No one seems to get why the Ukraine Crisis matters, why a Russian invasion of the Crimea represents a turning-point in American decline. But decades hence historians might point to today as the moment when everything changed.
Oh, I’m not a war-hawk. What’s happening reminds one all too well of Cecil Woodham-Smith’s The Reason Why, the best account of the Crimean War and the battle of Balaclava. As I write, Balaclava seems to be occupied by Russian troops, and the last thing one wants to see is another Charge of the Light Brigade. Lord Raglan never meant his cavalry to charge the guns, but his garbled message was brought to Lord Cardigan by the impetuous Captain Nolan, who berated Cardigan before his men. “He wants me to attack the guns,” pondered Cardigan. “But where are the guns?” “There, my Lord,” cried Nolan, pointing to the Valley of Death. “There. There are your guns.”
There is even something to be said for partition. Eastern Ukraine, and especially Crimea, is populated by Russian speakers who gave their support for former president Viktor Yanukovych. Most don’t even speak Ukrainian. And Russia maintains a naval base in the Crimea.
Nevertheless, the United States in 1994 signed a treaty to protect Ukraine’s borders, and Ukraine has invoked it to ask for help from the West. Which raises the question: should America’s allies trust it in the future?
One might think that this is simply about the current president, whom Nicolas Sarkozy presciently found to be faible when they first met. And Obama will be gone in a few years. True enough, but why should one expect he’ll be replaced anyone less feeble, when it comes to defending America’s international interests? Would Hillary “Reset” Clinton be any better?
More to the point, this misconceives the nature of foreign policy. It’s not about schoolyard tiffs between friends. Rather, it’s about the protection of relationships built up over decades, even centuries. Let me give you an example. In the 1960s Canada decided not to extradite American draft-dodgers back to the U.S. Not that we much cared for the new immigrants. Scruffy, whiny, boorish lot, they were, for the most part, who thought they deserved a medal for what was little better than an act of cowardice. Still, we kept them. Not that we liked them, but the United States had refused to extradite Canadian draft-dodgers during the first two-and-a half-years of the Second World War, before Japan and Germany declared war on the United States. It was a game of tit-for-tat, played by allies over a 30-year period.
More recently, Canada has extradited American draft-dodgers who did not want to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan. Canada even sent troops to Afghanistan, and British troops served both there and in Iraq. You have to wonder whether they’ll be quite so eager to join in American wars in the future. Canadians will remember the Keystone pipeline, and they’ll also recall how the United States was happy to deny their country a seat on the UN Security Council as payback for Canada’s support for Israel. The British will not soon forget the American tilt towards Argentina in the dispute over the Falklands.
As for the value of a treaty with the U.S., we’ll see what that’s worth in the next few days. Obama has stamped his tiny little feet, and we’ll see if that scares Putin. I rather think not, however. Here’s my prediction.
First, the Anschluss. Russia will invade and occupy all of Crimea, with regular soldiers who have removed their badges of identification. Russian television will portray them greeted by little Crimean girls bearing flowers. They’ll be followed by regular Russian troops, sent in to maintain order. A referendum will be announced, which the Russians will win by 95 percent—the figure Putin received from Chechnya after he suppressed their revolt.
Second, the Conference. The Russian occupation of the Crimea—and possibly more of eastern Ukraine—will be ratified by an international convention to which the United States will be a party. John Kerry will announce that he has brought us peace in our time.
Third, the Fallout. American allies, having discovered the value of American promises, will begin to look around for a new set of friends. Say what you want about the Chinese, but they have great food and they want our oil. As well, they seem to stick by their friends.
That leaves one question. What’s in it for Obama and the American left? One might have thought that the stain of a national humiliation would pain even them. But they have bigger issues, and they’re not about foreign policy. Rather, if America is to become the social democratic state they want, they’ll need to shrink the military to pay for it. They’ve already begun to do so, but expect much more radical cuts in the future. And they’ll bring some conservatives along with them. Not just the American-Firsters for whom isolationism is a default position, but economic conservatives who are about to start asking why the U.S. spends 41 percent of the world’s military spending on a military that’s not going to do anything.