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The Rest is Silence: American Diplomacy on the Brink

Author’s note/correction: While the Budapest Memorandums on Security Assurances (1994) include promises by Russia, the United States and the United Kingdom to refrain from the use or threat of force against Ukraine’s sovereignty, they do not explicitly compel the United States to protect Ukraine’s borders, as Budapest negotiator Steven Pifer explains. The piece below implies that the United States is obligated to act, although not necessarily not by force of arms, for which the author sincerely apologizes; while the argument of the piece remains unchanged, the absence of an explicit guarantee of sovereignty is an absolutely essential point to keep in mind. You can read the text of the memorandums here.

 

Pundits predicting America’s decline should rarely be believed, but today they seem more confident than ever. As I write, the lead headline on Politico is “Why Russia no longer fears the West.” CNN talks about Ukraine on the “brink of disaster;” a sub-headline points to Senator Lindsey Graham calling Obama “weak” and “indecisive.” News headlines are almost always overstatements, and yet there’s some truth to what we’re seeing.

Consider this fact for a second: With the Ukrainian government having been overthrown, President Obama declared on Feb. 28 that Russia should not intervene militarily in Ukraine. A day later, Russia sent troops into the Crimean Peninsula.

For the sake of brevity, I will pass over the fact that this intervention was wholly illegal — Ukraine had been left with nuclear weapons after the breakup of the Soviet Union, and in 1994 the Budapest Memorandum declared that in exchange for Ukraine’s weapons of mass destruction, Russia would guarantee Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty. The Memorandum aside, I think most readers will agree that Russia is violating a number of commonly held diplomatic and moral principles. Even supporters of Russia should probably agree on this, although I imagine many of them believe that the ends justify the means.

I cannot do fair justice to the cultural underpinnings of the Crimean crisis. The Crimea has traditionally been part of Russia and was only transferred to Ukraine in 1954. Although Crimea is somewhat autonomous within Ukraine, it is still part of Ukraine.

With this military incursion, the true colors of Russian interventionism have been revealed. To be honest, they had been revealed a long time ago. Russia intervened in the conflict, even though it has consistently protested and opposed American interventionism at nearly every opportunity. Now it has violated the territory of a sovereign nation. Especially in the wake of Syria and, previously, the invasion of Georgia, that was to be expected. (China is the other self-proclaimed defender of state sovereignty and nonintervention, but to China’s credit, it hasn’t attacked another country for a generation.)

President Obama was elected on a swell of anti-interventionist sentiment, stayed out of the Arab Spring for the most part and backed down from intervening in Syria because Americans did not have the stomach for it. Perhaps we still don’t: A friend of mine recently described our generation as the post-Iraq generation in the same way as the post-Vietnam generation, a people wary of war and more realistic about our ability to project power abroad. And how is that new? In his devastating excoriation of Obama’s foreign policy, Niall Ferguson reminds us that “In [Obama’s] ignominious call to inaction on Syria in September, he explicitly said it: ‘America is not the world’s policeman.’”

Put simply, we don’t seem to have the political will to enforce peace halfway around the world. I won’t make judgments on whether that is true or not, but it’s a statement that President Obama feels very constrained by. And his limitations are routinely outstripped by his rhetoric.

Cast issues of party loyalty aside for the moment: Interventionism isn’t necessarily liberal or conservative, idealistic or realistic. Madeleine Albright, Clinton’s Secretary of State, famously asked Colin Powell, “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” Meanwhile, interventionist GOP war hawks led the country into Iraq and Afghanistan. Conversely, there are left-wingers who try to avoid war whenever possible and right-wingers who just want America to be left alone.

What we do about Ukraine, then, doesn’t just involve a political debate about interventionism or policy. This is ultimately a question of American legitimacy.

I don’t believe that the current situation in Ukraine in and of itself is worth committing American troops to, and while I believed before the fact that Russia might send in its troops, I also can’t seriously imagine America — or any other member of the new Western bloc — doing the same. All things considered, President Obama cannot bear all the criticism if he is being hamstrung by his electorate; he has a duty to influence that electorate, but some battles you just can’t win. It was not President Roosevelt but Pearl Harbor that brought America into World War II.

We can’t win a war without the domestic will to do so. But if that’s the case, we cannot embrace both the rhetoric of interventionism and the diplomacy of passivity. The President of the United States cannot continue drawing red lines that he then refuses to enforce.

Former Obama State Department advisers such as Vali Nasr (currently head of Johns Hopkins’ school of international relations) have sharply criticized President Obama’s approach to foreign policy, pointing out that the President has subordinated our diplomacy to domestic policy considerations. President Obama drew a red line over chemical weapons in Syria and, faced with Congressional pressure, backed down. Now his express command in Ukraine has been blatantly ignored. We should not be surprised.

As a nation, our malleability is politically palatable, but it is also terrifying. What has rarely been addressed throughout this entire crisis is that we guaranteed Ukraine’s borders at Budapest as well. Even today, that agreement is barely on our radar. What happens, then, if Russia tries to test our will elsewhere? We gave our word to Ukraine and so far we have done nothing: What happens if Russia attacks NATO, which we are also bound by treaty to defend? Will Americans consider the Baltic States worth American lives?

The most powerful military alliance on earth — the agreement that defines the Western world — exists only because its signatories believe that with a stroke of the pen America agreed to defend them. With one treaty already broken and President Obama reeling diplomatically, the countries on NATO’s frontier have to start seriously thinking about whether America will defend them. Expanding Russian power in the Caucasus ironically rallied support for NATO defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic. (The United States eventually backed down on that as well.) Perhaps this conflict will do the same.

As a nation, we have a collective responsibility to uphold. Unpalatable as it sounds, President Obama has made it clear that he won’t defend that responsibility unless we will.

Criticizing British Prime Minister David Cameron, The Economist commented, “Yet there is another, more important reason why Mr. Cameron is not suffering the pain his bungling deserves. It is that prime ministerial authority has been diminished…Having downgraded their estimation of his office as a result, voters do not seem to judge Mr. Cameron too harshly when he loses. That is a sign of weakness, not strength.”

Here in the United States — the leader of the free world — there was a huge controversy when President Obama backed down over Syria. Now there is only silence.

 

Contact Winston Shi at wshi94@stanford.edu.

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