Clean Up on Aisle One

Not new, not improved, Obama rehashes his Walmart foreign policy.

Barack Obama is in the midst of his Reassure Our Allies World Tour. First, there was his Asia junket, during which he tried to simultaneously lower expectations for America's foreign-policy performance and promise allies we were still ready to lead. Then, a surprise visit to Afghanistan. Next week, he'll be in Europe on the beaches of Normandy, standing beside Vladimir Putin. The big stadium show of the tour took place today, however, right here in the United States at West Point.

Returning to the site of his famous "Hello, I Must Be Going" Afghanistan speech in 2009 -- when he broke new ground in foreign-policy schizophrenia by announcing both our escalation and our withdrawal from that benighted country in the same set of remarks -- today, the president sought to present his foreign-policy vision in what the White House billed as a major address.

To borrow from the baseball metaphor the president offered up on his Asia trip when he spoke of a foreign policy made up of singles and doubles rather than home runs, this speech was a dribbler into the glove of the first baseman. It provided neither reassurance to allies nor anything remotely like a foreign-policy vision. It listed some problems, outlined some principles, but did not lay out any real goals or even a hint of what America's objectives in the world should be going forward.

The only real news in the speech was the announcement of a proposed $5 billion "partners" fund for combating terror. It's a pretty good idea; we can't fight terror alone. The problem is that, as we have found from AfPak to Africa, one of the reasons terrorists are drawn to countries is because the local governments are ineffective, tolerant of them, or worse, and actively support the bad guys. From Pakistan to Yemen to Libya, we have found that the people we need to trust weren't always trustworthy or capable of helping. In fact, the president's suggestion that somehow Libya -- now in chaos and deteriorating fast -- was an example worth touting suggests a serious misunderstanding of the situation on the ground, if not a deliberate misrepresentation of the facts.

You can't fault a president who was elected to undo the mistakes of steroidal unilateralism by seeking to embrace partnership. Indeed, leveraging U.S. power with that of engaged, committed allies has been an essential element of most major U.S. international triumphs of the past century. But calling someone a partner doesn't make them one -- nor does it make them a useful ally. And one of the big lessons of the crises of the Obama years has been that Washington has either not had good partners or has not been able to motivate the good partners it does have to do enough to help achieve long-term goals.

Further contributing to the sense that there may be less to the fund idea than meets the eye is the fact that, of course, getting anything passed as proposed by the U.S. Congress is a long shot. All this makes the one biggish initiative announced in the speech both less than it seemed and a metaphor for the defects of the speech as a whole.

If you wanted to sum up the West Point speech you might say that the president wants to find a new low-cost, low-risk path to American leadership -- a Walmart foreign policy. He wants to lead. He asserted our exceptionalism. He asserted our indispensability. But the vast majority of the speech (which you can read here) was a reiteration of the reasons he has already offered up for not taking action or not taking much action or not taking effective action in the past. These included the "no good choices" cliché, the false choice between boots on the ground and inaction cliché, the false choice between unilateralist overreach and multilateralist inertness cliché, and so on. These were couched, as usual, in earnest language that shows he knows where the problems in the world are along with his traditional touting of foreign-policy "successes" that don't hold up to much scrutiny -- from Iraq to Afghanistan, Libya to Ukraine.

Most of the speech was an explanation of what has become his signature foreign-policy approach: minimalism -- doing as little as possible while still creating the illusion of action. Take the hidden and disturbing center of the speech. The president both took credit for striking "huge" blows against core al Qaeda (remember that the estimate of this core at the time of 9/11 was 100 people) and then said, in virtually the same breath, that the greatest threat to the United States remains terrorism -- but a new form of terrorism embodied by al Qaeda franchises spreading from Africa across the Middle East and into South Asia. He didn't directly address that there are now more terrorists controlling more territory than ever before, that the State Department's most recent report on terror casualties shows a sharp rise, that his own intelligence chiefs warn that the threat of terror is greater than ever, or that in fact, by any reasonable measure, we are actually losing the war on terror. He then offered up this possible partnership approach to addressing the problem, though efforts like it have not worked very well to date against this new threat; though $5 billion is not a lot of money, relatively speaking; though the partners we have in this enterprise are dubious; and though the Congress may or may not support it. It looks like action. But in fact it both minimizes and is very likely to fail to address the problem.

In the end, the speech had three primary flaws. First, it utterly failed to achieve its goal of reversing the narrative that this is a president -- and a country -- that is unlikely to lead as we have in the past or as the world demands America does today and in the future.

Second, it did not offer a real vision of America's role in the world -- one with clear, real goals. President Obama could have spoken of remaking and revitalizing the multilateral system so it is up to the challenges of the new century. He could have described a new commitment to remaking key transatlantic alliances so that they are up to meeting the new threats we face. He could have sketched out a vision for America's role in the Pacific. He could have spoken of how we would go about developing new doctrines to deal with a new era of cyber- and high-tech warfare. He could have launched a program to help restock our government with people with expertise in the regions and technologies that we will need to lead in this era. He could have built on past sound ideas like offering anything concrete about what nation building at home means for our role in the world. But instead he was, again, a lawyer making a case with words rather than a leader showing the way with actions -- tactical not strategic.

Third, he did not address in a meaningful way perhaps the greatest weak spot in his foreign policy. He has no middle game. The United States is well-prepared to win a global conflict of the type we all hope must never be fought. He is very comfortable with minimalist, orthoscopic, pinprick responses to problems. But most of the challenges we face, from Russia in the Crimea to Assad in Syria to China in the East and South China Seas, are middle-range problems, where neither a big war nor a big speech will get the job done. Yet time and again, especially during this president's second term in office, this administration has proven that beyond empty or limited gestures -- a few sanctions on Putin's Russian cronies, legal action against Chinese PLA officers who will never see the inside of a court, halting efforts in Syria that have only empowered Assad -- it lacks the creativity, will, or appetite for moderate risk to undertake effective responses. Part of the blame must fall on our allies, who are also often feckless and who also must do more to pull their weight. But the administration has been an ineffective leader, coming up with less-than-meets-the-eye and certainly less-than-meets-the-needs of the crisis time and again. This is where he and his team must focus. This is where they have come up short.

Unfortunately, we just ended up back in the foreign-policy aisle at Walmart, stocking up on old ideas packed in the thin syrup of tired formulations and offered in bulk. That's because the real hard work of finding effective truly proportional responses to the challenges we face does not make for big speeches full of rousing applause lines -- no matter how many times the president tries to make hay off of the genuine sacrifice of American soldiers. Further, as Obama has shown, the problems we face today cannot simply be addressed by undoing the mistakes of past American presidents. Genuine new thinking is needed. Precious little, unfortunately, was offered in the president's West Point remarks.

Jim Watson, AFP, Getty Images

Democracy Lab

A Nonviolent Alternative for Ukraine

Ukraine faces a rising tide of violence in the restive east. Here's why nonviolent activism is the best strategy for fighting back.

On May 15, thousands of unarmed residents and steelworkers of the eastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol did nonviolently what a bloody attack by Ukrainian troops six days earlier was unable to: rid the region's second-largest city of armed pro-Russian separatists who had held key buildings and other parts of the city for weeks. Smaller protests have taken place in other cities in eastern Ukraine held by separatists.

In the eastern cities targeted by armed pro-Russian militias, such as Donetsk, Lugansk, and Krivy Rig, large nonviolent protests in support of national unity have taken place in recent weeks. (The photo above shows a pro-Ukrainian unity rally in Lugansk on April 18.) But as the country prepared for its presidential election on May 25, there was also an uptick in violence. In particular, a separatist attack on a government checkpoint just before the election left 16 dead; shortly after the polls closed on Sunday, the Ukrainian government launched bloody airstrikes against separatists who had taken control of the Donetsk airport. Given this turbulent context, a great deal depends on whether Ukrainian civil society relies on nonviolent action in the coming weeks and months.

A reliance on nonviolent methods makes it far more difficult for the separatists -- and their allies in Russia -- to claim the majority of the region's people are on their side. Military operations by the Ukrainian armed forces, as well as the mob violence that resulted in the deaths of more than 40 ethnic Russians in Odessa a few weeks ago, have already done much to fan anti-government sentiment. Relying on local groups to use peaceful resistance -- rather than sending in counterterrorism squads from Kiev or arming local pro-Kiev militias -- avoids the risk of turning residents against the central government. It was precisely such violent threats that Putin used, back in March, to justify his annexation of Crimea on the grounds that Russian-speaking people needed "protection."

Minorities wishing to secure or expand their rights should not underestimate the power of nonviolent resistance in achieving these goals. Over the past century, the power of civil resistance has played an important role in resisting foreign occupation. Moreover, campaigns that used armed struggle to liberate themselves from foreign occupation were less likely to succeed than those that used nonviolent resistance.

Perhaps one of the most intriguing recent examples of nonviolent resistance comes from the Middle East. Despite being torn by sectarian divisions and the legacy of a bloody civil war, the people of Lebanon were able to rise up nonviolently in 2005 to force an end to decades of Syrian domination, in what became known in the West as the "Cedar Revolution" -- though the Lebanese themselves revealingly refer to it as the intifada istiqlal, or "struggle for independence." The 25,000 troops in the country and the influential agents within key sectors of the Lebanese government were no match for the will of the majority the Lebanese people.

India, the largest country ever under direct foreign rule, freed itself from Britain through the nonviolent campaign led by Mahatma Gandhi. Nonviolent campaigns played a significant role in a number of African struggles against European occupation, most notably in Zambia. Despite concurrent armed struggles, nonviolent resistance in East Timor against the Indonesian occupation and in Namibia against the South African occupation played a major role in mobilizing global civil society in their support, which proved to play a far more significant role in enabling freedom for those nations than did the guerrilla forces.

Throughout the Cold War, movements throughout Eastern Europe resisted Soviet influence and occupation via unarmed resistance. The nonviolent resistance in Czechoslovakia following the 1968 Soviet invasion, despite its unplanned nature, prevented consolidation of control by the Soviets and their allies for a full six months (in contrast to the 1956 invasion of Hungary, where the armed resistance was brutally crushed within days).

Those months of active defiance of the Soviet occupation helped create a culture of resistance that lasted for the next 20 years, preventing Moscow from ever reasserting its total control over Czechoslovakia due to the unwillingness of many people in that country to obey, leading eventually to the Velvet Revolution of 1989 and the country's freedom. The occupied Baltic nations of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia freed themselves from Soviet control largely through widespread nonviolent resistance.

Even in the face of German occupation during World War II, nonviolent resistance in Norway and Denmark greatly reduced the ability of the Nazis to control those countries and suppress their populations relative to elsewhere in Europe. Today, small Eastern European states like Lithuania, recognizing the limitations of their armed forces in resisting conquest by powerful neighbors, have adopted as part of their national defense policies the mobilization of the population in civil resistance. Recognizing the power of total withdrawal of cooperation by civilians, Lithuania's grand strategy explicitly incorporates "civilian-based defense" -- or the threat of continual resistance against any foreign invader -- as a way to deter occupation by a foreign country.

Nonviolent resistance is certainly more difficult in situations where the majority of the population supports the occupation, such as in Western Sahara, where Moroccan settlers brought in since the 1975 conquest and illegal annexation of that country now outnumber the indigenous Sahrawis. The ongoing nonviolent resistance movement in Western Sahara, while thus far failing to end the occupation, has nevertheless prevented Morocco's conquest from becoming a fait accompli.

Similarly, nonviolent resistance in Crimea would make Russian control of the peninsula, despite the referendum victory, problematic. Tatars and Ukrainians constitute nearly 40 percent of the population of Crimea combined, but far fewer than that are required to make the Russian occupation difficult. A variety of low-risk actions -- such as subtle forms of noncooperation, tax boycotts, and even sex strikes are currently underway in both Crimea and parts of Ukraine as ways to maintain autonomy and resist the Russian annexation.

Crimean Tatars may even have the ability to use nonviolent resistance to elicit the support of powerful third parties, both in mainland Ukraine and even in Russia. They have the sympathy -- if not overt support -- of allies in Ukraine, which provides most of Crimea's electricity and 70 percent of its food. Despite the unanimous support in the Duma of Putin's military moves in Ukraine, the Russian public appears to be ambivalent if not unenthusiastic about further Russian intervention in Ukraine. The widespread use of nonviolent resistance in mainland Russia would serve notice that opposition to Russian annexation of Crimea goes beyond the Western nations and includes the heartfelt sentiment of a significant number of Crimeans themselves.

Remaining nonviolent certainly won't guarantee that the occupier will treat the opposition peacefully. In fact, most nonviolent campaigns face considerable violence. But remaining nonviolent means that the pro-Russia militias and the Russian regime's uses of violence are more likely to produce difficulties with sustaining repression over the long haul, while also increasing the chances that such repression will backfire and elicit more support from the international community. Moreover, nonviolent methods of resistance -- such as foot-dragging and other forms of noncooperation like those used by the Czechs and Slovaks during the 1970s and 1980s -- are less likely to elicit as violent a response from regime forces than, say, open armed rebellion, street fighting, or sabotage.

A strategy of nonviolent action also has important long-term implications (though Ukrainians can be forgiven if they find it hard to look beyond the urgent present). Studies have shown that the way groups prosecute a campaign strongly affects the way the country evolves in the longer term: Countries that experienced campaigns of nonviolent resistance were about 15 percent less likely to relapse into civil war within a decade than those with campaigns waged through armed struggle. Moreover, nonviolent campaigns that use small amounts of violence are likewise more than twice as likely to experience civil war as those that use strict nonviolent discipline in the prosecution of the campaign.

The international community should, meanwhile, act delicately toward the nonviolent movements that emerge. Supporting them outright could actually undermine their domestic legitimacy and feed into Putin's propaganda that the West is conspiring to use the unrest in Ukraine to expand its influence to Russia's borders. Moreover, research suggests that overt forms of material assistance -- such as funds -- do not increase the average success rate of grassroots movements.

Instead, the international community should use whatever means necessary to reinforce the goal of reducing violence in the country as the primary aim of all negotiations. Moreover, international actors should strongly assert the right of people in Ukraine -- of all political persuasions -- to engage in peaceful protest and resistance in accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Violations of these rights by Russian forces -- or by the Ukrainian government in Kiev -- should continue to be punished, first through travel restrictions against guilty parties, then by targeted economic sanctions such as the freezing of economic assets held in foreign banks. The international community should also demand that both eastern Ukraine and Crimea remain open to journalists from all countries -- not just from Russia and Ukraine. The world needs to witness what unfolds in Ukraine in the coming weeks and months, and watching through a solely Kremlin or Kiev-oriented lens is unlikely to yield credible information. Armed struggle, if used by pro-Kiev groups, would likely undermine the willingness and capacity of the international community to maintain its commitment to such steps, while threatening to create truly massive humanitarian crisis in the country -- both in the short and longer term.

In the end, it may not be politicians in the Kremlin or in Kiev who have all the power in this situation. It may be the people themselves. As political scientist Oliver Kaplan has shown, a number of nonviolent options are available to civilians -- even in the midst of violent conflict and against armed militia groups -- to protect their autonomy. Villages in rural Colombia have nonviolently resisted pressure from the military, leftist guerrillas, and right-wing paramilitaries to be conscripted, extorted, or controlled. In such violent regions as the Niger Delta and the Guatemalan highlands, nonviolent resistance has similarly challenged both armed groups and government forces.

If Ukrainians need a source for inspiration, perhaps they can look to the Tatars, who utilized nonviolent resistance in successfully demanding a fair degree of autonomy for the Tatar Republic within the Russian Federation, avoiding the carnage, repression, and emergence of extremists of Chechnya, another Muslim republic within the Russian Federation. And on May 18, more than 20,000 Crimean Tartars protested in the capital of Sevastopol and many thousands more would have taken to the streets in Simferopol and elsewhere had Russian troops not prevented the rallies from taking place. The people in Crimea, eastern Ukraine, and throughout the country do not want to be pawns in a great power game. They are increasingly recognizing that the best way to stop Russian irredentism and challenge ethnic chauvinists on both sides is for civil society to take the lead and fight for their freedom through strategic nonviolent action.