One of the biggest flaws with the neoconservative view of the world is the idea that the United States almost always has within its power the ability to affect change. It isn't merely that the United States should try to promote democracy or maintain an empire; it's the idea that doing what it pleases, ably, is within the realm of possibility.
An ostensibly converse but ironically similar view comes from many on the left. Muslim extremism? The result of American foreign policy. Warmongering world leaders? Well, they feel hemmed in by the United States. This mindset, which is echoed by a number of realist scholars, has arisen most recently because of President Vladimir Putin's aggression in Crimea. Several realists want us to understand the actions of Putin through the prism of the United States. For these thinkers, as with their neocon opponents, everything is always, in the end, about us.
A good example is Jack F. Matlock Jr.'s piece in The Washington Post. According to Matlock, a former ambassador to the Soviet Union, Putin's actions can be explained by the way a bullying United States has treated Russia. Specifically, Matlock writes, America made Russia feel like the "loser" of the Cold War after that war ended. Here is Matlock:
President Bill Clinton supported NATO’s bombing of Serbia without U.N. Security Council approval and the expansion of NATO to include former Warsaw Pact countries. Those moves seemed to violate the understanding that the United States would not take advantage of the Soviet retreat from Eastern Europe.
Matlock appears to be arguing that Russian anger over U.S. action in Kosovo was the result of America acting in Russia's sphere of influence. But would Russia have felt the same if we had supported Serbia, Russia's ally? Almost certainly not; Russia was upset that we took the opposite side in that conflict. Moreover, it's slightly bizarre to say that we should have left Kosovo to Slobodan Milosevic just to maintain our high standing in Russian public opinion polls.
Matlock mentions the United Nations in the above quote, and he brings it up again when he notes that America's catastrophic war with Iraq did not have U.N. approval. As touching as it is to view Putin as a great proponent of internationalism who was outraged by American breaches of the law, I think it's probably fruitful to look elsewhere for clues to his behavior. Matlock himself quickly turns to NATO expansion, which certainly does seem to have had some impact on Russian attitudes towards the United States. As Matlock writes:
When terrorists attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, [Putin] was the first foreign leader to call and offer support...What did he get in return? Some meaningless praise from President George W. Bush, who then delivered the diplomatic equivalent of swift kicks to the groin: further expansion of NATO in the Baltics and the Balkans, and plans for American bases there; withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty; invasion of Iraq without U.N. Security Council approval; overt participation in the “color revolutions” in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan; and then, probing some of the firmest red lines any Russian leader would draw, talk of taking Georgia and Ukraine into NATO.
Whatever one wants to say about the intelligence or wisdom of American foreign policy—and the policies above were probably at best a mixed bag—it is bizarre to say that Putin was so angry we might try to offer Ukraine NATO protection from Russia that he...invaded Ukraine. Isn't there something rather ironic about Putin being so angry by our concern over something that he goes and does the thing we are concerned about? It's all part of the same mindset that sees the behavior of other countries as literally reactionary: We act, they react. (It is also worth noting that in 2008 NATO denied Membership Action Plan (MAP) status to both Ukraine and Georgia. Somehow this didn't mollify Putin.)
Moreover, reading Matlock's account you would think that Russian policy at home and abroad—Putin has cracked down heavily on dissent at home—was determined entirely by the United States. It is awfully solipsistic to look at the world this way.
Matlock has more trouble with the Obama administration. He writes:
President Obama famously attempted a “reset” of relations with Russia, with some success: The New START treaty was an important achievement, and there was increased quiet cooperation on a number of regional issues. But then Congress’s penchant for minding other people’s business when it cannot cope with its own began to take its toll. The Magnitsky Act, which singled out Russia for human rights violations as if there were none of comparable gravity elsewhere, infuriated Russia’s rulers and confirmed with the broader public the image of the United States as an implacable enemy.
No doubt the Magnitsky Act did infuriate the Kremlin, but Putin's aggressiveness abroad and undemocratic tendencies at home were visible well before it passed, which severely weakens Matlock's argument. (Direct retaliatory steps against the United States, like banning American adoptions, were certainly connected to the Act, but that doesn't mean Putin's entire worldview is shaped by American actions.)
These same tendencies appear in n+1's editorial on the Ukraine crisis. "What role has the American intellectual community played in this saga, if any?" the editorial asks. "Certainly we failed to prevent it." I didn't realize that the American intellectual community had the power to stop foreign dictators from invading other countries. They continue:
We have indulged ourselves in a bacchanalia of anti-Putinism, shading over into anti-Russianism. We turned Pussy Riot into mass media stars. We wrote endless articles (and books) about how Putin was a mystery man, a terrible man, a KGB ghoul who lived under your bed....It’s hard to know how much of what gets written in various places leads to American policies in actual fact. Does it matter what’s in the Nation? What about the New York Review of Books? The New Yorker? It’s impossible to say. And the media or publishing game has its own rules, irrespective of politics. Evil Putin is just going to get more airtime than Complicated Putin or Putin Who is Running a Country in a Complex Geopolitical Situation.
Whatever one thinks of this analysis, the most striking thing about it is the power it imparts to Americans. Putin is the leader of a foreign country. The idea that what's written in American magazines leads to American policymakers making policy that in turn enrages Putin that in turn aids and abets his thirst for aggression is, again, almost laughably solipsistic.
American policy toward Russia going all the way back to the First World War has often been shortsighted or worse. But when thinking about how to respond—or not respond—to Russia's actions today, it's probably best to stop viewing those actions as the direct result of American foreign policy.