‘Easily the most impressive backdrop I’ve had for a press conference,” President Obama said last week of Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch.” The oversized masterpiece hangs in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, where leaders of seven industrialized nations had, at Obama’s behest, just expelled Russia from their organization. The artwork, a group portrait of combat-ready musketeers, dates to 1642, the “golden age” of Dutch painting. But the date is most pointed for being in the thick of the Thirty Years War, a continent-wide catastrophe that killed millions and ushered in the era of total war — that is, of uncontained conflicts in which no one and nothing is spared. It’s an era Obama and his G-7 allies refuse to reopen.
In the United States, a Mitt Romney-led chorus is faulting Obama for weakness on Ukraine, but in fact the president has matched Vladimir Putin’s aggression with countermoves that promise to be as effective as they are realistic. Obama has had two cards to play. One is NATO; indeed, he asserted last week the traditional readiness to come to the defense of any member state that is attacked. “That’s what NATO is all about,” he said. Yet an eastward redeployment of a few US warplanes had the distinct feel of tokenism, and there was, as Obama’s critics sensed, something rote in Obama’s reiteration of the treaty obligation. It was as if, without quite saying so, the president and other G-7 leaders regarded the Cold War defense alliance as profoundly irrelevant in the face of an instance of the very Russian aggression that called NATO into being.
The other card is sanctions, excommunication from the most important international body of which Russia was a part, and the further threat of pariah status for Moscow. Obama, rallying Europe, played that card with unmistakable ferocity. This is something new: Since the end of the Cold War, an unprecedented global network has come into being, and no nation can thrive outside it. Market interdependence, cross-border mobility, knowledge-based economies, the freedom of thought that goes with open access to the Web — all of this defines a new transnational structure that, properly deployed, can wield more power than armies, tanks, and warplanes.
Simply by showing his readiness to execute the threat of economic, cultural, and transactional isolation to the full, Obama has made hostages of Russia’s banking, energy, and engineering sectors — and of all that the oligarchs value most. The G-7, embedded in the European Union, is not immune to the loss of Russian oil, gas, and minerals — resources neither China nor India will forgo. But the North Atlantic collective showed last week that, even at a cost to itself, it stands ready to decimate Russia’s markets.
Will Putin sacrifice his country’s future? Will his country allow it? If, by continued flouting of international norms, he wants to place Russia outside the 21st century global economic, political, and cultural complex, the nations that form the heart of that complex are prepared to let him do so.
Putin has claimed that NATO, with its strangulating expansion, has been his goad. Likewise, American critics of NATO expansion, myself included, have long warned that relying on this Cold War-era anti-Moscow combine for security is like having an insurance policy that starts fires. But maybe we were giving NATO too much credit. What has emerged during this crisis, and what Romney and his ilk entirely miss, is that the organization is itself being left behind by history. Indeed, the US military force in Europe has itself been quietly cut by 85 percent since 1989. The new realpolitik of post-Cold War interconnectedness makes any threat of military force hollow. This is partly because the prospect of a third world war remains a powerful deterrent, and partly because, unexpectedly, other and better ways of enforcing norms of international order have come into being, hand-in-hand with the new technologies, economies, and markets.
“The Night Watch,” Obama’s “impressive backdrop,” showed a moment in history when the worst began to happen. A long night followed. The musketeers in Rembrandt’s painting were pioneers of gunpowder warfare, which eventually dwarfed even the carnage of which they were part. At some point, human beings had to find a way to snuff the fuse that was set burning then. That is what Obama and the leaders he has rallied are doing.