The World After Crimea

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Ari Shavit, a shrewd Israeli journalist, notes that “the West Wing of Barack Obama’s White House is different than any other West Wing before it. It’s full of young people and women, blacks, Hispanics and gays. There’s hardly a white middle-aged man to be seen, almost no people who personify the old political structure. Two women conversing in sign language tell the whole story —this administration is one of minorities and liberals committed to equality, freedom and social justice. The power is a gentle one, of a government reluctant to govern. The new America, which came here five years ago, has become the first America”. Shavit’s argument is that, from that strategic position, everything that seemed to outside observers obvious and natural before no longer exists and that which they find obvious appears to the insiders like the era of the dinosaur.
It is within that context that one must understand the rationality of the Obama White House in the face of critical situations, some of enormous transcendence for Mexico, such as the crisis in Crimea, free trade negotiations in the Pacific and in the Atlantic or the altercations between the executive and the legislative branches in budget matters and debt. In each and every case, the assumptions that used to prevail among the relevant actors and that would transcend the party dwelling in that proverbial house have stopped being valid. Obama is a different kind of president.
Two years ago I wrote an article that I entitled, in an absolutely provocative spirit, “Obama and Echeverría”. My argument was that, like our beloved ex-President, Obama was altering the established order of his country. Today I have no doubt but that this has been his spirit but due less to his skin color than to his ideological stance. Everything indicates that in his development the lessons from his mother (rather than his father as his book’s title suggests), a radical leftist, his life in Indonesia and his evolution as a constitutional law professor and social activist were much more important. Each of those facets, as occurs in each of us, gave rise to his ideas and positions. Perhaps what is most notable about his view, which is in contrast with that of his predecessors in the U.S. government, is that he views his nation’s military might with disdain and believes that it is possible to settle any conflict through discourse.
Nothing bad about those characteristics, except that they haven’t had the desired effect. The U.S. hasn’t had a budget in five years, the economic stimulus program was inadequate in good measure because of the way decided upon to spend it (jurisdiction was ceded to Congress, which employed it with a relatively small multiplier effect), its vacillating over Syria, Libya, and Iran to only later not act according to its own design (the famous “red line”). The case of Crimea may well have been inevitable due to the strategic logic of Putin’s Russia, but the fact is indicative of the perception of weakness about Obama that there is in the rest of the world.
Some days ago, U.S. ex-Secretary of State James Baker stated with respect to Crimea that it perhaps would have been impossible to stop the Russians, but that the response should have been much more drastic and immediate: to authorize the twenty-something liquefied natural gas projects that have been brought to a halt by Obama. Baker’s point was that the mere authorization would have unleashed the financial markets, immediately shrinking the value of Russian oil assets. The two responses –that of Obama and that proposed by Baker- are desk top positions that do not entail any military mobilization, but the latter distills a profound strategic vision, by a professional, while the cancellation of a few visas and other similar provisions have no bite to them and irradiate tepidity, the telling sign of  an amateur.
Conceivably the best analysis of the crisis in Crimea was written by Anne Applebaum: “Openly or subconsciously, since 1991, Western leaders have acted on the assumption that Russia is a flawed Western country. Perhaps during the Soviet years it had become different, even deformed. But sooner or later the land of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, the home of classical ballet, would join what Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, would so movingly call ‘our common European home.’ For the first time, many are beginning to understand that the narrative is wrong: Russia is not a flawed Western power: Russia is an anti-Western power with a different, darker version of global politics.”    Obama has no idea of how to respond to that and his loss of leadership, clout and popularity reflect it. But, in the interests of maintaining a sense of balance, in contrast with Echeverría, his capacity of harming the interests of his country is infinitely less: in the U.S. there is no crisis such as those that in Mexico broke out without warning. For that there are in Washington counterweights that work with immense effectiveness, even if not always pretty.

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Luis Rubio

Luis Rubio

He is a contributing editor of Reforma and his analyses and opinions often appear in major newspapers and journals in Mexico, the US and Europe (New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, International Herald Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, National Public Radio).