Kissinger rearranged the chess pieces on a global scale; Holbrooke brought peace and ended genocide in one country of some—but not overwhelming—importance to the United States. But that was more than enough in the eyes of his followers.

Kissinger, a Holocaust refugee, knew that American foreign policy could not simply be a branch of Holocaust studies, while Holbrooke, also the descendant of Jewish refugees, demonstrated that Holocaust studies were indeed central to American foreign policy.

But where both men are alike is that neither was a fatalist. And unlike Christopher and Kerry, Kissinger and Holbrooke, as they say, got things done, which very few people in Washington (or in the foreign-policy community at large) are capable of.

SO, IS President Barack Obama a fatalist? Or, rather, since strategy is the principal means to conquer fate, does he have a strategy? Let me answer this in a provocative way, by outlining what I think fate holds in store for the United States in the early twenty-first century. Let me be a soft determinist, in other words.

While geography is not where analysis ends, it is where all serious analysis begins. For geopolitics is the struggle of states against the backdrop of geography. America’s geography is the most favored in the world. The United States is not only protected by two oceans and the Canadian Arctic, but it also, as the geopolitical forecasting firm Stratfor notes, has the advantage of more miles of navigable inland waterways than much of the rest of the world combined. The Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Arkansas and Tennessee River systems flow diagonally across the continent, thereby uniting the temperate zone of North America, which happens to be overwhelmingly occupied by the United States. Further enhancing the economic power of these river systems is the abundance of barrier islands and deepwater ports along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. The commerce that feeds down to the mouth of the great Mississippi is what originally made the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea central to American power and prosperity. The result has been both a country and a continental empire.

It is also a hemispheric empire. The great Dutch American strategist Nicholas Spykman explained that by gaining effective control of the Greater Caribbean at the turn of the twentieth century, the United States came to dominate the Western Hemisphere, and with that had resources to spare to affect the balance of power in the Eastern Hemisphere. That proved to be the essential geopolitical dynamic of the twentieth century, as the United States tipped the balance of forces in its favor in two world wars and the Cold War that followed. This all had to do with many factors, obviously, but without geography they would have been inoperable.

Of course, history did not stop with the end of the Cold War. The Soviet Union may have collapsed, and China may have adopted a form of capitalism, but both Russia and China are vast, illiberal and multiethnic empires that have the capacity to together dominate the Eastern Hemisphere. This means the United States has equities of some value in such far-flung places as Ukraine and Afghanistan. Furthermore, because technology has mitigated the protective wall of two oceans—as 9/11 demonstrated—Islamic extremism must also (to say the least) be balanced against, if not contained or defeated outright. What all of this amounts to is something stark: America is fated to lead. That is the judgment of geography.

And there is something else. In the course of being fated to lead for many unceasing decades, the United States has incurred, like it or not, other obligations. For example, there is the delicate point of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The fact that this museum constitutes both a monument and a historical repository is actually less significant than (as others have noted) the undeniable reality of its location, adjacent to the National Mall in Washington, within sight of the Jefferson Memorial. In short, the Holocaust—which happened in Europe—has, nevertheless, been officially granted entry into the American historical experience, so that whenever large-scale atrocities happen anywhere, America must at the very least take notice, if not lead some sort of a response. No, America is not a normal country, as the late conservative luminary Jeane J. Kirkpatrick recommended that it become at the end of the Cold War. A normal country would not have such a museum as part of its pantheon. America, rather, has empire-like obligations: just look at the size of its navy and air force, and how they are dispersed around the globe!

THIS IS the material at hand. Faced with such objective truths, the debate between realists and idealists is at once unnecessarily Manichaean and a mere row over tactics. Realism wasn’t the evil invention of Henry Kissinger, but an American tradition going back to George Washington, John Quincy Adams, and wise men like George F. Kennan and Dean Acheson. Idealism, for its part, is so deeply rooted in the American tradition that Wilsonianism lives on long after the passing of America’s twenty-eighth president, no matter how often it is shown to be flawed. Neither unremitting humanitarianism (because it is unsustainable) nor neoisolationism (because it fails to accept America’s fate as a world leader) can be the basis of any responsible foreign policy.

Here I must bring in my personal hero, a once-celebrated literary figure now forgotten, Bernard DeVoto. An environmentalist and fierce defender of civil liberties, DeVoto spent a lifetime as a continentalist dedicated to one subject: that of the American West, so much so that he never once set foot outside North American soil. Yet this intellectual, who wrote so obsessively and sensuously about the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains, the way that Patrick Leigh Fermor wrote about the Balkans and Central Europe, and whom you would expect to have been an isolationist in the years prior to World War II, traveled throughout the interior of the United States in 1940, passionately arguing in local community gatherings for America to enter the war against Nazi Germany. DeVoto loved the continent that he called both a republic and an empire. There was just so much going on inside it that the world beyond was never quite real. Thus, he saw the good in Manifest Destiny before generations of academics would see nothing but evil in it. Yet he also understood—perhaps at a more profound level than anyone else, before or since—that the blessings of geographical fate had freighted America with global responsibilities.

Has Obama measured up to these responsibilities? He has backed into a strategy of sorts rather than proactively crafted one. So he is a reluctant strategist at best. Arguably, he has shown some good tactical instincts—stay out of Syria (at least until recently), don’t get involved on the ground in Libya, and don’t get into an air or ground war in a place that matters more to Russia than it does to the United States or even to Western Europe. In all this he might be compared to the president he not so secretly admires, George H. W. Bush. The elder Bush backed into a strategy to end the Cold War after the Cold War had begun to end on its own in Europe. He also showed good tactical instincts in not breaking relations with China after Tiananmen, and in limiting the first Gulf War to the liberation of Kuwait only. But there the similarities end.

The elder Bush had elite New England schools, the Texas oil fields and the naval war in the Pacific as his rite-of-passage points of reference. The elder Bush was no intellectual, but he intuitively grasped what the bookish DeVoto knew by travel, study in the Harvard library and his own Utah upbringing: that America was a continent of such dimensions that to lead was not a choice but a fate. But Obama’s sensibility seems not to be continental. Continentalism, in Kennan’s estimation, is opposed to universalism. But I disagree. I believe without one there is not the other. If you haven’t internalized moments like the California gold rush and westward expansion, you can’t fully grasp why America deserves to lead. Only by conquering the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains first could America defeat Hitler and Tojo second. Whereas the elder Bush made incessant phone calls to many world leaders from the start of his presidency—long before such crises as the collapse of the Soviet empire and Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait—Obama waits until he is buried in a crisis, and even then he often delegates such responsibilities. Obama does not relish the projection of American power, without which you cannot challenge fate.

Obama has tried until recently to get America’s allies in different theaters to do the balancing for it. Get Japan to balance against China, get Saudi Arabia and Israel to balance against Iran, and get Germany to balance against Russia. This is laudable. Why not at least try to lessen the imperial burden? The problem has been that a resurgent and nationalistic Japan, which has not fully come to terms with its own World War II–era crimes, frightens others in Asia. Israel’s air force, as good as it is, is a small, tactical air force and not a big, strategic one, and thus of imperfect use against Iran. Saudi Arabia is a benighted despotism more fragile than it looks, increasingly undermined by a weaker and more decentralized monarchy, chaos in neighboring Yemen, and the deterministic forces of a rising population and a diminishing underground water table. Germany is fundamentally compromised by its addiction to Russian energy and its inherent pacifism stemming from the legacy of Nazi crimes. Delegating power to allies thus has limits, and they are severe.

Still, it is true that while Russia is bad and the Islamic State is evil and both are dangerous, the Soviet Union was also quite dangerous and “evil,” in Ronald Reagan’s memorable estimation. And we did not go to war with the Soviet Union, but, rather, patiently contained it for decades, until it collapsed from its own contradictions. Likewise, Russia’s exalted position in world energy markets as well as the size of its population will decline as the years go by, and the Islamic State may be weakened by tribalism and competing groups and caliphates. Containment is, therefore, in both cases a defensible strategy, if not an appealing one. Obama’s deliberative instinct is therefore apt for the circumstances.

Cries of appeasement will continue to be heard, though.

The problem with the charge of appeasement is that the situation only became clear-cut after the fact. When Neville Chamberlain went to Munich, the deaths of sixteen million troops and civilians during World War I had happened only twenty years before. Anyone in middle age or older knows that twenty years is merely the blink of an eye. And Chamberlain was sixty-nine years old at Munich. Such mass suffering, all for a war born of miscalculation, that yielded no constructive result! By this logic, one world war was quite enough. And who—perhaps not even Winston Churchill—could have imagined the Holocaust in 1938? The industrialized extermination of an entire people as the central, organizing principle of a modern state was simply unimaginable until it was actually happening. So even getting Hitler right was not quite as simple as it now seems. And no adversary we face now or in the future will reach the Hitler standard, in terms of possessing both an ideology of death and the ability to implement it on a mass scale. Thus, appeasement will be a mundane part of any president’s future. Using it as a gotcha phrase will not work. Fate is not that knowable in advance.

Still, it must be said: a student of Shakespeare would have grasped Vladimir Putin’s character long before an international-relations wonk, just as a philosopher would most profoundly grasp the danger of people who behead innocent journalists in order to make slick videos to spread a barbaric message. The dangers that lurk now are numerous, even as overreach on our part also lies in wait. Thus, in this age of comparative anarchy to follow the age of imperialism and that of the Cold War, getting it right will be harder than ever. For many decisions are by their very nature close calls. We require leaders who will stretch the limits of what is achievable, while at the same time respecting such limits. Fate is like the gods of ancient Greece: fickle and morally imperfect, but pliable for those who are brave.

Robert D. Kaplan is the author of fifteen books on foreign affairs and travel, including The Revenge of Geography (Random House, 2012), The Coming Anarchy (Random House, 2000) and Asia’s Cauldron (Random House, 2014). He is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.