Alexis de Tocqueville, at the very end of the first volume of Democracy In America, took a look into his crystal ball and made a prediction for how global politics and power would change in the future. Tocqueville was a Frenchman, of course, and he had also studied English society as well, but he dismissed the biggest European powers of his day and instead concentrated on two newer players on the world stage:
There are now two great nations in the world which, starting from different points, seems to be advancing toward the same goal: the Russians and the Anglo-Americans [i.e., the United States].
Both have grown in obscurity, and while the world's attention was occupied elsewhere, they have suddenly taken their place among the leading nations, making the world take note of their birth and of their greatness almost at the same instant.
All other peoples seem to have nearly reached their natural limits and to need nothing but to preserve them; but these two are growing. All the others have halted or advanced only through great exertions; they alone march easily and quickly forward along a path whose end no eye can yet see.
The American fights against natural obstacles; the Russian is at grips with men. The former combats the wilderness and barbarism; the latter, civilization with all its arms. America's conquests are made with the plowhorse, Russia's with the sword.
To attain their aims, the former relies on personal interest and gives free scope to the unguided strength and common sense of individuals.
The latter in a sense concentrates the whole power of society in one man.
One has freedom as the principal means of action; the other has servitude.
Their point of departure is different and their paths diverse; nevertheless, each seems called by some secret design of Providence one day to hold in its hands the destinies of half the world.
Tocqueville was either incredibly prescient, or incredibly lucky in his analysis (perhaps a bit of both). He wrote this conclusion to his masterwork in the early 1830s, making the accuracy of his prediction even more impressive. It is an almost-perfect description of the Cold War which shaped geopolitics during the latter half of the twentieth century, written over a century before it became reality.
The Cold War era was actually on its way to being forgotten by Americans, before the events last week in the Ukraine and the Crimean peninsula. The Berlin Wall came down an entire generation ago, after all. The Soviet Union is as far in the past (relatively) as World War II was to many Baby Boomers.
Russia hasn't been on the minds of Americans for a while now (other than the recent Olympics, of course), which is why a whole lot of people are now shocked to discover a basic truth which was self-evident in the days of the Cold War: Russia, much like America, doesn't really have to care all that much what the rest of the world thinks about it.
This, of course, is the hubris of empire. As long as citizens believe in a general way that their country is attempting to do good for most of the people in the world, minor divergences from these ideals are shrugged off or flat-out ignored. This leads to a lot of hypocrisy, of course, such as John Kerry castigating Russia yesterday, by saying: "You just don't in the twenty-first century behave in nineteenth century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped-up pretext." Except when that country is named Iraq, of course.
This hubris isn't limited to America, but American examples certainly do exist. Countries which are not superpowers have to care about how their nations are perceived by others and as a result they strive for acceptance from the global community of nations. Superpowers don't really have to do this, to be blunt. Take a look at all the worldwide treaties and United Nations organizations which America refuses to join. The International Criminal Court is an excellent example -- we didn't join because we were afraid American soldiers could get hauled up before the court for committing war crimes. That can only really be called imperial hubris -- setting ourselves above all others while not caring what they think about it.
Some might argue over the term "empire." But substituting "superpower" doesn't really change things all that much. The extent of the American empire has fluctuated over time, as territories we have controlled are either given their own autonomy (such as the Philippines or the Panama Canal Zone), absorbed into America (Hawai'i), or given the free choice of which to select for their own future (Puerto Rico). These days, our empire is on the wane a bit as we have once again discovered the limitations of projecting American military power overseas. To put this another way, the American public is not in favor of foreign adventures much anymore, after our last decade of endless war.
The twenty-first century is going to be a little more complex than the Cold War era, as China enters as a new player on the superpower stage. But because of its emerging nature, China is more susceptible to international condemnation, and they try to stage-manage their country's appearance to the world as a result. But Russia isn't in the same position as the Chinese.
Russia once was a true superpower, when it was the Soviet Union. They lost this status in the early 1990s and many Russians today still resent this downgrade of their power. Vladimir Putin is one of them, obviously. He sees it as his right to reassert Russian power in certain parts of the world, and by doing so he gains a certain type of respect from the rest of the world (the respect any powerful military deserves, in other words).
Putin knows one thing full well -- nobody's going to stop him if he decides to annex the Crimea. Who would be capable of doing so? The Ukrainians are outmatched militarily, Europe isn't going to send troops, and the United States is certainly not interested in fighting a major war after the last two minor ones turned out so badly. Are American men and women really going to die for the Crimea? Doubtful.
President Obama has no real military option, and Putin knows it. No matter how much the war hawks in Congress squawk, the American people simply have no will to fight right now, especially over another piece of real estate most would be hard-pressed to find on a world map. This would be just as true no matter who was in the Oval Office, in fact.
The plain fact is that both Russia and America have nuclear weapons. Lots of them. Which is why they've never directly faced each other on the field of battle in modern times. Proxy wars were fought throughout the Cold War and afterwards, but the two superpowers never directly faced off. The prospect of World War III was too daunting for either side to contemplate, and it still is.
So America sent soldiers off to fight and die in places like Korea and Vietnam, while Russia made snide comments about the limits of American might from the sidelines. America returned the favor when Russia invaded Afghanistan. But all the way back to the end of World War II, America had to stand and impotently watch as Russia sent its tanks in to places such as Prague or Hungary. The Warsaw Pact was the half of the world that the Soviets controlled utterly (with lesser control and influence over many other countries around the world). Within this sphere of influence, the Soviets did as they pleased militarily, and the United States -- no matter which president of either party was in office -- had very limited means of showing disapproval. The only real showdown which ever took place was over Cuba, which both countries claimed was inside their sphere of influence.
This hasn't really changed all that much. The lines have shifted significantly -- I don't think Russia could get away with invading Poland these days, for instance -- but they still exist. When Russia sent troops into South Ossetia in 2008 (also coincidentally right around the time of the Olympics), there wasn't anything George W. Bush could really do about it. As Russia now seems on the brink of annexing the Crimean peninsula, there's not much of anything Barack Obama can really do about it that is going to change the outcome.
This is a hard truth for many Americans to face, although those who remember the Cold War accept and understand it more easily. Obama can play the diplomatic game, withdrawing from a summit scheduled to happen in Sochi (for instance), but diplomacy is going to have virtually no effect in the short term to what happens in the Crimea in the next few weeks. Because Russia doesn't really care about international diplomatic condemnation all that much.
Economic sanctions may be instituted which could have an effect in the medium-to-long term, but if they destabilize the world oil market they're going to be unpopular at home. And that's really the only effective arrow in the American quiver, since Putin is just not going to believe that Obama will react militarily, no matter what happens in the Ukraine. Such a threat by Obama would be an empty one, just as such a threat by George W. Bush would have been just as empty during the South Ossetia crisis.
This hasn't stopped Republican critics of President Obama, of course. No matter what Obama does in any foreign crisis, it is (by their definition) the wrong thing to do, and that is not going to change no matter what Obama does. But notice how vague the Obama critics' answer is when asked: "Well then, what would you do, instead?" Because there simply aren't a whole lot of viable or believable options for America, as hard a concept as that is for some to accept.
After the Cold War, the American self-image became that of the "sole superpower." We were the only 800-pound gorilla in the world, and therefore we could do what we pleased without having to worry about any other country's ability to stop us. Russia, under Putin, is reasserting itself as the second weighty gorilla in the room. They are big enough and militarily strong enough to afford the luxury of not having to care what the rest of the world thinks of its actions. It is the indifference of empire, and there's not a lot any American president can do to change it, short of threatening what could escalate into a thermonuclear war.
That was the reality of the Cold War, and not much has changed since. Barack Obama is likely to try everything he possibly can to shame Russia on the world stage, because that's really America's only option. Economic sanctions could be imposed, but likely won't last long. Russia knows it can afford -- for the time being -- to be indifferent. It may be hard for some Americans to face, but that doesn't make it any less true.
-- Chris Weigant
Cross-posted at The Huffington Post
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant