The German news magazine Der Spiegel thinks it's laughable, the idea that young Germans would fight for Latvia. Hungarian leader Viktor Orban cites Russia and China as models of successful countries. The President of the United States denies there's any larger problem between Moscow and Washington. Current tension is merely about Ukraine having the right to choose its future.
These are the sounds of a dying West.
Last year a spate of books, articles and conferences examined the causes of World War I on the 100th anniversary of the eve of the Great War (which started a hundred years ago this month). Some drew ominous analogies to today: interdependence coupled with fragmentation, globalisation driving the world closer together as new nationalisms pull things apart. All fair observations. But there's an even more serious and vastly under appreciated reason as to why the world today is likely to become a far more dangerous place. America is trying to retire from the world's stage.
Americans want to step back.
While crises have erupted in Gaza, Iraq, Syria and Ukraine this summer, Americans have been looking inward. In mid-term Congressional election campaigns, the New York Times reported recently that "foreign policy and national security topics did not even make a list of the top 20 subjects covered by 2014 political television commercials through July 29." Last year the Pew Research Center, together with the Council on Foreign Relations, found that a majority -- Republicans, Democrats and independents alike -- agrees that the U.S. should "mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own."
You think this good news?
The problem is, nature abhors vacuums and open space around the globe is being filled rapidly. In Asia, an authoritarian China is on the rise, spending heavily on defense and already flexing its muscles in the region. In the Middle East, theocratic Iran -- a nation endowed with oil and natural gas -- wants nuclear weapons and the lead role in regional politics and security. In Eastern Europe, Vladimir Putin's gangster state is taking turf.
Note to President Obama: It's not just Ukraine. Putin's Russia invaded Georgia and continues to intimidate today Moldova, Macedonia, Romania, Estonia and other countries of the region.
Note to Der Spiegel: Germany belongs to NATO, a collective defense organisation, and is bound by treaty membership to defend Latvia (and the other Baltic nations) if attacked -- just as the U.S., Britain and others were obliged to protect West Germany during the Cold War.
Note to the Hungarian Prime Minister: seriously?
And to the rest of us. What powers like China, Russia and Iran have in common is a strong allergy to liberalism, tolerance, respect for diversity and the sanctity of human life. These powers pursue interests. But they also project values. Iran still executes people for being gay and hands down death sentences for "insulting the Prophet." Vladimir Putin sees independent journalists as parasites and traitors to the state. China exports capsules containing powdered human flesh from dead babies, thought to have medicinal value in some places in South East Asia.
Welcome to the new world order.
We'll soon live on a planet where authoritarians of various stripes set the agenda. That is, if we continue to react passively, retreat mindlessly, and hope that Kantian idealism will sort everything. It's breathtakingly naive to think that peace comes though dialogue alone, when so much of the world remains brutishly Hobbesian.
So now America wants to mind its own business. This may make some in Europe feel good for now. The question is whether any of this makes the democratic world safer over time.