Shadow Government

Is Russian Aggression in Crimea an Anachronism? Or a Harbinger?

For some, Russia's invasion of the Crimea heralds a new Cold War.  For others, including President Barack Obama, it is an aberration -- a 19th-century outburst at odds with 21st-century standards of behavior. Both are likely incorrect. Rather than a throwback to a bygone era, aggressive actions like Russian President Vladimir Putin's may prove to be this century's norm; so, too, may confused and ineffective Western responses unless we reassess how we conduct our foreign policy.

Fears of a new Cold War are misplaced. Putin's Russia is not as powerful as its Soviet precursor, nor is it the vanguard of a global threat like communism. But the West is also not as purposeful as it was then. Our power and wealth have grown, but are more diffuse than in the past. They are also more difficult to harness. The rising relative strength of our allies, the absence of any overarching perceived threat, and our own reluctance have weakened multilateral coordination.

The same factors have undermined the notion, touted by President Obama, of an international community that shares a set of "principles and norms." In reality, the world is increasingly fragmented geopolitically even as it is more closely bound together by commerce and media. In a world that is no longer bipolar, nations need not "pick sides" in a grand sense but rather band together to suit their interests -- including, sometimes, their common interest in constraining American power.

Norms and principles, meanwhile, are increasingly contested. They're being challenged by Moscow and Beijing, who claim that international rules are tilted against them, and as the NSA debacle demonstrates, they are contested even among close allies like the U.S. and EU, which broadly share a common set of values.

These realities make for a dangerous and unsettled world. Putin's land grab in the Crimea may be brazen, but it is not unprecedented, nor is it likely to be the last such action. China's unilateral declaration of an "Air Defense Identification Zone" in the East China Sea may presage a similar action in the South China Sea, or even bolder steps as it tangles with smaller neighbors over ownership of various shoals and islands.

At the same time, alliances are more fragile. If the Soviet threat provided the impetus for the Western alliance system, the United States provided its glue through assistance, presence, and leadership. Our security architecture in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia survived the end of the Cold War, to be employed against new threats such as terrorism and proliferation. But it will not survive the withdrawal of American leadership.

Indeed, American leadership remains vital to stability and prosperity globally. As no other great power is ready or willing to assume our role, a leadership vacuum will be filled with conflict as other powers jockey for local preeminence. But the realities of expanding commitments, declining resources, and reluctant allies mean that we must lead more efficiently and intelligently.

The keys to doing so lie in exploiting factors that amplify American power. The first of them is, yes, norms and principles. Our interest in others adopting such rules is obvious. But it is not enough to exhort them to do so. We must be prepared to act not only to enforce them when they are trespassed, but to demonstrate that their benefits are shared equally and not exclusive to great powers.

President Obama unwittingly encapsulated the challenge of upholding norms even as he extolled them in addressing the Crimea crisis from the margins of a nuclear security summit. Ukraine, upholding proliferation norms, ceded its nuclear weapons in exchange for guarantees of its territorial integrity, only to see great powers ignore those guarantees in favor of more immediate national interests. Principles are meaningful only when acted upon.

Second, we must nurture our alliances, which are our most important national security asset. When we share interests, allies can act in our stead or in concert with us, reducing our risks and burdens. We must balance the pursuit of our own agendas -- including the advancement of norms -- against the interests of our allies.

Respecting the latter will provide us with the capital and credibility needed to secure cooperation with the former. Nowhere is this more clearly illustrated than in the Middle East, where our agenda in Iran, Syria, and elsewhere has diverged from our allies' to the extent that whatever short-term successes we enjoy may be more than offset by the strategic losses we incur as alliances erode.

Robust international norms and strong alliances can obviate the need for action. But when action is needed, it should be taken early, when problems are smaller and often easier to resolve via diplomacy rather than force. As problems like Syria, Ukraine, and Iran go unaddressed, they metastasize and become unmanageable. Avoiding such outcomes requires not only decisiveness, but strategic planning to foresee problems and put in place policies to forestall them.

We do not yet know whether the Crimea crisis will serve as a template or as a wake-up call for American foreign policy in the 21st century. If it is to be the latter, we must devise new strategies for exercising American leadership amid today's realities, and make the investments in our military and diplomatic capabilities to ensure their success.

OLGA MALTSEVA/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

One More Reason to Pay Attention to the Civil-Military Gap

A week ago, the Washington Post ran a long story discussing the effects of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars on military personnel who had served in combat tours. The story was primarily based on a detailed survey administered in late 2013 in conjunction with the Kaiser Family Foundation.

The Post story was titled "A Legacy of Pain and Pride," but it focused on the "pain" side of the ledger. And, to be sure, there is much to tell there with respondents reporting on the physical, emotional, psychological, and relational costs of combat service.

But what struck me most was with the "pride" side, which itself seemed to be a good news/bad news kind of story.

On the good news, the military were overwhelmingly (87 percent) proud of their service and overwhelmingly (89 percent) inclined to "do it again" if they could go back in time -- even despite the many battle scars physical and psychological. This is a strained and in some ways hurting group, but it is not a group that is sullen or alienated from the military profession itself.

Likewise, while the veterans express ambivalence about the value of the wars, they still are markedly more supportive of them than the general public. Forty-four percent of the combat vets said the Iraq war was worth fighting compared to 38 percent of the general public; 53 percent of the vets said the war in Afghanistan was worth fighting compared to 30 percent of the general public. (The Post story claimed that "only 35 percent believe both wars were worth fighting," a cross-tabulation not reported in the topline results here.) To be sure, there was plenty of anti-war sentiment to be found, especially on Iraq -- 34 percent were strongly of the view that the Iraq war was not worth fighting -- but also plenty of pro-war sentiment -- 28 percent were strongly of the view that the Iraq war was worth fighting.

Perhaps most surprisingly, given the way that the popular media demonizes President George W. Bush for how the Iraq and Afghanistan wars unfolded, the combat vets have a strikingly high estimation of the former president. Fully 72 percent of officers said that Bush was a good commander-in-chief. Only 48 percent of officers think President Barack Obama is doing a good job as commander-in-chief. Obama scores even lower overall approval rating, only 38 percent among this group. (The survey did not ask for an overall approval rating for Bush.)

The ambivalent appraisal of the current president is not, however, the most worrying finding. On the bad news side of the ledger, I would pay even more attention to the signs of possible budding alienation from civilian society (as distinct from alienation from the military profession). Right now the signs are more harbingers of possible future problems than indicators of current difficulties, but they are worth watching.

It is perhaps understandable, but nevertheless notable, that these veterans think they are more patriotic (63 percent) and have "better moral and ethical values" (54 percent) than average Americans. While 53 percent of combat vets believe that Americans' respect for the military is genuine, 42 percent say Americans are "just saying what people want to hear." Those numbers could well grow with time, since 69 percent say they sometimes felt like Americans didn't understand their experience in war (and, on this, they were doubtless correct since it is so hard for civilians to comprehend combat from afar).

Hedging against the drift towards alienation is a healthy awareness that the average American appreciates the service of the military -- 71 percent of the combat vets agreed with that. And, most surprisingly, given the prominent pundit voices deriding such public expressions as empty gestures, 70 percent said they liked seeing yellow ribbons as expressions of support.

But the risks are real because of the looming conflict between veteran expectations and fiscal realities. When asked directly, 83 percent said that military benefits should not be pared back even in the face of fiscal constraints. In this respect, the military is very much like every other segment of American society: they do not want to be the bill-payer for redressing the fiscal imbalance.

Yet some paring of benefits may be unavoidable and, if the Post-Kaiser poll is a reliable indication, that could prove wrenching for the military. A military that flirts with feelings of alienation from civilian society could interpret the cutbacks as a sign of disrespect and ingratitude.

It is well worth keeping an eye on the way the military thinks of civilian society and vice-versa. The most systematic information we have on the subject is quite dated. The study by the Triangle Institute for Security Studies on the civil-military gap that I co-directed is over 15 years old now. It is high time someone did a follow-up. The Post-Kaiser poll is a good start.

By the way, surveying the military can be very challenging, so I am inclined to give this sampling design the benefit of the doubt. It took more than four months of phone calls -- August 1 to Dec. 15 -- to reach the 819 combat veteran respondents. A lot can happen in that time. If the poll had queried about how respondents evaluated President Obama's handling of Syria, of instance, would it make sense to group a respondent reached in the first week of August with a respondent reached in the first week of September with a respondent reached in the first week of October? But the questionnaire did not have many such time-sensitive questions so on the whole it provides a reasonable snapshot of one important segment of the military.

Scott Olson/Getty Images