Crimea and America's Responsibility to Lead

Crimea and America's Responsibility to Lead
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By the end of 2013, it appeared that a growing number of Americans and their elected leaders in Washington favored a reduction of America's role in the world. Yet after the successful uprising of the Ukrainian people and the aggressive, illegal response by Russia, no leader from either party has called for the United States to stay on the sidelines because the situation isn't relevant to America's security, prosperity or values. Good news indeed, and all the more because it contrasts so sharply with the prevailing anti-internationalist mood in Washington.

The invasion of Crimea struck a deep chord in the United States because it represents a threat to both American interests and values. One of the foundations of stability in the world is the absolute prohibition of employing force to adjust borders or annex the territory of another state. This is both a moral and a practical stance, because the wars of the previous century illustrated how a cascade of violence can be unleashed when borders are not respected.

The broad acceptance of this principle is reflected in the guarantees that both the U.S. government and Russia have provided to Ukraine regarding the sanctity of its borders. In the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, the U.S., UK and Russia all committed themselves to upholding Ukrainian sovereignty in exchange for Ukraine's return to Russia of Soviet-era nuclear weapons, as well as its agreement to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. In1997, Russia acknowledged Ukrainian sovereignty over Crimea in an agreement that allowed it to continue operating its naval base at Sevastopol. That same year, Russia also signed a Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Partnership recognizing Ukraine's sovereignty in Crimea.

By ordering Russian troops to invade Ukraine, Vladimir Putin has shown contempt for all these agreements. The American people understand that in a world where contempt for international agreements is allowed to stand, the risk of further aggression is substantial.

Russia's actions in Ukraine also trouble Americans because of their implications for NATO allies and the United States' common defense responsibilities. If Putin concludes that there are no serious consequences for aggression, he may yet step up pressure against Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, all with substantial Russian minorities and members of NATO since 2004. Military action against those countries would obligate the United States to respond militarily along with other NATO member states. The best way to avoid such a scenario is to act now in support of sovereignty in Ukraine. Failure to do so will tempt Putin to keep pushing until he encounters meaningful resistance.

How the United States responds to aggression in Crimea will also send an important signal to other states throughout the world. When the United States warns that it will impose severe costs on aggressors, does it keep its word?

American unity regarding Ukraine also has to do with freedom. Our country proudly supported a democratic movement that challenged a corrupt and increasingly abusive government. The invasion of Crimea was a blatant attempt to punish the people of Ukraine for daring to demand honest government independent of Moscow.

Given these widely accepted American interests in Ukraine, what should be done? Here too there seems to be some consensus from left to right and across party lines that diplomatic pressure and tough economic sanctions in concert with our European allies are the most appropriate response. Targeting the Russian leadership and its financial interests may be the most effective approach.

By their nature, diplomatic pressure and economic sanctions are not likely to produce immediate results. And that means Washington will need to sustain a bipartisan consensus at home and unity among our allies and partners.

If the United States can peacefully reverse Russia's illegal invasion of Crimea, there will be another benefit: The American people will have cause for greater confidence in their government's ability to lead effectively in dangerous times. Since the effectiveness of American foreign policy ultimately rests on the support of the people, this is not a benefit to be taken lightly.

There has been much debate -- some manufactured, to be sure -- about partisanship and criticism of the handling of crises such as the one in Crimea. Underlying the made-for-television histrionics, however, is a troubling truth: There is still work to be done to restore the bipartisan consensus that for so long has served as the foundation of U.S. global leadership. Let us thank Vladimir Putin for this small favor: He has reminded Washington that America is strongest when we work together for the common global good.

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