Between the certainty that any president will defend America’s own territory and the strong belief that America would not fight Russia over Ukraine lies an infinite combination of possibilities.......But doubt has spread quickly in that middle ground—and it risks making the world a more dangerous, nastier place.The President has said publicly that Americans in the past have been too eager to go to war and that by doing so the nation's interests have been harmed. Most Americans, even Republicans, would agree. But now the growing belief that he will not unsheathe the sword at all threatens the peaceful international order:
International norms, such as freedom of navigation, will be weakened. Majorities will feel freer to abuse minorities, who in turn may flee. Global public goods, such as free trade and lower cross-border pollution, will be harder to sustain. Global institutions will be less pliable.Feelings and perceptions do not arise in a vacuum. Specific non-actions are the cause:
First, he has broken the cardinal rule of superpower deterrence: you must keep your word. In Syria he drew “a red line”: he would punish Bashar Assad if he used chemical weapons. The Syrian dictator did, and Mr Obama did nothing. In response to Russia’s aggression, he threatened fierce sanctions, only to unveil underwhelming ones. He had his reasons: Britain let him down on Syria, Europe needs Russian gas, Congress is nervous. But the cumulative message is weakness.Domestically the President has shown little reluctance to use the power of government (IRS, NSA, DOJ) to crush the opposition. I just wish he would display the same willingness to use that power in confronting the enemies of the country that he leads.
Second, Mr Obama has been an inattentive friend. He has put his faith in diplomatic coalitions of willing, like-minded democracies to police the international system. That makes sense, but he has failed to build the coalitions. And using diplomacy to deal with the awkward squad, such as Iran and Russia, leads to concessions that worry America’s allies. Credibility is about reassurance as well as the use of force.