Confronting a bully, whether in a schoolyard or in global affairs, is never easy. The natural instinct is to try to reason with the perpetrator, demonstrating why it is in his interest to behave and play by the rules.
What is certain is that failing to react forcefully only inspires more reckless behaviour. Such is the quandary that continues to confront the G7 and the West more generally as we search for common ground and collective resolve to deal with the crisis in Ukraine.
Having grabbed his immediate prize – Crimea – with little more than slight recriminations from the West, Putin now seems open to diplomacy, signalling that what he craves most is international respect. Mild ostracizing may have had some therapeutic effect, but he also clearly knows that the West has little appetite for serious economic sanctions, let alone a military confrontation.
The risk now is that some are prepared to capitulate to Putin on Russia’s ‘traditional sphere of influence’ by letting him keep the Crimea and pursue his ambition to create a greater Russia. So much for values or principles in foreign policy. What events of the past week also illustrate is that an alliance can only move at the pace of those who drag their feet the most — and Putin could hardly interpret the tepid Western response otherwise.
The desire to ignore events ‘in a faraway land about which we know little’ and concentrate on challenges closer to home is palpable. All politics do tend to be local.
When Gen. Dwight Eisenhower returned to the U.S. from his post as Commander of NATO to run for the presidency in the summer of 1952, he recognized that prevailing domestic sentiment and the desire for peace after the ravages of the Second World War and in the midst the stalemate in Korea. NATO was then in its infancy and commitments were difficult to muster. But Eisenhower also understood the futility and dangers of isolationism. He was determined to rally American power and will precisely at that time in order to preserve the peace.
We face a similar challenge today. As democracies, the U.S. and Canada should never allow the openness of our societies and our penchant for free expression and free choice to be perceived as weakness. Rather, we should defend ardently our democratic values like the Ukrainians, who aspire to similar principles of freedom.
This is not a time for loose talk about ‘Finlandization.’ That’s an attitude from another world and another time. No one country has the right today to subjugate others to its will. Our singular objective should be to bolster Ukraine’s ability to manage its own affairs and make its own choices on how best to safeguard its governance, its security and its prosperity.
History also teaches us that, if left unchecked, the siren songs of nationalism have little respect for borders and even less for free expression. Spheres of influence quickly succumb to spheres of dominance.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper stood taller on principle over the Crimean takeover than others of the G7 — at times a lone hawk circling high above the chirping sparrows. He should continue by leading on commitments to check any further revanchist ambitions, notably with efforts to provide tangible economic, governance and military assistance to Ukraine where, not surprisingly, doubts persist about whether the West is prepared to offer much more than fine rhetoric.
Canada may not have strategic interests in Ukraine — and we are, of course, less dependent on economic ties to Russia than many in Europe. But we do have moral and ethical reasons to keep the plight of Ukrainians uppermost in mind with what we do as well as in what we say. The G7′s decision to develop a common framework for energy security that will broaden North America’s export potential and help wean Europe’s excessive dependence on Russian energy exports is in everyone’s long term interest.
We should also, as a matter of priority, initiate discussions with the U.S. on ballistic missile defences for North America in order to demonstrate clearly that the desire to avoid countering military incursions directly in ‘faraway lands’ does not mean that we will continue to turn a blind eye and be a ‘free rider’ when it comes to the defence of North America.