What has been happening in Ukraine is not a wake-up call precisely but a tugging at the attention, a demand to focus.
There’s a sense that in some new way we are watching the 21st century take its shape and express its central realities. Exactly 100 years ago, in August 1914, the facts that would shape the 20th century gathered and emerged in the Great War. History doesn’t repeat itself; you can’t, as they say, step into the same stream twice. But it does have an unseen circularity.
Sept. 11 started the century and brought forward the face of terrorism. It is still there and will continue to cause grave disruptions. Since then we have seen we are living in a time of uprisings, from the Mideast to Africa to the streets of Kiev. We are learning that history isn’t over in Europe, that East-West tensions can simmer and boil over, that the 20th century didn’t resolve as much as many had hoped.
A Mideast dictator last year used poison gas on his own population and strengthened his position. He’s winning. What does that tell the other dictators? What does it suggest about our future?
I keep thinking of two things that for me capture the moment and our trajectory. The first is a sentence from Don DeLillo’s prophetic 1991 novel, ” Mao II “: “The future belongs to crowds.” Movements will be massive. The street will rise and push. The street in Cairo, say, is full of young men who are jobless and unformed. They channel their energy into politics and street passions. If they had jobs they’d develop the habits of work—self-discipline, patience, a sense of building and belonging—that are so crucial to maintaining human society. But they don’t, so they won’t.
The second is the title of Tom Wolfe’s most recent book, “Back to Blood.” He was referring to tribalism, ethnicity, the enduring call of clan. But also just blood. Another enduring and even re-emergent force in human affairs.
We see Vladimir Putin as re-enacting the Cold War. He sees us as re-enacting American greatness. We see his actions as a throwback. He sees our denunciations as a strutting on the stage by a broken down, has-been actor.
Mr. Putin doesn’t move because of American presidents, he moves for his own reasons. But he does move when American presidents are weak. He moved on Georgia in August 2008 when George W. Bush was reeling from unwon wars, terrible polls and a looming economic catastrophe that all but children knew was coming. (It came the next month.) Mr. Bush was no longer formidable as a leader of the free world.
Mr. Putin moved on Ukraine when Barack Obama was no longer a charismatic character but a known quantity with low polls, failing support, a weak economy. He’d taken Mr. Obama’s measure during the Syria crisis and surely judged him not a shrewd international chess player but a secretly anxious professor who makes himself feel safe with the sound of his voice.
Mr. Putin didn’t go into Ukraine because of Mr. Obama. He just factored him in.
A great question for the future: Will Mr. Putin ever respect an American president again? He knows our political situation, knows we’re a 50-50 nation, would assume we’re blocked from consensus barring unusual circumstances such as a direct attack. He’s not impressed by our culture or our economy. He might also make inferences from America’s demographic shifts. If we are a more non-European nation than we were 30 years ago, might he think us less likely to be engaged by—and enraged by—unfortunate dramas playing out in Europe? Mr. Putin, as Henry Kissinger says, is a serious strategist acting on serious perceived imperatives. He would make a point of figuring out the facts of his potential foe.
Three points on his overall tactics, all of which suggest what we’ll be seeing more of in the future.
First, we tend to think the Big Lie in foreign policy as antique, pre-Internet, as dead as Goebbels. It is not. For days Mr. Putin insisted he went into Ukraine to protect innocent people from marauding fascists. To some degree it worked, including among a few foreign-policy professionals. Big lies can confuse the situation, fool the gullible, and buy time. Expect more of them.
Second, after the invasion Mr. Putin murked up the situation and again bought some time—and some tentativeness among his foes—by contributing to the idea that he was perhaps crazy—”in another world,” as Angela Merkel is reported to have told Mr. Obama. (Imagine the White House relief: It’s not our fault, you can’t anticipate a madman! I guess that’s why it leaked.) Mr. Putin helped spread the idea in his March 4 postinvasion news conference in Moscow. From the grimly hilarious account of The New Republic’s Julia Ioffe : “He was a rainbow of emotion: Serious! angry! bemused! flustered! confused! So confused. Victor Yanukovich is still acting president of Ukraine, but he can’t talk to Ukraine because Ukraine has no president.” It was apparently quite a performance.
But Mr. Putin isn’t crazy. Nor was Khrushchev when some of his communications were wild enough during the Cuban Missile Crisis that the Kennedy White House wondered if he was drunk or undergoing a coup. “We will bury you!” No, we will unsettle you. Mr. Putin may be psychologically interesting, but he’s not mad. Allowing the idea to circulate added to the confusion, bought time and kept people wondering. Expect more of this from Mr. Putin.
Third, there is the matter of the unmarked Russian troops. Reporters in the Crimea had to shout, “Where are you from?” to be certain who they were. That added a new level of menace.
And it had a feeling of foreshadowing the wars of the future. Normally nations make it clear: We are Japan bombing Pearl Harbor, look at the rising sun on our planes. We are the Soviets in Afghanistan, look at our lumbering tanks!
But we have entered a time of war by at least temporary stealth. If there were a huge, coordinated, destabilizing cyberattack on our core institutions, it could be a while before intelligence agencies knew for certain who did it, and with whose help. If an entity attempted to take down the electric grid it might be some time before we knew who exactly was responsible. The same with a chemical or biological attack on any great city. Who are you? Who sent you?
It could be hard to know unless someone quickly claimed responsibility, as al Qaeda did after 9/11. Otherwise we are looking at a new kind of war, in which the fog is thicker and aggressions cannot be responded to quickly.
The most obvious Ukraine point has to do with American foreign policy in the sixth year of the Obama era.
Not being George W. Bush is not a foreign policy. Not invading countries is not a foreign policy. Wishing to demonstrate your sophistication by announcing you are unencumbered by the false historical narratives of the past is not a foreign policy. Assuming the world will be nice if we’re not militarist is not a foreign policy.
What is our foreign policy? Disliking global warming?