At Reason, Matt Welch argues that the U.S. sought to establish a global norm against aggressive military invasions in the Persian Gulf War, but that its own subsequent military interventions violated national sovereignty, eroding that norm, and creating the conditions for Russia’s annexation of Crimea. He cites U.S. no-fly zones in Iraq and interventions in Somalia, Haiti and Yugoslavia, followed by the Iraq War.
I think we should distinguish between the norm against aggressive invasion and the norm of national sovereignty. The no-fly-zones in Iraq interfered in Iraq’s internal affairs (slaughtering Kurds and so-forth), but were not an attempt to conquer or annex Iraq. Something similar could be said of most of our interventions. Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, on the other hand, wasn’t really a violation of sovereignty- Iraq didn’t want to interfere in Kuwait’s internal affairs, it wanted to gobble it up and take its oil. The invention of the norm of national sovereignty has coexisted with sovereign nations going to war with each other to increase their territory, power, wealth, feelings of security and whatnot.
The norm against invasions is one Wilson sought to establish through the League of Nations, and FDR sought to establish after WWII; we fought in Korea to defend it, and then, of course, in Kuwait, when it seemed that it was at last possible for the world to unite against aggressors. But the idea was always that this norm would have to be enforced, preferably by the whole rest of the world. In the case of Russia in Crimea, there was no way we or anyone else was going to do that. There’s no possible way we could unite Europe against Russia, and no way we could win in Crimea without risking nuclear war with Russia. Welch doesn’t want us to go to war to defend Crimea, but it is precisely our unwillingness or inability to do so that made the fledgling “international law” against invasion prove ineffective. (That’s the situation we sought to avoid with Iraq- we wanted to keep them weak, because they had shown aggressive tendencies, and when we thought they were threatening to become stronger, we took them down.)
What does Putin care about the example we set?
Past U.S. interventions are unlikely to have changed Putin’s incentives regarding Crimea, and Welch doesn’t really tell a story of how they could have done so. You could tell a story that he felt threatened by the U.S. invasion of Iraq, that we were a rogue nation and therefore the world generally was more dangerous and he had a greater need of security, but he didn’t really seem to care about the Iraq War at the time and was far more concerned about NATO’s expansion to his borders.