From the Director’s Chair

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From the Director’s Chair
By: Kathleen Hicks

Rapid political change inside weak states became commonplace during the Arab awakening. Until this month, Ukraine’s trajectory seemed to be following this same trend line: a state undergoing a dramatic change due to domestic stress. The March 2014 events in Ukraine, however, are now most notable for reminding us that opportunism is alive and well across state borders.

Russia’s lightning-fast occupation and annexation of Crimea is an object lesson in the enduring interests of major states in their peripheries. While the United States had been learning that lesson incrementally in East Asia, where China is slowly eroding international norms in freedom of the air and seas, Russia’s bold, duplicitous, and unapologetic annexation of Crimea came as a surprise. Could such land grabs be duplicated elsewhere in the world? Instability in northern Iraq and Syria could drive Turkish action to intervene. A collapsed North Korea could tempt China to absorb further territory as a buffer. And Kashmir and Nagorno-Karabakh exemplify the many other longstanding territorial disputes that we should be considering.

The United States will often have less direct interest in matters far from its shores than a neighboring state for which the issue is of immediate concern. We cannot and should not militarily intervene in many cases, for chasing the chimera of “credibility” can be dangerous. In addition to rapid and unintended escalation, it can quickly lead to the justification for action everywhere and overextension beyond our means.

Yet in great power moves, the costs of miscalculation are dangerously high. We are not always a predictable international actor, given how context dependent our public and leadership appetite is for action. Actors will cross our threshold for action unknowingly, or at least with a willingness to gamble that an unacceptable response is not forthcoming. Saddam Hussein did just this when he invaded neighboring Kuwait in 1990.

Russia’s action has brought it once again to the doorstep of our most important alliance, an echo of its 2008 conflict with Georgia. The long game for NATO is to set the conditions for leverage with a post-Putin Russia. The short game is to take visible steps now to protect NATO allies’ citizens and territories from the threat of Russian coercion, a goal achievable even with the sorry state of alliance defense investment and the rightful rebalance of U.S. forces to the Pacific. But the United States should also look beyond Ukraine now to identify selective and convincing displays of U.S. commitment and interest around the world that might deter adventurism and prevent costly conflicts.

Kathleen Hicks is senior vice president, Henry A. Kissinger Chair, and director of the International Security Program at CSIS. Other posts by .


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