Ukraine: Obama must escape the ‘Cold War syndrome’

February 21, 2014

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.


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Pretty well written article. It is true and unfortunate though that we do have a sitting President who has a rather large ego and believes he is the world’s spokesperson for “hope and change”. Sadly, his inner lust for anarchy has proven to be a catalyst for much global unrest. Good Power to me, is when your actions and words create an aura of light that shines. Bad power, creates a dark and threatening tone that even non enemies feel. As a fully developed nation, our powers should be used to teach, not preach. The mere fact that I detect a lot of jealousy and contempt for Putin due to his global involvement with many smaller nations that he’s helped, leads me to believe that some within our government have directed their energies towards ill will because they are so power hungry they’ve become obssessed with control and force. There are many smaller nations that once looked at America as the good big brother they could admire and learn from, now adays many are suspicious and doubtful of our intents.

Posted by QuidProQuo | Report as abusive

The key phrase is Yuko is “duly elected”. People disagree all the time but the President sets the course or elect somebody else. So now you want us to oust the duly elected president because we don’t like his decision? How imperialistic of you.

Posted by gg509019 | Report as abusive

I rarely have an opportunity to give the accolade, but this is an outstanding and insightful article in my view. I have personal experience in the region, and concur on many of the points in the article. Russia is not the former Soviet Union with a global communist agenda, but most Americans, and even many of its political leaders don’t seem to realize that, and it could prove dangerous. However, it seems many Americans and American political leaders are itching to start a new fight with the Russian people over cultural differences, and are pushing the cultural war confrontation far beyond what I’m comfortable with. Americans have no right to aggressively force their culture on the rest of the world, and if they do, they deserve whatever consequences befall them. What happened to the reset Hillary?

Posted by sarkozyrocks | Report as abusive

Our President Obama doesn’t have a large ego, despite all of the haters who love to find a scapegoat to tar and feather. The cold war mentally is ingrained in the fabric of the American government and we the American people have accepted it without question. If Obama had not said anything regarding the riots in Ukraine, does one really think that the pundits or a lot of the public would have let that go? We don’t know what goes on behind close doors and not in the public arena so I really doubt that Obama is a cold war hawk. I was surprised by comments made by some Democratic senators about the Olympics and the cold war rhetoric coming from their mouths. Your asking one man to change an attitude that still believes we need to keep citizens from visiting Cuba, so no I don’t think he is going to change any minds.
As far as Putin is concern, He is very aware of what the West thinks of him and Communism so he is playing that card very well. He use a lot of disinformation, a combination of truths and implanted falsehoods to appear unbiased and reflective in his view of the world. Of course, all governments and their leaders do that. But, Putin is the leader of a Communist country and their philosophy about Communism being better then democracy is just as ingrained as our philosophy about democracy being better than Communism. Regardless of the battle between the two powers, the people of Ukraine must figure out how to united the visions of the Eastern Ukraine with Western Ukraine without resorting to bloodshed and civil war. That should be the worlds hope for all countries that are trying to achieve some sort of peace.

Posted by Seacret | Report as abusive

Honestly I don’t see how we’re supposed to sit back and “let he Ukrainians sort it out”. That would work if Ukraine were a democracy, but an authoritarian system of government is one that by definition denies people their political rights and disallows them that choice in how their society is run. So the only way for Ukrainians to have the opportunity to decide what direction their country will go is if that authoritarian system is dismantled…and that is exactly what Putin and Yanukovich refuse to countenance. I hate to say it, but I think this confrontation with Russia is inevitable because the alternative is to abandon the Ukrainian pro-democracy camp and allow them to be crushed.

Posted by delta5297 | Report as abusive

The cossacks in the Ukrainian national anthem have nothing to do with the cossacks you are referring to in your piece. The Ukrainian cossacks fought the russian empire.
As a so called “history adviser” you need to recheck your facts.
Shame on you.

Posted by yurko | Report as abusive

Nice trying to put the EU and Russia on the same scale of values… But here is why the Ukrainian people want to stay away from Putin’s totalitarian regime, and they’re begging for OUR HELP: rI

Posted by UauS | Report as abusive

So who would be better at playing the role of ‘policemen’ then… A country that turned around and supported it’s past enemies in WWII, and helped them rebuild their cities… or a country who’s army raped 2 million women in those same cities, and tried to annex half of the region it fought in?

It’s not a ‘syndrome’… It’s reality. They didn’t stop having “territorial interest” out of the goodness of their hearts… They stopped it, because it wasn’t working, and they went broke… Mainly because of the US. Big difference. All you have to do is look at how the US conducted themselves during and after WWII, and compare that to how Russia conducted themselves… and you will see a giant difference. An entire society doesn’t change their way of thinking that quickly. Try joining any sort of community online as a person from the US, where there’s Russians… the hostility on their side is still there, in vast amounts. There’s still plenty of people in Russia that long for the good days of fighting for glory.

People think that, because they go to some nice hotel in somebody’s country for a couple weeks and get treated well, that means that everything is rainbows and puffy clouds. Life is never that simple. Afghanistan was once a vacation spot for the wealthy.

Posted by dd606 | Report as abusive

That’s what Mr. Putin dreams about: to keep US out of European affairs, to create a rift between Western partners. The economic mean of such policy is natural gas – affordable for some European countries and way too expensive for others.
As Ukrainian-American, I was shocked that the author compared Russian Cossacks and Ukrainian ones – it is like to compare Apache and Mohican tribes just because they are called Indians. Ukrainian Cossacks eventually were turned into serfs, and the nobility was assimilated and/or destroyed.
That “duly elected president” served 3 times in jail for violent crimes, and he indeed had been running that country like a mobster; needless to say that the elections were far from fair.
Ukrainian people rose, and the USA was and is a champion in helping Ukraine to gain true freedom and dignity.

Posted by x773 | Report as abusive


90% of hostility to US is due to american hypocrisy and arrogancy – look up wars US/NATO was/is directly involved or that majority of russians believe CNN/Fox/etc as much as ’50s americans believed “Pravda”.

As for “rape of Berlin”… in ’40s when PC was not “your all” there were number of _american_ articles and memoirs ’bout rapes and hunger-forced prostitution in american occupation zone, but of course latter became part of “free enterprise” and “civil exchange” while first was swept under the rug due to black troops(at least in articles) taking noticeable role in that .

Posted by chyron | Report as abusive

Some of your background historical comments need clarification.

The correct term is Kievan RUS ( Not RUSSIA ).
Muscovy, to the north, developed separately, to become precursor to the russian state.

The Cossacks of the Ukrainian national anthem refer to the Cossack “Hetmanate”, not the ones you mention. The “Hetmanate” arose because of abuse of serfs by Polish magnates to the easr, expanding russian empire to the north, and turkish excursions to the south. It was meant to protect common people. Catherine the Great terminated the “Hetmanate”

As a “historical adviser”, please recheck your facts.

Posted by yurko | Report as abusive

In this era of social media,people globally have been able to see through its hypocrisy.The Western control of and manipulation of ‘independent’ media during and after the Cold War made all the difference in people’s perception of Good Vs Evil.Now we can see that Russia is not anymore that ‘evil empire’.The US for the first time since the collapse of Soviet Union is not sure of its future.The global emergence of China and Russian sure-footedness has become strategically destabilizing for it hence this Cold War stands from Asia pivot to Europe meddling.

Posted by biggiebig | Report as abusive

The problem with this article is its basic premise – Obama *isn’t* following the old Cold War mentality. Follow the link at the beginning and you’ll see a pretty boilerplate statement condemning the violence and urging people to calm down. Kerry only hinted as possible sanctions limited to the actual people involved in ordering the sniper shootings of protesters.

Neither were expressing overt support for the protesters or calling for the removal of Yanukovich. The only one to do that is veteran cold warrior and inexplicable Sunday talk show favorite John McCain.

Posted by RobertHoward | Report as abusive

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.”

That’s a tad naive – the US had no reason to enter WW2 – it was hardly likely to be invaded. Solution – engineer an excuse – aka Pearl Harbour. That was a setup pure and simple.

They then proceeded to bankrupt Britain through the lend lease scam thus ensuring the £ was no longer the world’s reserve currency.

The author of the main article clearly hasn’t grasped that the US only “helps”, or more accurately interferes, simply out of self interest.

The US is now broke, its industry collapsed, the gold reserves it purports to have, or rather had, in all probability no longer exist except in severely depleted form.

All they are is huff ‘n’ puff – and it’s about time the rest of the world recognised that fact.

Posted by umkomazi | Report as abusive

“Escape the Cold-War Syndrome”?

He is in it to his ears!

The fundamental obstacle before the President faces is essentially financial. The desire to control the world is burning in the chests of his advisers, the State Department and the Pentagon.

Toppling regimes by proxies, as one saw in Libya and seem to see its failure in Syria, seems the more economic way for the firebrands who effectively control the foreign policy of the US.

So, the Ukraine would descend into the chaos that is Libya, with even Ukrainian Nazis playing a part, while Ukraine’s East, its economic heartland and the home of mostly ethnic Russians, breaking up into independent state or states.

And… Venezuela seems to be next!

History is unlikely to be kind to the US but breaking up countries and walking away may make it livid!

Posted by RobertFrost | Report as abusive

You mischaracterise realists. They do not believe that “only America stands between the world and Armageddon”. That is a uniquely Neocon view, which, in turn, is based on Liberalism. They believe in international anarchy, balance of power and power being a zero-sum game. The only aspect of realism that may be applicable here is that we see a loss of Russian influence over Ukraine is a gain for us.

Posted by asrinath3 | Report as abusive

A naive article. The best line I read somewhere was that the U.S. still needs to “herd the European cats” despite the vaunted virtues of the EU, etc.

Posted by bluepanther | Report as abusive

A naive article. The best line I read somewhere was that the U.S. still needs to “herd the European cats” despite the vaunted virtues of the EU, etc.

Posted by bluepanther | Report as abusive

Oh what a difference a couple weeks make. So much for Russia not having a ‘territorial interest’. lol

Posted by dd606 | Report as abusive