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NATO Is Still the Answer

Obama’s floundering Ukraine policy.

May 5, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 32 • By JOHN R. BOLTON
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As for the three Baltic republics, admitted to NATO in 2004, the United States never recognized the legitimacy of the USSR’s snuffing out their national independence to begin with. But having expanded into former Soviet territory, NATO paused, failing to pursue its own logic decisively. Leaving Ukraine and Georgia in a no-man’s land between NATO and Russia was an invitation to meddling by Moscow, and ultimately to chaos and conflict. That is what we have now, and what Bush tried to forestall in 2008. Obama did not pursue Bush’s proposal, in part because of his general lack of interest in U.S. national security issues; in part because he was pressing the “reset” button; and in part because he does not accept the basic premise that unity against aggression is the best way to ensure international peace and security.

In fact, in his September 2009 U.N. General Assembly speech, Obama said, “It is my deeply held belief that in the year 2009, more than at any point in human history, the interests of nations and peoples are shared. .  .  . No world order that elevates one nation or group or people over another will succeed. No balance of power among nations will hold.” He clearly believed instead that the reset button would produce a more congenial Russia, and that there was no need for “Cold War” foreign policies. What is happening today in Ukraine proves how wrong he was. 

NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia undoubtedly carries risks, but no alternative policy can provide anything like the necessary security to stop further Russian interference. The Europeans missed an excellent chance to reduce the risks in 2008, and now, of course, they are even more dependent on Russian hydrocarbons than they were then. Ironically, perhaps Russia’s increased economic power will finally put paid to the argument that greater commercial ties inevitably reduce the chances for war. In fact, expanded trade between Russia and the EU has enhanced Russia’s leverage, not Europe’s. This anomaly need not have materialized, and extraordinary opportunities certainly now exist to reverse or at least neutralize Russia’s oil and gas assets by once again making America a net energy exporter. Even announcing such a policy would be an economic disincentive to Russia, but Obama has done effectively the opposite throughout his presidency.

Had the Europeans backed Bush in 2008, we might well have deterred Russian military and political aggression in both Georgia and Ukraine. In truth, Europe’s timidity is a real obstacle to a more assertive response to Russian aggression. But Obama’s own weakness has created a vicious circle. European fears provide Obama with an excuse not to act, and the failure of U.S. leadership leaves Europe even more reluctant to respond effectively. It may be that Europe is not up to the task, but we will never find out if America does not first at least try to exercise leadership, which Obama has consistently failed to do.

The stakes are high for Ukraine and Georgia, but they are equally high for all the other former Soviet republics, which understand that if Russia continues to get its way, they will not be far behind. Further afield, no one is watching more carefully than China. Western failure in Ukraine will be palpable evidence to Beijing that ramping up its near-belligerent territorial claims in the East and South China Seas is likely to be met with little more than rhetorical American opposition. While other Asian countries affected by China’s demands may not fold as easily as Europe, without Washington in the equation, there is little doubt what the end result will be.

U.S. political operatives tell us endlessly that our fellow citizens do not care about national security issues. Ukraine, however, has been one of many wake-up calls under Obama signaling Americans that protecting our country is critically important in its own right, whatever the politics. And skilled politicians, whether Hillary Clinton for the Democrats or Candidate X for the Republicans, will soon realize that what is good for the country is also good for their electoral prospects.

John R. Bolton, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in 2005-06.

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