03/16/2014 09:41 pm ET Updated May 16, 2014


Imagine if there were a security alliance, encompassing most of Latin America, including Central America. Imagine if the dominant military power in that alliance were Russia, with army and air force bases dotting the region. Imagine that it had been developing a missile defense system to be deployed there and was pushing to extend that system close to the American border.

Imagine if that alliance had expanded in the past two decades. Imagine if its northernmost outpost in 1991 were Venezuela. Since then, imagine that the alliance -- we'll call it the Trans-American Treaty Organization (TATO) -- had expanded into Guatemala, Honduras and Panama, contradicting assurances it had made two decades ago that it would not do so. Imagine security arrangements that allowed Russian military basing in other countries in our hemisphere, including Canada.

Imagine if, over the past decade, an economic union encompassing many of the TATO member states had offered significant financial inducements to Mexico, a populous country with deep historic ties to the United States. Imagine if the purpose of such inducements was to draw Mexico closer to the Russian-Latin orbit and to weaken its economic relationship to the United States.

Imagine if, over the past 20 years, Russia and its allies had poured hundreds of millions of dollars into funding a wide range of political activities in the United States and played a role in regime change in several countries in the Americas. Now imagine that, over the past 10 years, there had been significant political volatility in Mexico. Imagine if that volatility had resulted in the overthrow of a democratically elected president closely allied with the United States -- in elections monitored by over a thousand Russian and other observers from TATO member states. Imagine if the new government were of uncertain legality, might be much less friendly to the United States and was widely acknowledged to include extremist elements.

Imagine that, in response to the developments in Mexico, the United States had declared that the political outcome in Mexico was of vital national interest, especially because a significant population of English-speakers of American descent lived in Northern Mexico, close to the Texas border. Imagine if, as a result, we insisted that we would protect those communities, if necessary with armed troops.

Now imagine if the Russian government, from its perch in Moscow over six thousand miles from that border, condemned the United States and said that any attempt by America to influence unduly events in Mexico, including by moving American soldiers over the Texas border into Northern Mexico, would be considered a clear act of aggression, in violation of international law and would merit global condemnation and sanctions.

How do you think we would react?

It is, of course, hard to imagine such a scenario, because it is so utterly preposterous.

What should be less difficult to imagine is that this is more or less how many Russians are apt to view our behavior. Americans' almost total lack of perspective on the nature of our global imperium has yielded a collective sense of entitlement that in virtually every conflict, everywhere in the world, we are uniquely positioned both to assert what the "good" is and to maintain that our national interests are (lo and behold) inseparable from that good. This stance is as absurd to much of the rest of humanity, as the TATO scenario likely is to the typical American reader.

None of this should be read as a defense of Putin. It isn't at all. There are strong grounds to condemn Putin's actions in Ukraine as duplicitous, self-serving and reckless. But the almost complete failure of American political discourse, particularly at the elite level, to engage in any critical self-reflection about our global conduct and about how others might see us is extremely damaging, in many instances, to the peoples we claim to be helping and to our long-term self-interest, properly understood. It doesn't follow that America should stand down everywhere. But reducing every overseas flashpoint to a simple-minded tale of righteous Americans lining up on the side of right against menacing foreigners is the stuff of (bad) comic books, not reality.

A bit of imagination should help us to see that.

Feel free to substitute China for Russia in the above exercise, if that works for you.

Check out my musings on ESPN and other sports media here.