President Barack Obama seriously rattled at least one cage with his recent reference to Russia as a “regional power.”
Following the recent Summit on National Security in the Netherlands, the President, responding to a news conference question, said, “Russia is a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors, not out of strength but out of weakness.” Although the boldness of that remark seemed out of character for the president, he is correct.
Russia’s authority is limited both economically and politically. Its military presence is obvious but so are its economic and political weaknesses. This is not the old Soviet Union nor can it ever be so again. Far from the empire of Peter the Great or Catherine I, today’s Russia is a very large but very poor country with a failed government and a leader suffering from an inferiority complex. Obama describes Russian President Vladimir Putin as having “that kind of slouch like a bored kid in the back of the classroom.” Of course, Russia is a force but it is no longer an empire and we should stop considering them as one.
That word “empire” applies to only one nation, the United States. We reject it, of course, because it smacks of imperialism with which we are entirely uncomfortable. Our destiny, as Americans see it, is to be a welcoming beacon of freedom.
The United States has, with far too many obvious and tragic exceptions, tried to avoid unjustified interference in the affairs of other nations although there has always been an assertive minority of saber-rattlers among our citizenry and we have too often elected presidents who have been quick to the trigger. But in the end we have made our mistakes trying to defend and not dampen freedom.
When President John F. Kennedy announced, “I am a Berliner,” he was expressing the belief that Americans are citizens of the world – just as surely as were the ancient Romans. Ours is the benevolent voice of benign empire. Unlike either the Roman or British Empires ours encourages law above power. We are engaged not in consumption or the adjustment of national borders but rather with civil mission. “Watchmen on the walls of freedom,” Kennedy called it. America accepts the obligation of a powerful and free people to assist others around the world with purity of purpose and without the constant calculation of self-interest.
There are those few occasions when the essential definition of America’s place in the world becomes less shrouded and more understandable. Russia’s violation of Crimea and Obama’s description of them as a “regional power” is a teaching moment which has clarified the great difference between Russia and the United States.
A few days ago Obama noted that we and the world “have an interest in a strong and responsible Russia.” However, that long-ago superpower must learn the lesson of this young century. Responsibility is gained not by redrawing national boundaries through intimidation and force, but rather it requires cooperation, civility, generosity and wisdom.
Perhaps, just perhaps, the nations of the world will adopt responsibility and respect toward neighbors with the understanding that watchful United Nations, NATO and U.S. military forces are ever present just over the horizon.
Pat Williams served nine terms as a U.S. representative from Montana. After his retirement, he returned to Montana and taught at the University of Montana.