President Obama said Wednesday that Europe and the United States now face “a moment of testing” that challenges their unity and the international order they have worked for generations to build.
In a speech Wednesday evening at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in this Belgian capital, Obama suggested that the current standoff with Russia over its military intervention in Ukraine is part of a more fundamental struggle between democratic ideals and “an older, more traditional view of power.” He warned against “complacency” in the face of what he called Russia’s violation of international law in taking over Ukraine’s autonomous Crimea region.
“If we define our interests narrowly . . . we might decide to look the other way,” Obama said. “But that kind of casual indifference would ignore the lessons that are written in the cemeteries of this continent. It would allow the old way of doings things to regain a foothold in this young century. And that message would be heard — not just in Europe, but in Asia and the Americas, in Africa and the Middle East.”
Obama made the case in broad strokes for U.S. and European unity, for sanctions against Russia that could also damage still-fragile European economies and for help leveraging American power that in this case does not include military force.
Using the museum as a cultural counterpoint to Russia’s display of force against Ukraine in recent weeks, Obama stressed that Moscow’s moves endanger not only that country but the entire international system that Europe and the United States have built over the years, a system that also has been vital to the progress of democracy and international law around the world.
“We must never forget that we are heirs to a struggle for freedom,” Obama said. “Now is not the time for bluster,” he added. “The situation in Ukraine, like crises in many parts of the world, does not have easy answers, nor a military solution. But at this moment, we must meet the challenge to our ideals, to our very international order, with strength and conviction.”
Addressing young people in the audience, Obama said: “I come here today to insist that we must never take for granted the progress that has been won here in Europe, and advanced around the world. Because the contest of ideas continues for your generation. And that is what’s at stake in Ukraine today. Russia’s leadership is challenging truths that only a few weeks ago seemed self-evident: that in the 21st century, the borders of Europe cannot be redrawn with force, that international law matters and that people and nations can make their own decisions about their future.”
At the same time, Obama stressed that there is still “an open door for diplomacy” with Russia. The world is not entering “another Cold War,” he said. “Nor does the United States, or NATO, seek any conflict with Russia.” Moreover, “the world has an interest in a strong and responsible Russia, not a weak one,” he added.
“But that does not mean that Russia can run roughshod over its neighbors,” Obama said. “No amount of propaganda can make right something that the world knows is wrong.”
Over time, as long as the United States and Europe remain united, “the Russian people will recognize that they cannot achieve security, prosperity and the status they seek through brute force,” he said.
Obama made the remarks after warning European leaders earlier Wednesday that nations must “chip in” fairly to ensure a NATO capable of deterring an expansionist Russia, and he placed the responsibility largely on the continent to resolve its dependence on Russian energy.
Speaking at a news conference after meeting with European Union leaders, Obama noted that he has been concerned by declining defense budgets among some NATO members, a complaint he has allowed other administration officials to make in the past.
His words were a pointed reminder that despite U.S. involvement in seeking to prevent Russian President Vladimir Putin from advancing further beyond Russia’s borders, European leaders must be ready to pay more for their defense.
“If we have collective defense, it means everyone’s got to chip in,” Obama said, appearing after meeting with Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Council, and Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission. He spoke a day after he called Russia a “regional power” that, after having annexed Crimea, is threatening its neighbors in a sign of weakness rather than strength.
Obama cited declining “trend lines” in defense spending among some NATO members, cutbacks he called expected given the financial straits that many European nations have found themselves in over the past five years.
But he said members of NATO must now recommit to defense spending, especially as the United States enters the final months of its post-Sept. 11, 2001, wars. Obama is heading to a NATO meeting later Wednesday.
“Our freedom isn’t free, and we have to be able to pay for the assets, the personnel, and the training to make sure we have a credible NATO force and an effective deterrent force,” Obama said. “Everyone is going to have to make sure they are engaged and involved, and I think that will help build more confidence among member states.”
As Obama began his first visit here, European and Ukrainian officials pushed ahead on Wednesday with a plan to strengthen ties, a task made more urgent by Russia’s takeover of Crimea this month and concern over further threats.
Ukraine signed an Association Agreement with the E.U. last year — in the process spurning a closer economic alliance with Russia. A last-minute refusal by then-President Viktor Yanukovych to sign the agreement in November led to weeks of protests and his overthrow in February — triggering Russia’s move into the Crimean Peninsula.
The detailed work on a political association between Ukraine and the E.U. is running parallel to economic reform negotiations with the International Monetary Fund to pave the way for a loan package of as much as $15 billion.
In tandem, the two sets of negotiations are meant to insulate Ukraine’s new government against economic pressure from Moscow, and to draw the country closer to Western Europe. The political agreement is to include measures that will bring Ukrainian courts and other institutions in line with European standards. Free trade and other aspects of the agreement are to be discussed after a May 25 presidential election.
Tensions between Ukraine and Russia remained high Wednesday, with Russia accusing Ukraine of forcing crews of Aeroflot flights to Ukraine to remain on board their planes instead of disembarking as usual.
This is Obama’s first visit to the bureaucratic heart of post-Cold War Europe, a vision of borderless trade, common currency and a mobile labor pool that he said this week at The Hague is threatened by Putin’s military turn.
Putin’s move into Crimea suggests a historic account unsettled, and a military method of settling it that Obama has called out of place in this century.
Obama has spoken to the continent of Europe on several occasions — as a hopeful presidential candidate in 2008, as a new president memorializing the dead at Normandy, and most recently as a second-term president hoping to stir his allies from a complacency that he warned hovers over the prosperous developed world.
On Wednesday, Barroso called Russia’s move on Crimea “a real wake-up call” for European leaders on the issue of energy. Although Obama pledged in the meeting Wednesday to help Europe think through energy strategies — and held out the potential of expanding U.S. natural gas exports to Europe — he made clear that the bulk of the burden must be managed by Europeans.
“Here in Europe we must do our homework,” Barroso acknowledged.
Over the course of his presidency, Obama has looked to the big stage, particularly the international stage, to set out challenges (Prague in 2009 where he outlined his aspiration to rid the world of nuclear weapons), change the tone of U.S. diplomacy (Cairo two months later when he asked the Muslim world for a “new beginning”), or explain himself (Oslo late that year when he argued in support of “just war” in accepting the Nobel Peace Prize).
Less than a year ago, Obama spoke before the Brandenburg Gate, the first U.S. president to do so from what had been East Berlin. He celebrated the wall’s collapse, along with Cold War geopolitics.
Obama began Wednesday moving back even further into Europe’s 20th century — visiting Belgium’s Flanders Field 52 miles west of Brussels to lay a wreath at the memorial for the 368 Americans killed on one of the grimmest World War I battlegrounds.
He spoke, briefly, alongside Belgian Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo and King Philippe, who guided him through the cemetery and fields, now sown with red poppies above the bodies of tens of thousands of fallen soldiers.
“It is impossible not to be awed by the profound sacrifice they made so that we may stand here today,” Obama said, adding that “here we saw that no solider — and no nation — fought alone.”
Kathy Lally in Kiev and William Branigin in Washington contributed to this report.
This originally appeared in The Washington Post on March 26th, 2014.
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