It’s difficult to know where exactly the crisis over a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine will end. Yet no matter whether Russian President Vladimir Putin seizes more of the former Soviet satellite nation, conquers it entirely or winds up leaving it alone, the shock to the international system that his threats have caused isn’t limited to the future of Eastern Europe.
That’s not easy for many Americans to comprehend.
The reaction to the possibility of a country whose independence was guaranteed less than 30 years ago by both the United States and Russia being invaded or destroyed is headline news, but it would be a stretch to say that most Americans are up in arms about it. They are far more concerned with domestic debates about record inflation and whether or not pandemic-related restrictions on normal life should be lifted after two years of dealing with the virus.
Indeed, a considerable portion of the American public on both the left and the right isn’t merely indifferent to the fate of Ukraine but openly hostile to the notion that guaranteeing that country’s borders against incursions—whether “minor” as President Joe Biden said in a gaffe last month or major—is in the interests of their nation. You don’t have to be an apologist for Putin to acknowledge that Americans are sick and tired of foreign entanglements. They also wonder why an administration that has spent its first year in office turning a blind eye to the virtual collapse of security on the U.S. border with Mexico should treat lines on a map between Ukraine and Russia as sacrosanct.
Those arguments are strengthened by the fact that most European countries, especially Germany, don’t seem so alarmed about what is happening in their backyard.
But if Americans think that the dustup between Russia and Ukraine has nothing to do with their security or the future of their country, they’re wrong. The same goes for those who care about the future of Israel.
The rights and wrongs of the argument between Russia and Ukraine need not detain us. Even if you don’t care much about the Ukrainians, what is happening to them is a direct consequence of a perception on the part of Moscow—and its new and even more dangerous ally, China—that we are now living in a world where they and other rogue nations, like Iran, need no longer worry about U.S. power or its presence on the world stage.
That collapse of influence didn’t begin last January, though Biden’s feckless handling of foreign affairs in his first year in office has accelerated a downward spiral begun by his two immediate predecessors.
The unpopular notion of America as a global policeman was, by the end of the George W. Bush presidency, thoroughly discredited by dissatisfaction with the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Former President Barack Obama thought the United States would be better off if it apologized for its alleged sins and pulled back from a position of strength abroad. He scoffed at the notion that Americans should be concerned about Russia when he mocked his opponent, current Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), in their 2012 foreign-policy debate by saying, “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back” and then did nothing two years later when Putin illegally seized the Crimea from Ukraine.
Obama also set about rearranging America’s commitments in the Middle East, pulling out of Iraq (leading to the emergence of the ISIS terrorist group) and seeking to come to a rapprochement with the Islamist regime in Iran, even if it meant downgrading relations with allies like Israel and Sunni Arab states such as Saudi Arabia. The nuclear deal he championed claimed to avert the peril of Tehran acquiring a nuke; in fact, it really meant that the United States was acquiescing to its eventually becoming a nuclear power. He backed down on a threat to punish Syria’s Bashar Assad for using chemical weapons on his own people and then punted responsibility for that catastrophe to Russia and Putin, sending a loud and clear message about the end of the American era as global hegemon.
His successor, former President Donald Trump, consistently used rhetoric that gave the impression that he, too, was leading America away from the international stage. He deprecated NATO, sought at times to ingratiate himself with Putin (though that was just as true of Obama), and threatened repeatedly to withdraw from Syria and tried to orchestrate another from Afghanistan. Trump’s actions, however, didn’t match the neo-isolationist tone he often adopted. He smashed ISIS and sought to correct Obama’s mistaken empowerment and enrichment of Tehran, and tried to force it to give up its nuclear quest by starting a campaign of “maximum pressure” in the form of severe economic sanctions. For all of his fawning on Putin, Trump was far tougher on him than either Obama or Biden. And, in spite of his comments (or perhaps because of them), he forced America’s European allies to pay more for their own defense, which strengthened NATO.
While Biden likes to talk like a traditional leader of the free world, his actions have given the lie to that stance.
His return to appeasement of Iran has only strengthened the Islamic Republic’s ability to threaten the world. Even worse, Biden’s disgraceful pullout from Afghanistan, in which he betrayed not only U.S. allies but endangered the Americans he left behind, solidified America’s new reputation as the cowardly lion of the international scene.
The repercussions from Afghanistan are being felt everywhere as America’s enemies now are emboldened. That’s been made clear by China’s threats to the independence of Taiwan and now by Putin’s move to take the next step to strangle what’s left of Ukraine.
An international scene that was dominated by a sole superpower was far from perfect. In the aftermath of the Cold War, the United States was slow to recognize the threat from Islamist terrorists. Then, after the 9/11 attacks, it was even slower to realize that a crusade for democracy in the Middle East or even an attempt to sort out an age-old problem like Afghanistan wasn’t going to have a happy ending.
Still, the collapse of Afghanistan is seen by foes like Russia and China as a signal. They think that they no longer have to worry about an America that is too preoccupied with its own troubles and led by a weak leader surrounded by staffers whose faith in multilateralism and diplomacy for its own sake will always prevent it from acting decisively to protect its interests or those of its international partners.
This is also an administration that has largely accepted revisionist lies about America being an irredeemably racist nation and one that—as Vice President Kamala Harris and others on the left insist—has no business speaking up for human rights elsewhere so long as it is imperfect at home.
Large-scale wars like the one that may happen in Ukraine, which was unimaginable in the not-so-distant past, are now very real possibilities. Small countries that looked to international opinion and a strong United States to ensure their independence are now pretty much on their own. And rogue states like Iran can be forgiven for thinking that the United States is committed to appeasing them no matter the cost.
A weak America doesn’t just mean a dismal fate for Ukraine. It means a budding Chinese superpower will be further seeking to limit America’s influence and undermine its security. It means that after the next Iran deal, Tehran will be emboldened to further aggression and threats against Israel and regional Arab countries alike. And if Americans think all this will have no repercussions for their economic security, then they haven’t been paying attention to what’s been going on in Europe and Asia.
Given that the United States is in no position to stop Putin, reversing these losses will be difficult. It would mean a reaffirmed commitment to reasserting power in order to save Taiwan, as well as backing away from the appeasement of Iran.
Right now, that seems unimaginable, especially with an American surrender to Iran in the nuclear talks being held in Vienna seeming already a done deal. Nor is it easy to imagine an administration still obsessed with demonizing its domestic political foes and crippled by leftist intellectual fashions that have undermined belief in American exceptionalism being able to assert itself again on the global stage.
The threats to Ukraine will be the least of America’s worries if we are now living in a world in which Washington is neither respected nor feared.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.