Can the U.S. Still Confront Autocrats?

The U.S. is ‘kind of confused as a country’ about how to respond to threats from leaders like Putin and Assad. By David Rohde

A quarter-century after the fall of the Soviet Union, authoritarian rulers such as Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad are showing they can and will defy international norms, suppress dissent, and use military force. American policymakers are struggling with how to respond.

"It's a big philosophical question about how to deal with a strong state with anti-Western and autocratic proclivities," said Michael McFaul, the most recent American ambassador to Moscow. "I would say on that score we are kind of confused as a country."

Citing the sweeping unpopularity of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, American officials have embraced economic sanctions as their primary means of pressuring foreign governments. In an interconnected, 21st-century global economy, President Barack Obama argues, economic sanctions are more powerful than ever. If Russia continues on its current course, Obama warned last week, "the isolation will deepen, sanctions will increase, and there will be more consequences for the Russian economy."

He may be proven right. Over the course of 2014, the threat of economic sanctions may result in Putin backing down in Crimea and Ukraine. And historic sanctions against Iran—which slashed oil sales and cut the country off from the world banking system—could produce an accord that halts Iran's nuclear program. If not, a 16th-century Machiavellian truism will reassert its dominance: The party most willing to decisively use force will prevail over a noncommittal opponent.

"What we've seen with Assad and Putin is a willingness to smile at international norms and pursue power politics regardless of the cost," said Andrew Weiss, a Russia expert at the Carnegie Endowment and former official in the George H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations. "And if the West is not united and America's interests are not immediately threatened, the response immediately becomes attenuated."

How to respond has already become an issue in the 2016 presidential race. In the weeks since Putin sent Russian troops into Crimea, Republican senators Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and Paul Ryan all criticized Obama's response. But none of them called for an American intervention in Ukraine.

(Related; How the West Can Help Ukraine — and Stop Russia)

Fiona Hill, a Russia expert at the Brookings Institution and a former National Intelligence Council official, said those who believed the collapse of the Soviet Union signified the triumph of Western democratic capitalism were deluding themselves. A large number of Russians remained deeply skeptical of Western norms. "It was only a very small elite around Yeltsin who were buying this," she said. "Too many people (Westerners) saw what they wanted to see, rather than what was happening."

Then the global financial crisis strengthened a perception in parts of the world that Western democracy was failing—both politically and economically, Hill added.

Shadi Hamid, a Middle East expert at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center, said Obama's decision to not intervene in Syria after last September's chemical weapons attack created a perception of American weakness. Strongmen, such as Egypt's military ruler, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, had been emboldened. "They think they can get away with more than ever," Hamid said. "And this is tied to a growing sense of weakness under the Obama administration, whether it's fair or unfair."

Obama administration officials deny that. They argue that another costly intervention in the Middle East would further weaken the American economy. And they contend that economic and technological strength—not brute force alone—will be the dominant source of power for decades to come.

Steven Pifer, a former American ambassador to Ukraine and now a fellow at the Brookings Institution, argued that economic interconnectedness will have an impact on Putin. Pifer said the Russian leader knows he needs trade with the outside world. "While the West may rule out the military option," Pifer wrote in an email, "it has other tools, including political isolation and financial sanctions that could inflict serious pain on the Russian economy."

Weiss, the Carnegie expert, argued that Russia and Syria represent vastly different situations. Russia is far more economically connected to the world than Syria, he said. And Putin is not accused of killing thousands of his people and displacing millions in a bid to hold onto power, like Assad. But Weiss said he was unsure that economic sanctions alone would stop the Russian leader. "He's thinking about things in a very shrewd, pure-power way. "What leverage do we have against Putin?" he asked. "That's why people are somewhat stumped about what to do."

In the case of Iran, years of false claims from officials regarding its nuclear program finally prompted Europe to agree to sweeping economic sanctions that rebounded on Europe more than on the United States. Barring a Russian military incursion deeper into Ukraine, "the Europeans are not willing to go farther," he said. "They're happy to compartmentalize and go back to business as usual."

Hill compared the current world today with the 19th century, when trade was vast but nations still clashed. "The world was incredibly connected," she said. "And it didn't produce any greater political outcomes. You remember a lot of gunboat diplomacy." She said that economic interdependence flows both ways. "There is mutual dependency here," she added. "There is mutual leverage. We can use it and they can use it."

Experts said that for Putin, Crimea's port at Sevastopol was vital. In Egypt, Sisi believes he is fighting an existential threat with the Muslim Brotherhood. In Washington, American officials disagree over whether core American interests are at stake, and the autocrats know it. "There is a calculation there," Hamid said. "They know that they want it more than we do."