March 26, 2014, 02:31 pm
Obama rallies European allies against 'darker forces of the past'
By Justin Sink
President Obama looked to rally European allies to intensify the international isolation of Russia in a sweeping speech Wednesday afternoon, casting the crisis in Crimea as the latest iteration of a decades-old battle with the "darker forces of the past."
"I come here today to insist that we must never take for granted the progress that has been won here in Europe and advanced around the world, because the contest of ideas continues for your generation," Obama told an audience at the Palais Des Beaux Arts in Belgium.
Obama declared that Russia's leadership was "challenging truths that only a few weeks ago seemed self-evident," undermining international agreements to ensure "that majorities cannot simply suppress minorities and big countries cannot simply bully the small."
"That's why 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," Obama said.
Obama's speech was intended as a rallying cry to European nations skittish from the Russian incursion into Ukraine and reluctant to impose penalties on Moscow that could carry severe domestic economic repercussions.
Knowing that the Kremlin is likely to exploit any division among the U.S. and its allies, Obama was clearly hoping to use his four-nation, three-day swing through Europe — and this keynote speech — to unify the partners.
His case was a moral one, acknowledging that if nations "applied a coldhearted calculus," they might shy away from responding to a crisis that did not directly affect their own borders.
"But that kind of casual indifference would ignore the lessons that are written in the cemeteries of this continent," Obama said. "It would allow the old way of doing things to regain a foothold in this young century. And that message would be heard, not just in Europe, but in Asia and the Americas, in Africa and the Middle East."
Obama conceded that sometimes Europe and the U.S. fell short of their own ideals. But he argued that even in instances like the Iraq War, which he opposed, the U.S. sought to work through the international order.
"We did not claim or annex Iraq's territory," Obama said. "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."
The American president also looked to diminish the standing of Russia, arguing that while its leaders might hold a Cold War-era view of power, their nation no longer wielded the same type of influence.
"This is not another Cold War that we're entering into," Obama said. "After all, unlike the Soviet Union, Russia leads no bloc of nations, no global ideology."
He also dismissed justifications offered by Russian leaders for the incursion as "absurd."
"It is absurd to suggest, as a steady drumbeat of Russian voices do, that America is somehow conspiring with fascists inside of Ukraine but failing to respect the Russian people," Obama said. "My grandfather served in Patton's Army, just as many of your fathers and grandfathers fought against fascism."
Obama’s remarks shied away from a call to specific action, having already received assurances from the Group of Eight earlier in the week that it would move to suspend Russia from the organization and impose sectoral sanctions if Moscow’s aggression persisted.
“If the Russian leadership stays on its current course, together, we will ensure that this isolation deepens,” Obama said. “Sanctions will expand, and the toll on Russia's economy, as well as its standing in the world, will only increase.”
But the president’s remarks likely preceded a call for additional military commitments from NATO allies. He was slated to meet with NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen following his remarks.
At a press conference earlier Wednesday, Obama expressed concern that cuts to the defense budgets of NATO members had left the alliance vulnerable.
As he spoke to the assembled world leaders in Brussels, Obama reiterated that "NATO members never stand alone."
But, he added, "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."
"Just as we meet our responsibilities as individuals, we must be prepared to meet them as nations because we live in a world in which our ideals are going to be challenged again and again by forces that would drag us back into conflict or corruption," Obama said. "We can't count on others to rise to meet those tests."