I understand that’s a ridiculously broad question, but it arises from a ridiculously broad analysis:
Obama says Putin is on the wrong side of history and Secretary of State John Kerry says Putin’s is “really 19th-century behavior in the 21st century.” This must mean that seeking national power, territory, dominion — the driving impulse of nations since Thucydides — is obsolete. As if a calendar change caused a revolution in human nature that transformed the international arena from a Hobbesian struggle for power into a gentleman’s club where violations of territorial integrity just don’t happen.
Is it possible things are just a little bit more complicated than that? It could be that the impulse for national power, territory, dominion is now not obsolete, but simply much more attenuated now than it once was (and that argument is easily compatible with Kerry’s phrase). And the case for that is pretty strong. I mean: if nations have one driving impulse – “seeking national power, territory, dominion” – and if the record shows no change or evolution in this eternal truth, how do we explain huge tranches of recent history?
Why on earth, for example, would European countries pool sovereignty in the EU? How could they be deluded into thinking that giving up “national power” could be a good thing? And why, for that matter, would this arrangement remain attractive to other countries as well, not least of which Ukraine? Why on earth did the US invade and conquer Iraq only to leave it a decade later? Why did we not seize the oil-fields with our military might to fuel our economy? What was Krauthammer’s hero, George W Bush doing, singing hymns to human freedom rather than American hegemony?
Why, for that matter, have military incursions into other countries become rarer over time? Why has the level of inter-state violence in human affairs declined to historically low levels?
The answers to that question are, of course, legion, and I’m not trying to settle the debate here. I’m just noting that if the classic aims of territory acquisition and dominion never change, Krauthammer has a lot of explaining to do.
Even with Putin, I think it’s worth noting that his current Tsarist mojo is not exactly triumphalist. Krauthammer concedes as much:
Crimea belonged to Moscow for 200 years. Russia conquered it 20 years before the U.S. acquired Louisiana. Lost it in the humiliation of the 1990s. Putin got it back in about three days without firing a shot.
So this is less like Hitlerian aggression and more like a sad attempt to re-seize one tiny portion that was part of Russia proper far longer than it was “lost”. More to the point, Putin “got it back” only in the wake of Ukraine deposing its democratically-elected, Russophile leader in a violent, popular putsch. Yes, if your contention is that the desire for territory/dominion/power is “obsolete,” you’re a fool. But if your contention is that this impulse plays a much less critical role in international affairs than in almost all previous periods in human history, you’d be merely making an empirical observation.
The truth is that global interdependence – the immensely complex and proliferating global economy that vastly expanded as communism collapsed under the weight of its own lies – clearly mitigates the classic impulse that Krauthammer approves of. It doesn’t abolish it – but it shapes it.