TOKYO -- The Russian move to annex Crimea threatens the post-Cold War world order. It shows how easily one nation's arrogance can redraw borders even in peacetime.
In one sense, the Cold War upheld the international order that emerged from World War II, with American and Soviet nuclear arsenals constituting a potent deterrent.
But in the quarter-century since the Berlin Wall fell, American influence on global events has diminished rapidly. The U.S., once the world's policeman, is now notably reluctant to look beyond its borders.
China, whose fast economic growth has sustained a steady military buildup, lacks the international leadership for such a role. As for Russia, its actions speak for themselves. We arguably live in what American political scientist Ian Bremmer has called a leaderless "G-Zero" world.
Russia's actions in Crimea have exploited this vacuum. Ukraine's neighbor, the European Union, let alone the U.S., has no desire to push back against Vladimir Putin with a military intervention like NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia. And in today's interconnected world, economic sanctions cut both ways, limiting their effectiveness.
The United Nations Security Council, charged with defending global peace, falls into dysfunction when it must confront one of its veto-wielding permanent members -- in this case, Russia. For its part, the U.S. ignored Russian opposition to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. More recently, the Obama administration tried at first to intervene in the Syrian crisis without a Security Council resolution. Russia has not forgotten this history.
Russia was driven to annexation by the conceit that it is a great power. There were practical concerns, too, notably maintaining a port for its Black Sea fleet. But Putin has long shown a tendency to stoke nationalist sentiment by meddling in former Soviet republics and butting heads with the U.S. All this plays to a certain public nostalgia for the Soviet Union's superpower status.
Russian public opinion overwhelmingly favors the annexation, and Putin's flagging approval rating has climbed above 70%. Perhaps there was never another option in the mind of the president, who plainly aspires to be the longest-serving Russian leader since the Soviet Union's Leonid Brezhnev.
Putin's brazenness threatens to exacerbate the risk of conflict in a world already brimming with dangers: Chinese maritime excursions, an unpredictable North Korea, the Iranian nuclear program, the civil war in Syria, and political unrest across the Middle East, to name a few.
Global investors are staying calm for now, hoping that the world's powers will stop short of inflicting economic damage on one another. But in a G-Zero world, geopolitical risks can trigger unforeseeable crises.