Ian Bremmer makes the obvious point that official U.S. rhetoric on Ukraine greatly exceeds what the U.S. will be willing or able to do:
But Washington’s rhetoric is dangerously excessive, for three main reasons: Ukraine is far more important to Vladimir V. Putin than it is to America; it will be hard for the United States and Europe to make good on their threats of crippling sanctions; and other countries could ultimately defang them.
Bremmer is right to emphasize the gap between action and rhetoric, but the real danger in this situation comes from the temptation to try to match U.S. policies to the statements that our officials have already made. As in the Syrian case, the truly horrible mistake that the U.S. could make is to try to back up excessive rhetorical commitments that it should never have made in the first place. It would always be better not to make threats that the U.S. cannot or won’t back up, but it would be even greater folly to feel compelled to try to back up threats that cannot be successfully enforced.
However, he is wrong when he says that the “fundamental problem is that the Obama administration doesn’t want to bear the costs associated with an active foreign policy.” The unwillingness to bear unnecessary costs isn’t really the problem. However, the mismatch between means and ends frequently trips up the administration. Obama is still a committed liberal internationalist with all of the baggage that this implies. There is understandably not much political will to provide the necessary means to carry out a very activist foreign policy, but when confronted with foreign crises and conflicts the administration’s activist instincts kick in and take over. That leads to repeated episodes of making promises and threats that the U.S. isn’t going to keep, because the administration remains wedded to all of the usual nostrums about American “leadership.” For that reason, the U.S. keeps trying to play a role that the public doesn’t support and doesn’t want to pay for.
“Isolating Russia” as if it were Iran or North Korea isn’t a threat America can feasibly make good on. Just because Mr. Putin is acting like the leader of a rogue state, his country cannot be considered as such. Russia boasts the world’s eighth-largest economy. Given the exposure of American corporations to Russia, there would be serious pushback from the private sector if Mr. Obama tried to relegate Russia to rogue-state status. The Obama administration needs to preach what it will ultimately practice [bold mine-DL].
In other words: stop making empty threats, stop pretending that the U.S. is going to be able to coerce Russia into behaving the way that Washington wants, and give up on the illusion that the rest of the world can be rallied to “isolate” one of the more powerful countries on the planet.