The government of the United States has faced unusually severe threats to national security over the past year. These events, of course, are not independent of one another. Rather, they form part of a path of reinforcing experiences that have encouraged boldly assertive actions that seem contrary to American interests in the Middle East, in the East and South China Sea and most especially in Ukraine. We set out here how these developments are interrelated and how corrective action might be taken through unilateral, nonmilitary shifts in policy, especially energy and environmental policy.
To understand the proximate origins of many of the challenges to American security interests, it is useful to begin our discussion with the summer of 2013. President Obama had earlier declared that if Bashar al Assad’s government used chemical weapons against his opposition, that would be a “game changer.” After it became clear that he had used such weapons on a large scale, an idea was set out ( seemingly by Vladimir Putin , but we cannot be sure) that Assad would surrender his chemical weapons for destruction by the United Nations. The moment of that proposal created an opportunity to learn about Putin’s sincerity and Obama’s resolve.
Shortly after the proposal that Assad should surrender his chemical weapons was vetted, the French government suggested that it was the right time for a UN Security Council resolution that would authorize force if Assad failed to comply with the UN’s timetable for surrendering his chemical-weapons capability. The French proposal provided an opportunity to learn a great deal about Putin and Obama’s approaches to security matters. If Putin’s position in support of the timely surrender of Assad’s chemical weapons was sincere, then he had no reason to oppose the proposed Security Council resolution, since the contingent event—failure to comply with the timetable—was, given Russian leverage with Syria, unlikely to arise. So, when he rejected the French idea, he clearly signaled that he either was not committed to the agreement with Syria, lacked leverage with Assad (which seemed and seems implausible) or that he was interested in exploring President Obama’s resolve.
President Obama had the choice of insisting on going ahead with the French proposal or, seeing that Russia’s president would veto it in the Security Council, seeking a weaker alternative. To be sure, going ahead would have virtually guaranteed a Russian veto, but then the political cost associated with the veto would have fallen on Vladimir Putin and his government. Russia likely would have been perceived as having crushed a credible means to enforce the agreement with Assad, something favored by virtually all of the international community. Had President Obama shown himself prepared to induce such a veto, he would have exposed President Putin’s weak commitment to the arrangement while signaling that the U.S. government was committed to a deal with teeth. Conversely, the decision to seek a weaker alternative meant that Obama was unprepared to risk the very modest political cost associated with further irritating Putin over Syria. By not insisting on the French proposal, the message conveyed by the government of the United States was that it was almost certainly unwilling to endure greater political costs in a future situation if the associated expected benefits in such a situation were not much bigger than they were in the Syrian chemical-weapons case.
How might President Putin, then, have interpreted Obama’s decision not to push Russia into exercising its veto in the Security Council ? A plausible interpretation is that Putin believed he was free to undertake any foreign-policy adventure that would have been costlier to Obama than pressing on the Syrian case and, voila, the near abroad leaps to mind as a place where Putin likely believed he had a free hand.
Similarly, the Chinese government is likely to have looked upon the U.S. response in the low-cost situation of Syria and concluded that it had a freer hand—complicated by stronger U.S. commitments to some of the states challenged by China in the South and East China Sea (friends such as Japan and the Philippines)—to push its claims to the Senkakus, the Scarborough Shoal and the Spratly Islands. It followed by asserting that it could restrict air traffic over ocean waters not previously considered its air space. Only later, when its domestic economic situation became difficult, did it agree to disagree with Japan over the Senkakus with the other island disputes remaining mostly still on the table.
So we see that the signal of tolerance for costs may have produced a cascade of exacerbated policy problems. How might they be solved? President Obama has called for ideas that do not turn quickly to the use of force, and we offer just such ideas here. We begin with the difficult situation in Ukraine.
In Ukraine, the United States has not done enough to encourage change by the government in Kiev so that Russian Ukrainians prefer to be Ukrainian rather than Russian. There are several easily implemented changes that could be adopted, but so far have not been: The creation of an institutional structure of judicial independence is needed , because the Ukrainian judiciary is too closely tied to the government and partisan preferences. Longer judicial terms would go a long way toward freeing judges from being politically beholden. Selection of judges based solely on their legal skills would also encourage confidence that the rule of law is in place in Ukraine.