The Obama Doctrine

The Obama Doctrine


Howard Adelman



1. The Ukraine crisis is a test for the West and the international order.

2. That test is one about values, not one about coercive or economic strength.

3. This clash of civilizations is one of democratic and liberal versus “might is right” values, of the modern world versus an old order.

4. In this clash, there is a danger of stumbling into war as in WWI.

5. The old order as encompassed by the Soviet Union imploded not because the West bankrupted the USSR and certainly not because the West beat the East on the battlefield, but because Western ideals were adopted and fought for by the citizens of the satraps of the Soviet Empire.

6. That war, now resumed, is won by condemnation, by witnessing, and by diplomatic engagement and not by confrontation and the threat of coercive power.

7. Nevertheless, the threat of the use of coercive power must be held at the ready, but only for those states that already belong to the Western defensive alliance.

8. Military power will not be used both in any effort to recover Crimea for Ukraine but also not in defence of the Ukraine.

9. Military power will not be threatened to be used if Russia invades or stirs up a civil war in Ukraine for two reasons, 1) the West’s unwillingness to fight in a country that is not part of the Western defensive alliance, and 2) because one should not wave a big stick unless one intends to use it.

10. This new conflict as an echo and replay of an old conflict will be fought by posing truth to power, by diplomatic isolation, by economic sanctions, by continuing diplomatic engagement and, possibly, by the Ukrainian citizens themselves rising up.

The Doctrine

Yesterday, Barack Obama made one of the most important speeches of his presidency. On 26 March 2014 at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels Obama gave one of his most eloquent yet very plain-spoken speeches. This is not just my opinion but a general consensus view of most listeners and readers of the speech. Further, I agreed with it – at least with almost all of it. By and large it reflected my own writings on the issue, and, except for its eloquence, almost all the major ideas in the speech reflect my own ideas and, more specifically, what I have written about the crisis as late as the last two days. In that speech Obama spelled out the Obama Doctrine on how to deal with military aggression by a regional power. As you will see, I have one major difference with Obama and I hope he is correct and I am wrong.

Obama defined the crisis over Ukraine as a test for Europe, the United States and for the international order, not a test of the military or economic power of the West versus that of Russia, but a test of the values of the West versus those exhibited by Russia in its seizure of Crimea. What are those value? For the West they are a “particular set of ideals [that] began to emerge, the belief that through conscience and free will, each of us has the right to live as we choose, the belief that power is derived from the consent of the governed and that laws and institutions should be established to protect that understanding,” versus “an older, more traditional view of power…[that] argues that ordinary men and women are too small-minded to govern their own affairs, that order and progress can only come when individuals surrender their rights to an all-powerful sovereign.” Obama went on to define a source for that alternative view that “might is right”. “Often this alternative vision roots itself in the notion that by virtue of race or faith or ethnicity, some are inherently superior to others and that individual identity must be defined by us versus them, or that national greatness must flow not by what people stand for, but what they are against.”

So Western value and ideals are pitted against the belief in power, the belief the centralization of that power, rooted in a paranoid division in “us versus them”. The ongoing clash of these two sets of ideas is ongoing, both within nations and among nations. Like myself, Obama is haunted by the nightmare of repeating the errors at the beginning of the twentieth century and stumbling into war. “This morning at Flanders Field, I was reminded of how war between peoples sent a generation to their deaths in the trenches and gas of the first world war,” said Obama. The conflict continued through WWII and the Cold War.

Then Obama articulated his interpretation of the source of victory in the latter for Western values. “That contest was won, not by tanks or missiles, but because our ideals stirred the hearts of Hungarians, who sparked a revolution, Poles in their shipyards who stood in solidarity, Czechs who waged a Velvet Revolution without firing a shot, and East Berliners who marched past the guards and finally tore down that wall.” We may have won WWII by force of arms. But Obama challenged the view that the West won the Cold War by bankrupting the Soviet Union through an arms race. The people within the nations making up the USSR won the war by throwing off the yoke of oppression themselves. We may have lent them moral and intellectual support, but they, and only they, won the battle by standing up for the universal values for which the West stands.

Today, Obama said, we are once again confronted “with the belief among some that bigger nations can bully smaller ones to get their way — that recycled maxim that might somehow makes right.” “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, that people and nations can make their own decisions about their future.” So values stand against the use of coercive power to get one’s way. Further, once again, those values are won, not on the battle field between nations but in the battle over ideas and ideals within nations. “Just look at the young people of Ukraine, who were determined to take back their future from a government rotted by corruption; the portraits of the fallen shot by snipers; the visitors who pay their respects at the Maidan. There was the university student wrapped in the Ukrainian flag expressing her hope that every country should live by the law; a postgraduate student speaking for fellow protesters, saying, I want these people who are here to have dignity.”

Once again, Obama reiterated the values of the West. “Yes, we believe in democracy, with elections that are free and fair, and independent judiciaries and opposition parties, civil society and uncensored information so that individuals can make their own choices. Yes, we believe in open economies based on free markets and innovation and individual initiative and entrepreneurship and trade and investment that creates a broader prosperity.

And yes, we believe in human dignity, that every person is created equal — no matter who you are or what you look like or who you love or where you come from. That is what we believe. That’s what makes us strong. And our enduring strength is also reflected in our respect for an international system that protects the rights of both nations and people — a United Nations and a Universal Declaration of Human Rights, international law and the means to enforce those laws.”

So how does one fight a war between the values of the West and the belief in might is right of Vladimir Putin? First, by condemnation. “Russia’s violation of international law, its assault on Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, must be met with condemnation, not because we’re trying to keep Russia down, but because the principles that have meant so much to Europe and the world must be lifted up.” Secondly, and most importantly in characterizing the Obama doctrine, not by confrontation. Obama is no JFK defending American interests in the Cuban Missile Crisis. This is not a Cold War. Russia is no longer a global power. It is not governed by a ruling and competing ideology, for the belief in “might is right” is not a set of competing values but just a stance of a bully. Thirdly, and very importantly, the doctrine eschews military conflict between the West and Russia. “The United States and NATO do not seek any conflict with Russia. In fact, for more than 60 years we have come together in NATO not to claim other lands but to keep nations free.” It follows, fourthly, that the aim of the conflict is not to defeat Russia.

What is the implication of the doctrine for the use of military force by the West? “NATO planes patrol the skies over the Baltics, and we’ve reinforced our presence in Poland, and we’re prepared to do more. Going forward, every NATO member state must step up and carry its share of the burden by showing the political will to invest in our collective defense and by developing the capabilities to serve as a source of international peace and security…Ukraine is not a member of NATO, in part because of its close and complex history with Russia.” In other words, military forces of the West will be restricted to the defence of existing members of NATO.

Obama went onto say that, “Nor will Russia be dislodged from Crimea or deterred from further escalation by military force.” Not only will force not be used to help Ukraine recover Crimea, but it will not be used if Russia attacks eastern and/or southern Ukraine. The battle of Ukrainians with Putin’s Russia will be left to the ability of Ukraine to resist Russian force. As Obama said, “in the end, every society must chart its own course. America’s path or Europe’s path is not the only ways to reach freedom and justice. But on the fundamental principle that is at stake here, the ability of nations and peoples to make their own choices, there can be no going back. It’s not America that filled the Maidan with protesters. It was Ukrainians.” Will weapons be supplied to the Ukrainians? There is certainly no indication in the speech that they will be, and every indication that they will not. Why did the Obama doctrine not leave this unarticulated thereby allowing Putin to fear that invading Ukraine may risk a war with the West?

“Now is not the time for bluster. The situation in Ukraine, like crises in many parts of the world, does not have easy answers nor a military solution.” (my italics) In other words, if you do not intend to use military force, don’t hold out that prospect as a bluff. The risk, and perhaps, likelihood is that it will be called. And the results could be disastrous. So how will the battle with the West between values and ideals versus a leader determined to be a bully? In the Obama doctrine, through patience. “But with time, so long as we remain united, the Russian people will recognize that they cannot achieve the security, prosperity and the status that they seek through brute force.” With continued engagement even as Putin is excluded from one forum after another. “And that’s why throughout this crisis we will combine our substantial pressure on Russia with an open door for diplomacy.”

As Obama articulated his continued belief in diplomacy and eschewing the threat of using military force. “I believe that for both Ukraine and Russia, a stable peace will come through de-escalation, a direct dialogue between Russia and the government of Ukraine and the international community, monitors who can ensure that the rights of all Ukrainians are protected, a process of constitutional reform within Ukraine and free and fair elections this spring.” But what if Putin acts first? What if he invades and does not give democracy a chance? What happened to the doctrine of deterrence and the maxim, “Speak softly but carry a big stick.” That is not part of the Obama doctrine.

Obama is not dumb. He recognizes that Putin has ignored many opportunities for engagement. “So far, Russia has resisted diplomatic overtures, annexing Crimea and massing large forces along Ukraine’s border. Russia’s justified these actions as an effort to prevent problems on its own borders and to protect ethnic Russians inside Ukraine. Of course, there is no evidence, never has been, of systemic violence against ethnic Russians inside of Ukraine.” In other words, Putin, you are a liar. Further, the issue is not the reunion of Crimea with Russia because of historical security and demographic reasons, but the procedures for pursuing those goals through force of arms rather than negotiations with respect for the international rule of law.

Besides, the way Putin acquired Crimea cannot be allowed to set an international precedent. “Many countries around the world face similar questions about their borders and ethnic minorities abroad, about sovereignty and self-determination. These are tensions that have led in other places to debate and democratic referendums, conflicts and uneasy co- existence. These are difficult issues and it is precisely because these questions are hard that they must be addressed through constitutional means and international laws, so that majorities cannot simply suppress minorities and big countries cannot simply bully the small”.

What about America as a bullyboy on the international stage? Kosovo is not a precedent. “NATO only intervened after the people of Kosovo were systematically brutalized and killed for years…Kosovo only left Serbia after a referendum was organized not outside the boundaries of international law, but in careful cooperation with the United Nations and with Kosovo’s neighbors. None of that even came close to happening in Crimea.”

Iraq is also not another example of hypocrisy by America for, “America sought to work within the international system. We did not claim or annex Iraq’s territory. We did not grab its resources for our own gain. Instead, we ended our war and left Iraq to its people in a fully sovereign Iraqi state that can make decisions about its own future.”

Russia’s bullying tactics have been rationalized by accusing America of  “conspiring with fascists inside of Ukraine” and “failing to respect the Russian people.” The first is simply a lie. As for the second, “We Americans remember well the unimaginable sacrifices made by the Russian people in World War II, and we have honored those sacrifices. Since the end of the Cold War, we have worked with Russia under successive administrations to build ties of culture and commerce and international community, not as a favor to Russia, but because it was in our national interests… we believe the world has benefited when Russia chooses to cooperate on the basis of mutual interests and mutual respect…America and the world, and Europe, has an interest in a strong and responsible Russia, not a weak one. We want the Russian people to live in security, prosperity and dignity like everyone else, proud of their own history. But that does not mean that Russia can run roughshod over its neighbors. Just because Russia has a deep history with Ukraine does not mean it should be able to dictate Ukraine’s future. No amount of propaganda can make right something that the world knows is wrong.”

In sum, America will give witness to the values it upholds and, in the case of Ukraine, will not back up that witnessing with the use of force but with conviction.” “In the end, the success of our ideals comes down to us, including the example of our own lives, our own societies.”  “I believe that if we hold firm to our principles and are willing to back our beliefs with courage and resolve, then hope will ultimately overcome fear, and freedom will continue to triumph over tyranny.”

After Obama’s speech, my fear of a repeat of 1914 has decreased enormously. But my fear for the Ukrainian people has also increased enormously. My questioning of the reliance on engagement and diplomacy alone continues at the same time as I too would prefer to avoid the use of force over Ukraine. But I also fear that if force is not threatened, and possibly emplyed, the likelihood of its use by Putin increases. Further, if a credible threat is made that it would be used, the  possibility that Putin will not invade Ukraine goes up not down.

The Obama doctrine can provide little comfort o the people of Ukraine and will, instead understandably fill them with fear and trembling.

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