US President Barack Obama speaks at a press conference on the second day of the NATO 2014 Summit. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
Opinion writer

“All politics is local,” the late speaker of the House Tip O’ Neill famously said. How right he was. The world today is suffering from the failure of President Obama to apply a school of law enforcement that happened to originate in O’Neill’s home town, Boston, and goes by the moniker “broken windows.” The problem, simply stated, is that Obama was deaf to the sound of tinkling glass.

The term “broken windows” comes from a 1982 article in the then-Boston-based Atlantic Monthly. Its authors were two academics, James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling. Here is a sample: “Untended property becomes fair game for people out for fun or plunder and even for people who ordinarily would not dream of doing such things. . . . But vandalism can occur anywhere once communal barriers — the sense of mutual regard and the obligations of civility — are lowered by actions that seem to signal that ‘no one cares.’ ”

The article was hugely influential, and it mightily impressed William J. Bratton, who is now, for the second time, New York’s police commissioner. He had originally come from Boston to head New York’s transit police, and he immediately applied the broken-windows theory to the subways. He arrested fare-jumpers, paying attention to the little crimes and finding out, as Wilson and Kelling had predicted, that if you took care of the little stuff, the big stuff tended not to happen. Get a fare-jumper and you’ve got a criminal before he commits a more serious crime — and sometimes someone carrying a weapon.

“Broken windows” is more than a theory of criminology. It’s an observation of human nature: We all like to feel that someone’s in charge. If the subways are emblazoned with graffiti, our sense of security is affected. Something is wrong. Something is out of control.

What works for the subways or a city works as well in international relations. President Obama eschewed a broken-windows approach to foreign relations. He treated every crisis as an isolated event or problem unrelated to anything bigger. He did not understand that, by doing so, the world’s bad guys felt that no one was watching. The Islamic State metastasized in the Syrian-Iraqi desert. The United States knew of its formation but did not bother with the small stuff. Even when the Islamic State took Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, we lifted hardly a finger. Small stuff. Small stuff.

Similarly, Obama could not see a connection between ignoring his own “red line” in Syria and what would follow. The issue — the challenge — was not to remove chemical weapons from Syria but to make an American president’s word matter. What the world took from that episode was that Obama held little stock in such symbolism. He was coldly pragmatic, logical and oh so collected. His foreign policy priorities were twofold: to get out of Iraq and Afghanistan and to make sure no terrorist attacked the United States. Both are worthy goals, but in Iraq they produced a power vacuum that the Islamic State rushed to fill.

The broken windows started to add up. In Syria, Bashar al-Assad paid Obama little heed. Obama wanted Assad gone, but he didn’t go. Instead, Assad escalated his violence step by step — as if each step of the way he was looking over his shoulder to see whether anyone was watching. By now, he has shelled and gassed civilians and massacred his enemies. The Chinese, too, seem woefully unintimidated, and Japan has started to feel awfully alone out there in the Pacific. In Ukraine and Crimea, Vladimir Putin has done pretty much what he wants, unfazed by NATO, a capon posing as a rooster.

Now an Obama administration that has contributed a lexicon of passivity to international relations — “leading from behind,” “we don’t have a strategy yet” and the hardly Churchillian “don’t do stupid” stuff — is busy assembling a coalition to deal with the Islamic State. The president has done so because things have gotten out of hand. But the coalition’s European component is reluctant to take the fight to Syria, and its Arab members are more adept at signing checks than actually getting into a fight. In order for this to work, the United States must really take the lead. That means more than the usual presidential speech, and a gut understanding that, as bad as things are now, they can actually get worse. This does not mean American boots on the ground. It does mean, though, that it’s time to sweep up the broken glass.

Read more from Richard Cohen’s archive.