By Christopher J. Fettweis
Best Defense guest columnist
has to shoulder some of the blame for this crisis.
A consistent theme of President Obama's critics has been that
perceptions of U.S. weakness brought this crisis on. A variety of analysts have
agreed with former Vice President Cheney's assertion that there is "no question" that Putin believes
Obama is weak, and that weakness encouraged Russian aggression. This criticism,
which comes mostly but not exclusively from the most hawkish voices in the
marketplace of ideas (Charles Krauthammer, Bill Kristol, John McCain), also suggests that resolve and strength
could somehow have deterred this action in the first place.
Another form of this criticism comes from the other end of the
spectrum, from political realists, who have asserted that NATO expansion, the
deployment of missile-defense systems in Eastern Europe, and other misguided
U.S. policies in the 1990s and 2000s led to a deterioration of bilateral
relations and ultimately to the current situation. Eighty percent of the
Russian people had a positive view of the United States in 1991, former
Ambassador Jack Matlock pointed out, but that number had
dropped to 20 percent by 1999 (other events, like the utter collapse of their
economy, apparently had nothing to do with this). Unwise policy choices by the
United States, therefore, are the root cause of this crisis.
Both sides overestimate the role Washington has played in Putin's
calculations. One of the most basic observations from political psychology is
what is called centrality, or the belief that we are central to their calculations. The natural
human tendency to put ourselves in the center of their universe prevents real,
deep appreciation of their motivations, whoever they are. While it is certainly
true that Putin takes Washington into consideration before acting, it is not at
all clear that U.S. actions are the primary drivers of his decisions. In fact,
it is almost certain that we overestimate our importance. No matter what the
United States had done in the 1990s, or how it responded to this crisis as it
began, events probably would have unfolded in roughly the same way.
That also means, unfortunately, that we might not have as much
influence on how it ultimately ends, either.
(And more to come.)
Christopher J. Fettweis is associate
professor of political science at Tulane University in New Orleans. The
thoughts in this essay are extensions of his latest book, The Pathologies of Power: Fear,
Honor, Glory and Hubris in U.S. Foreign Policy.