Obama warns Putin: Might is not right


Facing the biggest punch-up with Russia since the end of the cold war, United States President Barack Obama did what he does best: he came out talking.

The former Harvard professor gave class dunce Vladimir Putin a withering civics lesson over his badly-thought-through invasion of Crimea. History was on the side of those who believed in individual freedom, universal rights and democracy, he said.

The "might is right" alternative – the playground resorting to "brute force" recalling Europe's past "descent into barbarism" – was no alternative at all. In fact, it was a generation or more out of date, as every half-sensible student of the 20th century must surely realise.

"We must meet the challenge to our ideals and our international order with strength and conviction," Obama insisted in scholarly fashion. There could be "no going back".

Whether he meant no going back to Crimea, which is certainly true for Kiev's beleaguered rulers, or to the era of "extreme nationalism" from which he said Europe had escaped in 1945 was unclear.

Lacklustre address
An eve-of-battle speech it was not. As a call to arms, it lacked fire. Some among his invited Euro elite audience in the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels took to taking selfies or sending Twitter messages.

If they had been hoping for a second Duchess of Richmond's ball, held on the night before Waterloo, they were disappointed.

Obama added little or nothing to the mild punishments already handed out to Moscow. Only if Putin transgressed again, in eastern Ukraine or the territories of neighbouring Nato members, would more sanctions be imposed.

Despite his avowal that Crimea's annexation was illegal and unre­cognised, that seemed to put the cap on any thought the US might seek to force its reversal. It also left non-Nato border states such as Georgia, Moldova and Finland to wonder what his response might be if they are next in the firing line.

Eschewing sticks and stones, Obama stuck to wounding words. The Soviet Union lost the cold war for a reason: it had tried to repress freedom, rather than celebrate it. A new cold war was not dawning, for the simple reason that Russia was no longer powerful enough to match the US and its allies ideologically or geopolitically.

Way of thinking
Washington did not seek to humiliate the Russian people – only to bring them round to its way of thinking, which would happen one day.

Obama, who once likened Putin to a bored schoolboy behaving disruptively at the back of the class, was crushing in his disdain and masterly in his reproach.

Without once mentioning the Russian president by name, he patiently explained that Putin's actions threatened the "architecture of peace" painstakingly erected after World War II.

The US did not have to come to Ukraine's rescue. Its own borders and security were not directly threatened. It was doing so because Russia's behaviour could not be ignored, because that would set an anarchic precedent that might be emulated in Africa or Asia. Perhaps Obama was thinking of China. It has steadfastly refused to condemn the Russians, in case it needs to invade Taiwan.

The US only wanted good relations with Russia. Once he had understood the error of his ways, Putin might be allowed back into class.

Obama was soothing, conciliatory and ineffably smug. His grasp of the moral high ground was so very high, his head was in danger of disappearing into clouds of hot air. "We do not regard ourselves as the sole arbiters of what is right in the world," he said. "We are not perfect." Truly. – © Guardian News & Media 2014

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Simon Tisdall
Guest Author

Related stories


press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday