Speaking on Aug. 29 — at a fundraiser, of course — Barack Obama applied to a platitude the varnish of smartphone sociology, producing this intellectual sunburst: “The truth of the matter is, is that the world has always been messy. In part, we’re just noticing now because of social media and our capacity to see in intimate detail the hardships that people are going through.” So, if 14th-century Europeans had had Facebook and Twitter, they would have noticed how really disagreeable the Hundred Years’ War was.
Obama did have a piece of a point: Graphic journalism, now augmented by billions of people with cameras in their pockets, can give an inflammatory immediacy to events. His intention was to dispel the impression that the world has become not just unusually “messy” but especially dangerous. Unfortunately, this impression derives not from social media static but from stark facts, including this one:
A nation with nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles is dismembering another nation. And the nuclear power is governed by an unconstrained despot fueled by a dangerous brew of disappointment, resentment and contempt.
Writing for the Federalist Web site , professor Tom Nichols of the Naval War College describes Vladimir Putin as neither a realist nor a nationalist but rather someone saturated with Soviet nostalgia. In 1975, Nichols writes, the world seemed to be going the Soviet Union’s way. Extraordinary U.S. exertions in Vietnam had ended in defeat, a president had resigned and the economy was sagging into stagflation. “By contrast,” Nichols says, “the Soviets were at the top of their game,” with a modernized military and a new generation of missiles: “The correlation of forces, the great wheel of History itself, was finally turning in their favor,” and because History’s ratchet clicks only in a progressive direction, “it would never turn back.”
In 1975, Putin, 23, joined “the most elite Soviet institution,” the KGB, which would guarantee “he would be somebody in the brave new Soviet future.” But in the 1980s, “he watched the Soviet descent to oblivion begin, accelerate, and then end in a humiliating wreck.” Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and a Polish pope ignited a Western resurgence — military, economic and moral. By 1990, Putin was 38 and aggrieved. Today, “Putin’s speeches and public utterances,” Nichols notes, “tend to show more nostalgia for his Soviet youth than his Russian adulthood.” Remember “the explosion of bad taste and Soviet kitsch” in the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
A participant in NATO’s 1949 founding famously said that the alliance’s purpose was to protect Europe by keeping “the Russians out, the Americans in and the Germans down.” When the Cold War, which prompted NATO’s creation, ended, the alliance began to gingerly undertake what it calls “out-of-area operations,” as in Afghanistan. Now, however, it is back to its original business of keeping Russian forces out of NATO members, which now include Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, the last two being contiguous to Russia.
If NATO’s meeting in Wales was, as one European defense intellectual said, a “credibility summit,” it was at most a semi-success. The decision to augment by around 4,000 an existing rapid-response force of around 13,000 is a far cry from Poland’s request that 10,000 NATO troops be stationed with heavy weapons in that country. Watching NATO flinch from this, Putin might reasonably conclude that NATO is ambivalent about Article 5 (an attack on any member will be considered an attack on all) and therefore wants its means of responding to remain some distance from where events might require a response.
Although ambiguity has its uses, a British diplomat of the early 20th century, Lord Curzon, reportedly advised that it is generally wise to know your own mind and make sure your adversary knows it, too. Putin might read NATO’s mind in what Gideon Rachman of the Financial Times calls “the learned helplessness” of American allies who “have come to rely excessively on the U.S. to guarantee their security.”
Time was, Rachman writes, America accounted for roughly half of NATO’s military spending; now it accounts for about 75 percent. Only four of NATO’s 28 members (America, Britain, Estonia and penurious Greece) fulfill their obligation to spend at least 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense, and Britain may soon fall below that threshold as its army shrinks to about 80,000, its smallest size since after Waterloo (1815). As Putin casts a cold eye on his enemies, he might reasonably infer from their atrophied military muscles that they have palsied wills.