In the London business paper City AM, John Hulsman writes:
The greatest global political risk can't be found in Kiev, eastern Ukraine or any of the other hotspots that get the media so excited. It lies in the perception of Western weakness among those countries that find themselves dissatisfied with the current global establishment. For them, the enfeebled state of the West, as laid bare in Ukraine, means the possibility of expansion...
As seen from Moscow, Beijing, Pyongyang, Damascus and Tehran, this is the inspiring, hopeful narrative of Western decline. These countries know they must be careful not to miscalculate, not to press too hard as the lessons of this calamity for the West slowly dawn. But in the medium term, it looks like Iran's nuclear programme is safe, that Assad can soon pop the corks in Damascus, that for North Korea, torturing Seoul at the edges looks like a no brainer, and as for China, well, the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands await. With time, and after Putin's groundbreaking efforts, the way history is moving couldn't be clearer. The West simply doesn't exist anymore.
That's not, yet, strictly true. The G7 guys still get together, pose for summit group shots, host banquets. But is it a club others will want to join? After the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, Eastern Europe decided it wanted to be western: Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, Bulgaria, Romania, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia have all joined the EU; all the preceding plus Albania have joined Nato. In the Nineties, "the west" was the coming man, the order maker of "the end of history".
It doesn't look that way now, not if you're Estonian or Ukrainian. Where next? If you're Japan and the Philippines and South Korea and Singapore and maybe even India, you too live in a tough neighborhood. If American power is increasingly felt by its absence, China will fill the void and, to one degree or another, those nations will re-orient themselves accordingly. When Iran goes nuclear after years of Euro-American dithering and hollow words, Arabia's Sunni monarchies will also make new security arrangements as best they can - but America and the west will not be a part of their calculations.
On NBC the other day David Brooks said Obama had a "manhood" problem. I am loathe to lay it all at the feet of his mom jeans, but it's certainly true that for America's global rivals he's easy to despise. "Mr Obama," writes Peter Baker in The New York Times, "seems intent on not letting Russia dominate his presidency." Which, as Mr Putin well understands, is a polite way of saying Mr Obama seems intent on letting Russia dominate anywhere it wants to dominate.
Mr Obama likewise seems intent on not letting Syria dominate his presidency, or Iran dominate his presidency, or China dominate his presidency. "We want to continue to encourage the peaceful rise of China," said the President blandly, on a visit to Japan, whose outlying islands Beijing is presently threatening to seize Crimea-style. Mr Obama also wants to encourage the peaceful rise of Iran, so they'll get their nukes while he steers clear, intent on not letting any atomic ayatollahs dominate his presidency. Nor is Bashir Assad going to dominate his presidency. Sure, Obama drew a red line, but he then cannily stood there wringing his hands and all but pleading for someone, anyone - Congress, "the global community", Putin - to erase it for him. And so Assad is in Damascus for keeps, and Russia is back in the Middle East in a big way.
Americans are weary of the world, and weary of war - or at any rate the only wars on offer: ineffectual interventions in which instant military victory bleeds into a decade of masochistic non-nation-building. But the alternative to hard power used foolishly is soft power used smartly. And what's the likelihood of that? The funniest line in that New York Times piece is the very first sentence:
WASHINGTON — Even as the crisis in Ukraine continues to defy easy resolution, President Obama and his national security team are looking beyond the immediate conflict to forge a new long-term approach to Russia that applies an updated version of the Cold War strategy of containment.
You don't say. Only 18 months ago, President Obama unleashed what The Huffington Post called a "Seinfeldian zinger" at Mitt Romney and his worries over Russian expansionism:
The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because the Cold War's been over for 20 years.
Mitt Romney is now calling to ask for his foreign policy back.
And who seriously believes Obama can "contain" Russia? More importantly, does Vladimir Putin believe it? At the very front of America Alone (personally autographed copies of which are exclusively available from the Steyn store and help support my free-speech pushback against the climate mullahs), I quote Donald Rumsfeld way back in the Nineties: "Weakness is provocative." The "red line" climbdown was a signal not only to Assad but to Putin, Beijing, the mullahs, Kim Jong-Un, the Taliban and every other tinpot thug. Inaction has consequences.