What are we to make of the crisis in the Crimea?

Russian military action in Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula has created arguably the most serious diplomatic incident in years. There are several worrying historical comparisons that could be made here. Putin has argued the case that the Crimea is ethnically Russian in order to justify Russian actions; surely Adolf Hitler taking the Sudetenland in 1938 was under the exact same premise. The incident is certainly one to be watched very closely but what has struck me as one of the most interesting elements of this is the role of the United States.

When news first broke of Russian intervention in the Crimea, my reaction was one not of surprise but one of fear. How would the United States react? Would this escalate into a global conflict or mark a return to Cold War politics? I thought back to the Bush administration and what their policy might have been towards such an incident. These hypothetical scenarios made the implications of Russian aggression seem very bleak indeed. However, in light of these initial fears, US response to the incident has, in my view, been astonishingly calm. There is no doubt that Russian actions have not been welcomed with open arms by the White House. Indeed, there have been calls for economic sanctions and John Kerry is currently in Ukraine voicing US disapproval. Nevertheless, a question that really strikes me is whether Putin would have dared to do this ten years ago or would fears of an American reaction persuaded him against it?

It is my view that the period of American domination of global politics is in decline. Ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the United States has stood alone as the world’s superpower and dominated global affairs. I am not saying that this is no longer the case; evidently the United States remains to be the most powerful nation in the world. What I am saying is that American diplomacy is significantly more cautious than it has been for some time, as if the State Department feels somewhat more like the Foreign Office; diplomacy with hands tied. I first got an impression of this with regard to the Syrian crisis last summer. The United States and the “West” very much advocated United Nations intervention in Syria but the Russians and the Chinese blocked such a move and were successful in doing so. One only has to look back to the Iraq War in 2003, where the United Nations was undoubtedly against intervention but the Bush administration declared war anyway. Perhaps we can put this down to simple politics, this difference may be down to Obama’s more anti-war tendencies as opposed to Bush’s overtly aggressive foreign policy but I think the difference is more significant than that. My point is this; the United States no longer feels like a nation that can simply do what it wants, its dominance is waning. Putin intervened in the Crimea, I think, with very little fear of a potential American backlash. Whether this was foolish remains to be seen but if that is the case then surely we are entering a new period of international diplomacy and the “international community” may not be quite so “American” in the future.