Sunday, March 2, 2014

Where Do I Begin with Ukraine?

The news recently has been filled with news stories that make a great case for the relevance of my job. Certainly a lot of teachable moments. And I've found myself drawn to the news, ingesting as much as I can about the events in Ukraine. To say the least, it's unsettling.

Russia's conquest of the Crimea was shadowy and completed so swiftly that Ukraine didn't know what hit them. I guess Russia has made clear to the people of Ukraine what price there would be for alignment with the West: it'll cost them Crimea. The only thing that's unclear is whether or not Crimea is the whole sum or just a down payment on the eastern half of the country.

This sad American has a few perspectives to offer:

1) We, the United States, probably lack the means and resolve to actually engage in armed combat in this episode. That fact leaves me ambivalent. The patriot in my cringes that we seem toothless in the face of aggression. The objective observer in me realizes that the cost to the U.S. of intervening at this point in time is too high for what we would likely gain. Tom Friedman (from the New York Times) offered a helpful perspective, however, in an op-ed penned earlier this week. Friedman claims that there are two models of nation-building: nations that try to elevate the individual vs. those that seek to elevate the state. Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea exemplify the latter. We exemplify the former. One can hope that, over the long run, we can make the emphatic point that the statist model is anachronistic in a changing world. Sadly, millions upon millions will languish through decades of a degraded life in a corrupt quasi-Soviet environment until government triumphing the individual proves itself. However . . .

2) . . . I'm finding myself angrier at the intransigence of politicians in our nation's capital for engaging in the grid-locked, short-term, stunted thinking when it comes to our nation's problems. If we're to show the people of Ukraine, Russia, China, Iran, etc. that a way of life triumphing and elevating the individual then let's make some progress on the dilemmas of democracy. Compromise, dammit, on immigration, the minimum wage, and entitlement reform. The slavish obedience of Democrats and Republicans to their bases isn't much better than the kleptocrats' dependence on their oligarchical heads of business in Ukraine and Russia. Futher, it's preventing us from enjoying the kind of prosperity that will defy any veneer of respectability the Putins of the world can erect.

3) The United States and the West lost Crimea for Ukraine years ago. We've been hasty to beat a retreat from Afghanistan. We couldn't wait to extract ourselves from Iraq. We were wishy-washy on Syria. This president and his peers in Western Europe have proceeded with timidity and naivete in many, many episodes since the middle of the last decade.

4) I heard that President Obama was on the phone with President Putin for an hour and a half earlier this week. I'm trying to imagine what Putin was insisting on that could've kept the conversation going that long. And I've tried to force myself to understand his world view. It's funny, we in the U.S. felt some measure of pride and relief in bringing El Chapo to justice in Mexico. However, might not Putin view our logistical and surveillance support of the Mexican Marines in that operation as an example of imperialistic meddling? And isn't the U.S. a smug little power, what with two borders defined by two vast oceans, another shared with a vastly poorer state, and the fourth shared by the world's greatest, kindest neighbor, Canada? Russia's whole existence is defined by ill-defined frontiers. To the east is the vastness of Siberia. To the south is what the Bush administration called the Arc of Instability. To the west is a set of borders as fluid as any others in the western world: Russia shares borders with five states that didn't even exist twenty-five years ago, and it was through the lands of those states that Russia was invaded twice in the last century. Putin's is a world view carved from insecurity, vulnerability, and uncertainty that is generations in the making.

Now it's time for me to pray that our leaders in Washington will consider ways to set the long-run so it's less likely the Putins of the world will see opportunity where we see promise. Have we made mistakes in the last ten or fifteen years that laid the seeds for Ukraine's tragedy? Yes. It's easy to blame our policymakers, but we live in a republic. Power stems from the people, not from the kleptocrats. I hope we can give more thought to the messages we send about what matters to our policymakers, so it's likely we can be an anchor for the next Ukraine rather than just a vague, distant dream.

No comments: