Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Is Obama or Putin the bigger threat to world peace?



The Ukraine crisis has demonstrated that one person alone can endanger world peace. But that one person might not be Russian President Vladimir Putin who, in reality, only leads a large regional power that, owing to his authoritarian rule and muddled economics, is a long-term threat more to itself than to the world.

No, the lone actor most responsible for threatening world peace might unwittingly be United States President Barack Obama, with his scholarly inertia and apparent disregard for the fate of smaller, faraway countries.

Of course, Mr Obama is not responsible for Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea, or for Mr Putin’s massing of Russian troops on Ukraine’s eastern border in an effort to intimidate the government in Kiev. Nor is Mr Obama alone in crafting a Western policy of appeasement by default. German Chancellor Angela Merkel also bears considerable responsibility: Her tough rhetoric masks a largely business-as-usual approach that reflects her country’s dependence on Russian gas supplies.

But Mr Obama is responsible for his administration’s apparent indifference to the fate of the American-built order that has governed world affairs since the end of World War II. Unless he toughens his policies, the rules and norms that have guaranteed peace for so many for so long could lose their force.


The disconnect between America’s diplomatic principles and practice has become so great that it is emboldening the country’s adversaries. This is why, following Russia’s seizure and annexation of Crimea, Mr Putin is now trying to mould Ukraine’s eastern provinces into vassal regions, if not foment irredentism, in order to realise his dream of reconstituting the Russian empire.

But it is not only America’s rivals who are taking note of Mr Obama’s passivity. Its allies are also watching nervously, and the conclusions they appear to be drawing could harm its national security interests severely in the years and decades to come.

Consider the Middle East, where Saudi Arabia is already openly questioning the reliability of the Kingdom’s historic US defence guarantee. And US Secretary of State John Kerry’s “guidance” for a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which should have been unveiled this month, will now remain under wraps. Speculation abounded that Mr Kerry’s proposal would contain a specific US guarantee of Israel’s borders. But can anyone imagine Israelis taking America at its word after having watched it dither while Russia redrew the map of Ukraine?

In the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, the US, together with the United Kingdom and Russia, guaranteed Ukraine’s territorial integrity in exchange for its surrender of a large nuclear arsenal it had inherited from the Soviet Union. Now that the US has disregarded its obligation to Ukraine — reportedly unwilling even to share intelligence with its government on Russian troop movements, much less supply the country with the means to defend itself — all bets are off concerning an American guarantee of Israel’s security and territorial integrity. For that matter, why should Iran discontinue its nuclear programme when it sees the ease with which Ukraine was dismembered? After all, the Iranians have borne far harsher sanctions than those imposed on Russia so far.


By acquiescing in Russia’s seizure of Crimea, the US may also see core alliances begin to unravel. For example, the US has openly stated that it would defend Japan should China forcibly seize the disputed Senkaku islands. But if America can evade its guarantee of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, why should Japan’s leaders believe that it will do otherwise in the case of a far-flung cluster of uninhabited islands?

Of course, the US is no longer in a position to “pay any price … to secure the survival and the success of liberty”, as John F Kennedy put it in his inaugural address — not in Ukraine and not anywhere else. The huge price of its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq has understandably made the US war-weary.

Moreover, no country has the right to expect Americans to fight and die on its territory for its freedom. But has the US become so withdrawn from the world that it is willing to pay only a symbolic price, such as that implied by Russia’s tit-for-tat sanctions, to stop aggression that threatens the world order? Have America’s recent foreign wars so scarred its leaders that they are unable to defend the world order that their predecessors created and for which many Americans have died?

The time is growing short for the US to demonstrate anew — to friend and foe alike — that its word remains its bond. Unless Russia honours the accord recently reached in Geneva to defuse the Ukraine crisis, the US must use — and soon — its full arsenal of non-military means to demonstrate to Mr Putin the costs, and folly, of his 1930s-style revanchism.

The soft underbelly of Mr Putin’s imperial ambitions is Russia’s brittle and undiversified economy and the expectations of ordinary Russians for improved living standards. The US and the European Union need to demonstrate clearly to the Russian people that their president’s policies will mean a possible return to the poverty and tyranny of the Soviet era. Any lesser display of resolve may fatally weaken the bedrock of Western security — and that of the world.



Yuriko Koike, Japan’s former defence minister and national security adviser, was chairwoman of Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party and currently a member of the National Diet.

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