Treaties and thugocracies... There's an alarming pattern visible out there in the big, bad world right now. Several thugocracies (Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran) are taking actions that seem clearly designed to test the U.S. (and possibly EU and NATO as well) will to enforce treaties that obligate us to defend our allies. The Russians are getting more and more aggressive with their submarine and long-range bomber probes, and of course there's the whole Ukraine kerfuffle. Iran has seized a U.S.-flagged ship and its crew. China is building military bases on islands it doesn't own in the China Sea. North Korea is counterfeiting U.S. currency on an industrial scale, selling or enabling illegal drug sales to the U.S., and constantly making threatening gestures with their military. These things aren't happening by accident. They are the entirely rational actions of the powerful thugs at the helms of these countries, and they are testing the U.S. to see what they can get away with and still suffer no retaliation.
Under Obama, the answer is that they can get away with a lot. In fact, there is no limit in sight. The mad mullahs in Iran must be cackling with glee as they discover the lengths Obama is willing to go to in order to get a “nuclear deal” signed – and how skillfully he avoids the U.S. treaty obligations to defend Marshall Islands-flagged ships. Likewise Putin must believe at this point that he could do nearly anything he wants – he's already stolen half of Ukraine without major consequence. After seeing the Iran sanctions crumble, Putin surely doesn't believe the sanctions against Russia are durable. China is certainly carefully watching the U.S. non-response to its territorial ambitions. Vietnam, Japan, and Taiwan are vastly more effective adversaries at the moment, despite their lack of military might. They have the will to resist, which apparently the U.S. (under Obama) does not.
To any student of history, this pattern is very familiar. It happened in the early part of the 20th century, with the rise of Nazi Germany. The thug kept testing his adversaries, time and again, without suffering any consequences until he pushed one bit too much. Then we had a war that killed millions of people.
Will that pattern play out? That depends greatly, I think, on who the next President of the U.S. is. If it's someone with a robust sense of responsibility for treaty obligations and a grounded understanding of history, we still have time to stop these thugs before things get out of hand. If, on the other hand, it's another vacillating weasel, we got trouble. There are a lot of vacillating weasels running for President, dammit...