Robert Kagan told a Washington Post reporter that the liberal world order was in trouble "because the jungle is starting to grow back". He described, with a sense of poignant loss, the magnificent edifice that the Deplorables had by inattention let the seeds of nationalism overgrow. But perhaps it not the noise of the jungle that is responsible for the present cacophony. At least some of the frenzy rocking the West stems from the efforts of an ideology trying to hold on to its old dominance.
Wounded tigers can be dangerous. Russia, as former president Obama famously pointed out, was objectively quite weak. But he was wrong to dismiss it as a source of mischief, failing to realize as George Friedman pointed out that "weak powers ... need to exaggerate their power". They, as with wounded tigers can sometimes become more volatile in decline.
Like a wealthy person coming into hard times, Russia is haunted by the memory of its former greatness. The great armies, the "we will bury you" economy, even the Russian masses in which it once took pride are no more. In its reduced state it "must ... try to appear more powerful than it is," Friedman wrote. The need to keep up with growing powers drove the former superpower to run risks. Friedman thinks its intervention in both the Ukraine and Syria were at least partly "to show that they could."
Unfortunately even the facade of hard power is ruinously expensive. With only 9% that of the EU's or 12% of China's economy available Russia will find even feints hard to maintain. Ultimately declining powers have to rely upon illusion to stay in the game. The Kremlin is no exception, falling back on the
old Soviet strategy: using its intelligence forces in a destabilization campaign. The goal of the Russian campaign was not so much to interfere in political campaigns as to be seen as interfering. The Soviets also played this game in the 1980s, supporting various radical groups in Europe. Of course, the Soviet Union collapsed anyway. Actions taken by weak nations designed to make them appear stronger than they are always fail in the long run ... but illusions are fleeting.
The Russians are delighted that they have convinced some that they control Donald Trump. Not only does this breed instability in the United States, but it gives a sense of overwhelming, if covert, Russian power. If they actually did try to control Trump, then their reputation for incompetence in such matters proceeds them, since being able to blackmail Trump had value only if it were kept secret. And the coup of the century (or several centuries) would be the biggest secret of all time. But the point was not to control Trump, but to destabilize the United States. And while it has certainly created an uproar, the fact remains that American power is intact, and so is Russian power. The balance of power has not changed.