If you are to believe the Obama administration, Russian policy toward Ukraine reflects an obsolete view of international affairs. After Moscow's seizure of Crimea last spring, one administration spokesman declared, "What we see here are distinctly 19th- and 20th-century decisions made by [Russian] President [Vladimir] Putin to address problems." President Obama and Secretary of State John KerryJohn KerryEquilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by The American Petroleum Institute — Illegal pot farms dry up Western creeks Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by Climate Power — Interior returns BLM HQ to Washington Biden confirms 30 percent global methane reduction goal, urges 'highest possible ambitions' MORE have similar comments suggesting that Russia's foreign policy is stuck in a 19th-century mindset.
There is an element of truth to the charge. Outright annexation of another state's territory, like Russia's of Crimea, has become exceedingly rare. But the broader implication that great power politics — with its spheres of influence, emphasis on military power and opportunistic view of national sovereignty — is a thing of the past simply doesn't bear close scrutiny.
Ironically, this is particularly the case of the United States.
Indeed, the United States is the world's most important — and successful — practitioner of classic, 19th-century great power politics. We field the world's largest military establishment for a reason: to maintain our ability to promote our interests by threat of force and, if necessary, by its use. True, we often do so in concert with allies who share our interests. And we have often embedded our power in institutions like NATO. But let there be no doubt: These partnerships, though enduring and fruitful, are anything but equal. And when our allies fail to follow our lead — as a number did during the 2003 invasion of Iraq — we are prepared to act without them.
Today, the United States is the dominant power in most of Europe and in East Asia. And we show every intention of remaining so. Just ask the Chinese what they think about the Obama administration's "pivot" to Asia — a strategy that, at least in part, reflects an effort to contain Beijing by strengthening our ties to existing allies in the region and cultivating new relationships with neutral counties.
We may support the ideal of national sovereignty, but we are quick to make exceptions when we think our interests are at stake. Since World War II, we have invaded other countries (Iraq); subverted their governments (Iran); supported separatist movements (Kosovo); plotted the assassination of foreign leaders (Cuba); and violated national laws in the collection of intelligence (more countries than space permits). The list goes on and on.
We, too, are sensitive about threats to our sphere of influence. We first staked out such a claim for the Western Hemisphere in the Monroe Doctrine of 1823. In the nearly two centuries that followed, we responded — often in ways that showed scant regard for national sovereignty — to foreign influence in our "backyard." The United States may no longer meddle directly in Latin American countries the way we did until the late 1980s. But this is not because we have "seen the light" when it comes to the sanctity of borders. It is because, thanks to the collapse of the Soviet Union, we face no geopolitical rival in our hemisphere.
By pointing out these facts, I am not levying a blanket criticism of American foreign policy. Indeed, I would have supported some of these policies and opposed others. Nor am I attempting to establish a moral equivalency between the United States and our major geopolitical adversaries over the years. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union's exercise of great power politics was, by any count, more brutal than our own. In other words, we need not don our sackcloth and scourge ourselves for our wickedness. But it is important to be honest about what the United States has done and, indeed, still does.
Let me be clear: There have been historic changes in the nature of international order since the 19th century. Economic globalization has raised the stakes of conflict. A dense net of international institutions bind states in ways nearly unimaginable a century ago. And norms of international behavior have, in fact, evolved. But sheer power still matters when states see their vital interests threatened. Such is the case with Russia today.
None of what I have written represents an endorsement of Russia's actions in Ukraine. It is merely an effort to provide an explanation. But such explanations are useful: They can explain international behavior in ways that help us foresee conflict and deal with crises when they arise.
The bottom line: Ukraine is far more important to Russia than it is to the United States or Western Europe. At one important level, we and our allies in Europe recognize this reality. There is little taste, in Washington or NATO capitals, for sending troops to protect Ukraine. For all our rhetoric about the sanctity of borders and support for democracy, we simply don't consider Ukraine's fate vital enough to risk war.
Russia may still be living in the 19th century. But so are we.
Barnes is the Bonner Means Baker Research Fellow at Rice University's Baker Institute.