Yesterday morning on Fox's America's Newsroom, Sen. John McCain echoed comments made over the weekend by former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates that Crimea is essentially lost. Even after ticking off a list of things the Obama administration could do to pressure Vladimir Putin, McCain had to answer in the negative to anchor Bill Hemmer's question about whether any such actions could reverse the Crimean invasion.
Both McCain and Gates are probably right. They are old-fashioned realists who have incurred the ire of more interventionist conservatives and multilateralist liberals alike. They know that only Putin can unwind the takeover of Crimea, and they are certainly right that there is almost no force that can make him do so, short of a massive military operation by U.S. forces, which is never going to happen. Further, McCain echoed numerous analysts who have warned that Putin is almost certainly setting his eyes on expanding Russian control over eastern Ukraine in due time. Such salami-slicing tactics are a time-honored approach to making aggression seem less threatening that it really is.
Yet while facing such facts may be the only realistic response, it also validates the actions of aggressors and indeed may encourage further opportunism. It is less than two weeks since Russian forces invaded Crimea and the world's most powerful nation is, in essence, saying, "It's time to move on." There are the expected protestations that Washington will do everything possible to ensure that such aggression does not happen again, but such rhetoric is inevitably undercut by the quick acceptance of the fait accompli.
The alternative is just as unpalatable: refusing to acknowledge reality. That is the approach successive administrations have taken in regard to North Korea. By now, it should be obvious that North Korea is a nuclear power. While Pyongyang may not have yet perfected making a weapon out of its nuclear capability, there seems little doubt that it will eventually do so, and then mate a weapon to its intercontinental ballistic missile capability. Yet Washington steadfastly refuses to admit that the North is a nuclear state, since that would open up a Pandora's box of containment and arms control negotiations that no U.S. administration wants to engage in.
How can it be right to both acknowledge reality and also to refuse to accept it? A risk-averse status quo power, which describes the United States today, has little other choice. Its own track record (Georgia in 2008, Syria since 2012, East China Sea in 2013) proves that it believes it must accommodate itself to unpalatable realities, while pretending that it continues to uphold international order. That is today's real grand strategy, shared largely by Democrats and Republicans alike. Self-inflicted wounds, like meaningless defense cuts, only exacerbate the fear of over extending itself, of committing to a cause that may charge too high a price.
Perhaps that is indeed the more prudent course of action. But it must inevitably lead to a changed world, one in which the fig leaf of international law can no longer cover the nakedness of great power ambition. It is happening in the world's three most important regions: Europe, the Middle East, and East Asia. It is a slow process, one that moves in fits and starts, but one that will continue uninterruptedly absent a turn around or collapse of the challenging power. China, Russia, and Iran may all face such a day soon, but until then, they will continue to chip and bite away at the supports of the post-1945 liberal international order. It will alter the international system, most likely in malignant ways, if for no other reason than that no one is prepared seriously to stop it.
Emboldening such aggressive opportunism seems to be the only coherent policy the liberal world has in this decade.