Thinking out loud: Obama’s war of words in the face of Russian aggression

President Obama has now gone out of his way twice to assert that the U.S. and by implication NATO would not use military force in the Ukraine.

This calls to mind a statement made by the U.S. in 1950 that appeared to exclude Korea from the zone of countries the U.S. was ready to use force to defend. Not long after, North Korea invaded the South, launching the Korean War.

Obama is saying reckless things, like NATO will not consider the use of force in the Ukraine, under any circumstances.

Obama doesn’t know anything about diplomatic and military history, apparently, or perhaps he is just so taken with the power of his own intellect that he feels no need to draw insights from the lessons of history.

In foreign policy, he is out of his element, all the while seeking to exercise tight control over every aspect of foreign policy from the White House.

Moreover, he can’t shut up, and keeps on talking, using words which from his manner of delivery he evidently believes have unusual persuasive force. And he always talks down to his audience.

His continuing statements can be quite dangerous. For example, for what conceivable purpose of state could he have referred to Russia as a “regional power” in his recent speech in Brussels?

Doesn’t he understand that with Putin we are dealing with an individual with delusions of grandeur, whose delusions have already led to aggression and the rending of the postwar legal and political order?

Such loose words could provoke Putin and his cronies to “show Obama” by pushing militarily into eastern Ukraine. When you are dealing with someone acting in a delusional state, might it not be wise to carefully choose your words?

It is worth recalling that the United Nations was founded on the idea that the use of force was prohibited except in individual or collective self-defense. The idea was not simply that countries would defend each other when they were members of a mutual defense alliance such as NATO, but that they would also come to the defense of other nations when the latter were attacked. The hoped-for response would be action through the Security Council, but Article 51 collective defense actions were also admitted.

The critical concept is that countries may and should come to the collective self-defense of a country which is the victim of aggression.

If Russia invades the rest of the Ukraine, other countries should be prepared to come to the Ukraine’s defense.

We don’t need a naive and incompetent president assuring the Russians that they can invade the Ukraine and will meet no resistance.

Poland, for example, could come to the defense of Ukraine if so requested. If Russia were to then attack Polish forces, particularly in Poland, that could potentially trigger the collective self-defense obligations of other NATO states under Article 5 of the NATO Treaty.

Obama also said he worried a lot more about a nuclear bomb going off in New York City than he did about the regional power that Russia has become. Perhaps the president should review the number of nuclear weapons Russia has aimed at the U.S. including NYC, and take care that the nuclear bomb he fears does not come–whether by accident or design–from Russia or North Korea.

It is absurd to refer to Russia as merely a “regional power” when it has thousands of nuclear weapons pointed at the U.S.

Obama should stop talking, and communicate his messages to Mr. Putin through coordinated sanctions and other actions with EU and NATO partners.

A good place to start would be to ask Congress to immediately repeal most-favored nation trade status for the import of Russian goods and services to the United States.

The Trenchant Observer

About the Author

The Observer
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by The Observer, an international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. He is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (IACHR), where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, The Observer has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. The Observer speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, The Observer has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on the best articles that have appeared in the blog.