Hindsight can be cruel. Watching the Ukrainian crisis unfold raises many “if only” moments. If only President Obama had been more assertive with Putin over the extradition of Edward Snowden. If only the U.S. foreign policy apparatus had not looked so weak in its commitment to protecting Syrian civilians from chemical weapons. If only we had been more decisive in the early days of the Crimean annexation.
Unfortunately, it is only in retrospect that we can know the effects of foreign policy fumbles. However, revisiting the chain of events that has left Eurasia in a state of total uncertainty sheds light on a timeless reality: foreign policy is not a one-shot game.
As Winston Churchill eerily stated the year before the outbreak of the Second World War, “Do not suppose that this is the end. This is only the beginning of the reckoning. This is only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year unless by a supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigor, we arise again and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time.” The rhetoric of “if only’s” was present during Churchill’s time as well: If only we had not allowed Germany to violate the Treaty of Versailles by occupying the Rhineland; if only we had never permitted the annexation of the Sudetenland or that of Austria.
My concern however, is that the “if only’s” are going to get worse. The President was recently in Japan and the Philippines, two U.S. allies that have serious territorial disputes with China. China and the Philippines have been on the brink of war several times in the last decade and Sino-Japanese tensions soared last year as a result of a territorial dispute over islands in the East China Sea. The question is obvious: How can our allies depend on our guarantee of protection when we have done absolutely nothing to hinder the annexation of Crimea?
If Russia, only the world’s sixth largest economy (and its third largest army by military spending), intimidated us, how can our allies expect us to stand in the face of China? China’s military spending is almost twice that of Russia, and unlike Russia’s, the Chinese economy is central to global trade and prosperity. Not to mention the fact that the Chinese government has enormous U.S. dollar reserves and American debt that can be used in all sorts of ways to haunt our fragile economy.
So what can China do? It can continue pressing its military might, extending its air defense zone and furthering its saber-rattling in faraway waters. It can continue deepening its relationships with potential client states in Asia and Africa that may no longer consider American assurances 100 percent valid.
The effects of our foreign policy impotence in Russia will be felt internationally and in unexpected ways. The short-termism that has plagued our economic decision making and has led our leaders to burden our generation with historic amounts of debt can now be seen in a much more dangerous context. The world is so vastly transparent and fast moving that we cannot afford to miss opportunities to demonstrate that we stand for something greater than geopolitics – or, in the case of Crimea, domestic politics – as a nation. We stand for a way of life – of freedom, democracy and free exchange – and these concepts are worth standing up for.
The applause at the official diplomatic platitudes that President Obama is espousing in Asia seems to have temporarily drowned out the hollow sound of gunfire that sent the mayor of Ukraine’s second largest city into critical care. My fear is that the reverberations from the bullet will outlast the applause.
Contact Anthony Ghosn at [email protected]