The Ukraine crisis has demonstrated that one person alone can endanger world peace. But that one person might not be Russian President Vladimir Putin, who in reality only leads a large regional power that, owing to his authoritarian rule and muddled economics, is a long-term threat more to itself than to the world. No, the lone actor most responsible for threatening world peace might unwittingly be US President Barack Obama, with his scholarly inertia and apparent disregard for the fate of smaller, faraway countries.
Of course, Obama is not responsible for Russia's invasion and annexation of Crimea, or for Putin's massing of Russian troops on Ukraine's eastern border in an effort to intimidate the government in Kyiv. Nor is Obama alone in crafting a Western policy of appeasement by default. German Chancellor Angela Merkel also bears considerable responsibility: Her tough rhetoric masks a largely business-as-usual approach that reflects her country's dependence on Russian gas supplies.
But Obama is responsible for his administration's apparent indifference to the fate of the American-built order that has governed world affairs since the end of World War II. Unless he toughens his policies, the rules and norms that have guaranteed peace for so many for so long could lose their force.
The utter disconnect between America's diplomatic principles and practice has become so great that it is emboldening the country's adversaries. That is why, following Russia's illegal seizure and annexation of Crimea, Putin is now trying to mold Ukraine's eastern provinces into vassal regions, if not foment irredentism, in order to realise his dream of reconstituting the Russian empire.
But it is not only America's rivals who are taking note of Obama's passivity. The United States' closest allies are also watching nervously, and the conclusions they appear to be drawing could eventually harm its national security interests severely in the years and decades to come.
Consider the Middle East, where Saudi Arabia is already openly questioning the reliability of the Kingdom's historic US defence guarantee. And US Secretary of State John Kerry's "guidance" for a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which should have been unveiled this month, will now remain under wraps. Speculation abounded that Kerry's proposal would contain a specific US guarantee of Israel's borders. But can anyone imagine Israelis taking America at its word after watching the US dither while Russia redrew the map of Ukraine?
In the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, the US, together with the United Kingdom and Russia, guaranteed Ukraine's territorial integrity in exchange for its surrender of the large nuclear arsenal it inherited from the Soviet Union. Now that the US has disregarded its obligation to Ukraine – reportedly unwilling even to share intelligence with its government on Russian troop movements, much less supply the country with the means to defend itself – all bets are predictably off concerning an American guarantee of Israel's security and territorial integrity.
For that matter, why should Iran discontinue its nuclear programme when it sees the ease with which Ukraine was dismembered? After all, the Iranians have borne far harsher sanctions than those imposed on Russia so far.
By acquiescing in Russia's seizure of Crimea, the US may also see core alliances begin to unravel. For example, the US has openly stated that it will defend Japan should China forcibly seize the disputed Senkaku Islands. But if America can evade its guarantee of Ukraine's territorial integrity, why should Japan's leaders believe that it will do otherwise in the case of a far-flung cluster of uninhabited islands that are scarcely more than rocks inhabited by sheep?
US Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel heard an earful of official doubt about the credibility of America's defence commitment during his recent visit to Japan. Obama is certain to hear more of the same in Tokyo this week.
Of course, the US is no longer in a position to "pay any price…to secure the survival and the success of liberty," as John F. Kennedy put it in his inaugural address – not in Ukraine, and not anywhere else. The huge price of its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq has understandably made the US war-weary.
The time is growing short for the US to demonstrate anew – to friend and foe alike – that its word remains its bond. Unless Russia honors the accord recently reached in Geneva to defuse the Ukraine crisis, the US must use – and soon – its full arsenal of non-military means to demonstrate to Putin the costs, and folly, of his 1930's-style revanchism.
- Project Syndicate