Ukraine: Obama must escape the ‘Cold War syndrome’
When it comes to the mounting crisis in Ukraine, President Barack Obama is stuck playing an old role. Since World War Two, U.S. presidents have steadfastly held to the same course when it comes to Russia.
Obama is but the latest interpreter of the Truman Doctrine, which pledged the United States “to support free people who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressure.”
When President Harry S. Truman threw down that challenge to Congress in 1947, he didn’t use the phrase “Cold War.” He didn’t name the Soviet Union. But everyone knew what he was talking about.
Today, the communist “bloc” has vanished. The nuclear-powered rival that was determined to “bury” the West is no more. Russia competes cannily and strenuously with other nations, but has no economic, political or territorial interest in upending the world system. The United States needn’t — and shouldn’t — turn local struggles into a test of its own credibility and strength.
Yet that old dynamic continues — as this Ukraine crisis demonstrates. It’s being painted as a battle between the West and Russia. Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich, duly elected in 2010, is using the nation’s police forces to suppress dissidents seeking a fuller democracy and stronger ties to the European Union. Both the EU and Russia are anxious for a closer relationship with Ukraine. Many look to see what United States will do.
Obama has the opportunity to recast the role of the United States for the next seven decades. Instead of drawing tired red lines, he might consider scripting fresh visionary ones. There is never a perfect moment to begin anew, but Ukraine’s troubles would be a place to start.
Ukraine represents the kind of issue likely to bedevil world affairs for the foreseeable future. Neither it nor its neighbors wish to conquer the world. That’s not a goal anymore. There are better opportunities.
In the words of a German historian speaking last year at Stanford University, “We’ve found it’s more profitable to polish our BMWs than our jackboots.”
But to participate in the world markets that have lifted millions from poverty, nations must perform on a demanding international stage. They have to meet global standards of accountability, peacefulness and transparency. It they’re a mess, onlookers avert their eyes — and close their wallets.
Ukraine is an old nation, but an infant state. It attained sovereignty fewer than two decades ago. Its people have little experience of self-government, and they are internally divided. Some want closer ties to their Slavic kin. Some want closer ties to the glamorous West.
Welcome to Eastern Europe. This cultural tug-and-pull is as old as dirt. The Ukrainian national anthem ends on the words, “we, brothers, are of the Cossack nation.” Historically, the Cossacks ranged from Kiev to Kamchatka. Their horsemen were the tsar’s special forces from the 16th century to the 20th. Kiev was the first capital of Russia, centuries before Moscow.
Ukrainians alone can determine where they stand between east and west. Their neighbors on either side will remain keenly interested. We should expect that.
What might the United States do to ease the path of nations whose struggle for identity, coherence and reform has turned violent — and happen to be neighbors of Russia? Should Washington issue threats to make them “behave,” lest it look “weak?”
The first thing Americans can do is to stop making these questions all about them. The United States is hardly weak. It possesses the world’s mightiest military and the largest economy. It has nothing to prove. The United States can weaken itself, however, if it continues overspending on world defense and under-investing in its own future.
The problem with “realists” who insist that only America stands between the world and Armageddon is that they’re unrealistic. The role of permanent policeman, or even umpire, is not sustainable or smart in the long run.
It is time to let the systems created through so much work over the past seven decades do their job. The United States dragged its European competitors out of poverty and chaos after World War Two because, as President Dwight D. Eisenhower observed, “Weakness could not cooperate, weakness could only beg.”
Europe rebuilt its house. The economic and political accomplishments of the EU are impressive. Now is the time to step back — far back — and let Europeans test their ability to defend their own turf and discipline their own citizens.
As they will discover, this isn’t easy to do in ways consistent with post-Cold War values. They might not always get it “right.” But they will never learn how if the United States conveniently keeps doing it for them.
What the United States can do is applaud. Washington can also sign on to sanctions levied by its best allies to contain a domestic conflagration, lest the fire breach international borders.
The United States has exercised tremendous military leadership since 1947, but strong-arming has a limit. Its best and most enduring leadership has always been about getting its own affairs right. America makes democracy and free trade attractive by providing well for its own people. It furthers peaceful negotiation best by stigmatizing bad behavior.
Elihu Root, secretary of war under two presidents and secretary of state for Theodore Roosevelt, was a consummate realist. But, as he said in 1921: “Cynics are always nearsighted, . . . the decisive facts lie beyond their range of vision.” If public opinion were properly harnessed, Root believed, it could do more than any battleship or bomber to curtail violence against innocent civilians. The judgment of the people, in support of the “fundamental rules of humanity,” is “the greatest power known to human history.”
The most stable system is one all nations want, and most are prepared to defend. Placing the responsibility squarely on Europe and Russia to guide Ukraine toward peace is not a matter of cowardice. It’s a measure of courage.
PHOTO (TOP): British Prime Minister Clement Attlee, President Harry S. Truman and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin at the Berlin Conference, August 1, 1945. Courtesy of LIBRARY OF CONGRESS.
PHOTO (INSERT 1): President Harry S. Truman. Courtesy of LIBRARY OF CONGRESS.
PHOTO (INSERT 3): Anti-government protesters pass along bricks to help comrades to set up a barricade in central Kiev, February 20, 2014. REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili
PHOTO (INSERT 4): Elihu Root, December 15. 1922. Courtesy of LIBRARY OF CONGRESS.