Putin’s invasion of Ukraine offers a preview of a much more dangerous world

By | March 7, 2022

Shadi Hamid writes:

If there was any doubt before, the answer is now clear. Vladimir Putin is showing that a world without American power—or, for that matter, Western power—is not a better world.

For the generation of Americans who came of age in the shadow of the September 11 attacks, the world America had made came with a question mark. Their formative experiences were the ones in which American power had been used for ill, in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the Middle East more broadly, and for much longer, the United States had built a security architecture around some of the world’s most repressive regimes. For those on the left, this was nothing new, and it was all too obvious. I spent my college years reading Noam Chomsky and other leftist critics of U.S. foreign policy, and they weren’t entirely wrong. On balance, the U.S. may have been a force for good, but in particular regions and at particular times, it had been anything but.

Blaming America first became all too easy. After September 11, U.S. power was as overwhelming as it was uncontested. That it was squandered on two endless wars made it convenient to focus on America’s sins, while underplaying Russia’s and China’s growing ambitions.

For his part, Putin understood well that the balance of power was shifting. Knowing what he knew, the Russian president wasn’t necessarily “irrational” in deciding to invade Ukraine. He had good reason to think that he could get away with it. After all, he had gotten away with quite a lot for nearly 15 years, ever since the Russian war against Georgia in 2008, when George W. Bush was still president. Then he annexed Crimea in 2014 and intervened brutally in Syria in 2015. Each time, in an understandable desire to avoid an escalatory spiral with Russia, the United States held back and tried not to do anything that might provoke Putin. Meanwhile, Europe became more and more dependent on Russian energy; Germany, for example, was importing 55 percent of its natural gas from Russia. Just three weeks ago, it was possible for Der Spiegel to declare that most Germans thought “peace with Russia is the only thing that matters.”

The narrative of a feckless and divided West solidified for years. We, as Americans, were feeling unsure of ourselves, so it was only reasonable that Putin would feel it too. In such a context, and after four years of Donald Trump and the domestic turmoil that he wrought, it was tempting to valorize “restraint” and limited engagements abroad. Worried about imperial overreach, most of the American left opposed direct U.S. military action against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in the early 2010s, even though it was Russian and Iranian intervention on behalf of Syria’s dictator that bore the marks of a real imperial enterprise, not just an imagined one. [Continue reading…]

Print Friendly, PDF & Email