Ukraine shows that Western politicians are no longer omnipotent

Missing from public discourse over the crisis in Eastern Europe is a sense of how difficult it is for western officials to act in concert.

In her new book about the causes of the First World War, The War That Ended Peace, Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan steers clear of blaming particular parties for beginning the conflict. Rather she finds a kind of collective failure among Europe’s elites:

“We can accuse those who took Europe into war of two things: First, a failure of imagination in not seeing how destructive such a conflict would be, and second, their lack of courage to stand up to those who said there was no choice left but to go to war.”

“There are always choices.” she concludes.

In both her book and the subsequent press for it, MacMillan has been at pains to draw parallels between the build-up to 1914 and the problems confronting today’s world leaders. Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, the East China Sea all require heads of government with the ability to look beyond their narrow confines.

Otherwise, what begins a localised dispute can easily conflagrate into something far graver.

In a world where it is taken as a given that politicians will struggle to deliver on their promises, it is somewhat surprising that so much faith is still placed in their ability to tackle global problems. On Ukraine and the wider problem of Russian aggression, there is today an assumption that greater resolve among western leaders can keep Moscow from drawing the country back into its orbit.

In a New York Times column on region this weekend, Columbia University Professor Stephen Sestanovich argued US and European leaders should address Ukraine’s weaknesses through a programme of reforms akin to the Marshall Plan. An $18bn IMF stabilisation programme and greater integration with the EU would help, he added almost casually.

What has been missing from much of the public discourse over the crisis in Eastern Europe is a sense of how difficult it is for western officials to act in concert at the moment.

Part of this is personal. There are bitter differences of worldview between key actors like the US assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs Victoria Nuland and EU foreign policy chief Baroness Ashton, two exceptionally gifted officials with very conflicting ideas about how the power of diplomacy should be used with respect to Russia.

Then there are US and EU’s differing strategic priorities.

In a little-noticed interview with the LA Times this weekend, American defence secretary Chuck Hagel gave an indication of just how much the Obama administration regards tensions in the East China Sea as the starkest threat to US national security. US support for Ukraine has not pulled any assets away from Asia, where “the big one” – America’s future relationship with China – will be decided.

And perhaps most importantly at all, there is that most unpredictable of creatures, public opinion.

In the UK, voters are deeply conflicted about what has been unfolding over the last few weeks. There is broad agreement President Putin’s government poses a long-term threat to national interests, but little appetite for throwing the cloak of EU membership over Ukraine to ward him off.

Similarly in Germany the consensus on sanctions against the Kremlin is building, but few are prepared to see the Bundesrepublik’s army take a more active role in the global arena.

As World War I and World War II teach us in different ways, the behaviour of leaders inadequate to the gravity of an international crisis can have devastating consequences for their countries.

But as at other points in the modern era, our politicians face trends and tides that leave them far from omnipotent. For every choice, there is a challenge.

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