BRUSSELS: President Barack Obama appealed to Europeans Wednesday to recommit to the war-won ideals of freedom and human dignity in response to Russia’s actions over Ukraine, calling the crisis a global “moment of testing” in which those voicing such values would ultimately triumph.
Painting a historical arc across the major global clashes of the last century and beyond, Obama said young people born today come into a world more devoid of conflict and replete with freedom than at any time in history, even if that providence was not fully appreciated.
He urged the 28-nation NATO alliance to make good on its commitments to the collective security that has fostered prosperity in the decades since the end of the Cold War.
“We must never forget that we are heirs to a struggle for freedom,” Obama said, adding that the Ukraine crisis had neither easy answers nor a military solution. “At this moment, we must meet the challenge to our ideals, to our very international order, with strength and conviction,” he said, adding that it represented a global “moment of testing.”
Drawing on modern struggles, such as gay rights, as well as the world wars of the twentieth century, Obama sought to connect the American democratic experiment with the blood spilled by Europeans seeking to solidify their own right to self-determination.
“I come here today to say we must never take for granted the progress that has been won here in Europe and advanced around the world,” Obama said.
The continent has been upended by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s foray into the Ukrainian region of Crimea. Defying the global community, Moscow annexed the peninsula this month, stoking fears among Russia’s neighbors that the intervention marked the return of an East-West Cold War mentality.
“If the Russian leadership stays on its current course, together we will ensure that this isolation deepens,” Obama said.
At the same time, he acknowledged that military force would not dislodge Russia from Crimea or prevent further encroachment, holding out the allies’ combination of pressure and an open door to diplomacy as the path to peace.
In his remarks, made at a cultural center in Brussels, Obama sought to shape a unifying theme out of a weeklong foreign trip, the original purpose of which has been eclipsed by the burst of diplomatic maneuvering over the confrontation with Russia.
During visits to the Netherlands and Belgium, Obama has sought to coordinate the West’s response to Putin’s actions, despite some Europeans’ misgivings about the economic consequences of implementing sanctions, and the American public’s reluctance to become embroiled in another faraway conflict.
Obama pledged to defend U.S. allies during a meeting with NATO’s secretary general, and held an emergency meeting with leaders of major economies Monday, focused on tightening economic pressure on Moscow.
In Brussels, home to the NATO headquarters and the European Union, Obama warned against yielding to isolationism or avoiding direct engagement in far-off crises.
“If we defined our interests narrowly, if we applied a cold-hearted calculus, we might decide to look the other way,” Obama said. “But that kind of casual indifference would ignore the lessons that were written in this continent.”
A day earlier, Obama dismissed Russia, claiming that it was threatening its neighbors “not out of strength, but out of weakness.”
He added that he worried more about a nuclear device in Manhattan than he did about Russian policy.
Addressing European security, Obama said he wanted to see every NATO partner “chip in” to contribute toward mutual defense. He suggested that members examine their defense plans to ensure they reflect current threats.
“I have had some concerns about a diminished level of defense spending by some of our partners in NATO,” Obama said. “The situation in Ukraine reminds us that our freedom isn’t free.”