I have been critical of President Barack Obama’s rhetoric on matters of war and peace, here and in my recent book. I respect and admire his ease, eloquence, and ability to communicate on virtually all other issues (“Between Two Ferns” was risky and unintuitive, but it is now clearly a contemporary masterstroke of political communications), but when it comes to matters of warfare, force and power he clearly struggles to articulate himself.
Not so in Belgium. Speaking first in Flanders, he captured the tragedy of the First World War while affirming European unity and transatlantic fidelity. Then, in this speech in Brussels, he rallied our allies again in the “battle of ideas” against the aggression of Russia in Crimea by taking on directly the sophistic arguments Moscow has made during recent weeks: that Crimea is no different from Iraq, or Kosovo, or Libya. No, he said, they are different, and here’s why: We actually stand for something. Russia is acting out of naked political interest. It was important not just for somebody to say that out loud, but for the President of the United States to say it. We used to say with more conviction that the office was the leader of the free world. It means something again given the sharp cynical shift in the Kremlin.
It is easy to overlook the symbolic importance of the speech’s location. Belgium is a small, bilingual country historically coveted and overrun by its neighbors. Its own domestic situation has been scrambled by the inability of the language communities (three if you count the German minority in the south) to get along. And yet Brussels hosts both NATO and the European Union, two of the most successful experiments in international comity ever attempted. The President’s themes, heightened in this capital, are subtly broadcast to Europe’s most recent bilingual hot-spot, now pawed by a covetous larger neighbor that once possessed it.
Given this context, we cannot deny the political nature of this speech. It was not simply a statement of abstract principles. It was designed to rally NATO Allies and partner countries to the United States in order to isolate and weaken the current leadership in Russia. In that, the speech uses the power of dozens of states in lieu of force as a bulwark against the violence, real or implied, threatened and applied, by Russia. Given the situation Russia is in — no longer the Soviet Union or leader of the Warsaw Pact, and surrounded by the cowed and abject neighbors of its near abroad — the country faces perhaps its most serious political and economic situation since the end of the Cold War.
It has been argued better by others that NATO’s military position remains strong against Russia. The flip side of the other coin of that argument is that NATO’s expansion has provoked Russia’s reaction. But that ignores how the West has included Russia in the G8, NATO, the OSCE, the WTO and other international organizations, accorded Russia the respect as an equal, all the while preserving peace, security and prosperity among a growing community of democratic nations.
Moreover, we must understand the choice that Russia — or any other country inside or outside the membership of NATO and the European Union — must make about war and peace. The United States has fought many of its former Allies, with Russia, and yet the idea of fighting our friends today and war in Europe is considered an absurdity. The expansion of NATO and the European Union is an unmitigated good. It constantly pushes out the boundary of peace, security and prosperity. That community is for Russia’s taking if only its leadership made the choice to accept it.
Matters of war and peace are inherently political decisions like these. As the president made plain, they are not inevitable, driven by historical exigency, immutable racial hatred, or power dynamics. As I have argued before, political decisions are moral choices, which means we are in control, always.