A Politico report calls it “a crisis that no one anticipated.” The Daily Beast, reporting on Friday’s US intelligence assessment that “Vladimir Putin’s military would not invade Ukraine,” quotes a Senate aide claiming that “no one really saw this kind of thing coming.”
Op-eds from all over the legacy press this week helped explained why. Through the rose tinted lenses of a media community deeply convinced that President Obama and his dovish team are the masters of foreign relations, nothing poor Putin did could possibly derail the stately progress of our genius president. There were, we were told, lots of reasons not to worry about Ukraine. War is too costly for Russia’s weak economy. Trade would suffer, the ruble would take a hit. The 2008 war with Georgia is a bad historical comparison, as Ukraine’s territory, population and military are much larger. Invasion would harm Russia’s international standing. Putin doesn’t want to spoil his upcoming G8 summit, or his good press from Sochi. Putin would rather let the new government in Kiev humiliate itself with incompetence than give it an enemy to rally against. Crimea’s Tartars and other anti-Russian ethnic minorities wouldn’t stand for it. Headlines like “Why Russia Won’t Invade Ukraine,” “No, Russia Will Not Intervene in Ukraine,” and “5 Reasons for Everyone to Calm Down About Crimea” weren’t hard to find in our most eminent publications.
Nobody, including us, is infallible about the future. Giving the public your best thoughts about where things are headed is all a poor pundit (or government analyst) can do. But this massive intellectual breakdown has a lot to do with a common American mindset that is especially built into our intellectual and chattering classes. Well educated, successful and reasonably liberal minded Americans find it very hard to believe that other people actually see the world in different ways. They can see that Vladimir Putin is not a stupid man and that many of his Russian officials are sophisticated and seasoned observers of the world scene. American experts and academics assume that smart people everywhere must want the same things and reach the same conclusions about the way the world works.
How many times did foolishly confident American experts and officials come out with some variant of the phrase “We all share a common interest in a stable and prosperous Ukraine.” We may think that’s true, but Putin doesn’t.
We blame this in part on the absence of true intellectual and ideological diversity in so much of the academy, the policy world and the mainstream media. Most college kids at good schools today know many more people from different races and cultural groups than their grandparents did, but they are much less exposed to people who think outside the left-liberal box. How many faithful New York Times readers have no idea what American conservatives think, much less how Russian oligarchs do? Well bred and well read Americans live in an ideological and cultural cocoon and this makes them fatally slow to understand the very different motivations that animate actors ranging from the Tea Party to the Kremlin to, dare we say it, the Supreme Leader and Guide of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
As far as we can tell, the default assumption guiding our political leadership these days is that the people on the other side of the bargaining table (unless they are mindless Tea Party Republicans) are fundamentally reasonable people who see the world as we do, and are motivated by the same things that motivate us. Many people are, of course, guided by an outlook not all that dissimilar from the standard upper middle class gentry American set of progressive ideas. But some aren’t, and when worlds collide, trouble comes.
Too much of the Washington policy establishment looks around the world and sees only reflections of its own enlightened self. That’s natural and perhaps inevitable to some degree. The people who rise through the competitive bureaucracies of American academic, media and think tank life tend to be those who’ve most thoroughly absorbed and internalized the set of beliefs and behavioral norms that those institutions embody and respect. On the whole, those beliefs and norms have a lot going for them. It would not be an improvement if America’s elite institutions started to look more like their counterparts in Russia or Zimbabwe.
But while those ideas and beliefs help people rise through the machinery of the American power system, they can get in the way when it comes to understanding the motives and calculations of people like President Putin. The best of the journalists, think tankers and officials will profit from the Crimean policy fiasco and will never again be as smug or as blind as so much of Washington was last week. The mediocre majority will go on as before.
The big question of course, is what President Obama will take away from this experience. Has he lost confidence in the self-described (and self-deceived) ‘realists’ who led him down the primrose path with their empty happy talk and their beguiling but treacherous illusions? Has he rethought his conviction that geopolitics and strategy are relics of a barbarous past with no further relevance in our own happy day? Is he tired of being humiliated on the international stage? Is it dawning on him that he has actual enemies rather than difficult partners out there, and that they wish him ill and seek to harm him? (Again, we are not talking about the GOP in Congress.)
Let’s hope so. There are almost three years left in this presidential term, and they could be very long ones if President Obama chooses to stick with the ideas and approaches he’s been using so far.