As President Obama prepares to leave office, the headlines are filled with the news about the actions he has taken that have inflamed both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In the case of the former, the President just took action in response to Putin’s attempt to disrupt the 2016 election and on the latter, the U.S. abstained from a vote in the U.N. Security Council calling for a halt in settlement activity on the West Bank.
The narcissistic perspective of Donald Trump leads him to believe that these actions are an attempt to place roadblocks in the path of the transition from one president to another. But the truth is that they are both a response to actions that are disruptive to long-term peace and stability in the world.
In order to understand how these two men pose a threat to those goals, it is helpful to step back and take a look at the speech President Obama gave in Brussels following the Russian incursion into Ukraine and annexation of Crimea. His goal was to rally the support of Europe around the sanctions against Russia for their actions. The first portion of the speech was dedicated to providing an historical perspective.
Throughout human history, societies have grappled with fundamental questions of how to organize themselves, the proper relationship between the individual and the state, the best means to resolve inevitable conflicts between states. And it was here in Europe, through centuries of struggle — through war and Enlightenment, repression and revolution — that a particular set of ideals began to emerge: The belief that through conscience and free will, each of us has the right to live as we choose. The belief that power is derived from the consent of the governed, and that laws and institutions should be established to protect that understanding. And those ideas eventually inspired a band of colonialists across an ocean, and they wrote them into the founding documents that still guide America today, including the simple truth that all men — and women — are created equal.
But those ideals have also been tested — here in Europe and around the world. Those ideals have often been threatened by an older, more traditional view of power. This alternative vision argues that ordinary men and women are too small-minded to govern their own affairs, that order and progress can only come when individuals surrender their rights to an all-powerful sovereign. Often, this alternative vision roots itself in the notion that by virtue of race or faith or ethnicity, some are inherently superior to others, and that individual identity must be defined by “us” versus “them,” or that national greatness must flow not by what a people stand for, but by what they are against.
Obama goes on to talk about the fact that two world wars were fought over these competing views and were followed by the Cold War, the struggles in India and Africa to overcome colonialism, the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S., the anti-apartheid movement led by Nelson Mandela in South Africa and an embrace of democracy in Latin American and Asia. And then he highlighted what is foundational to all of these changes.
Yes, we believe in democracy — with elections that are free and fair; and independent judiciaries and opposition parties; civil society and uncensored information so that individuals can make their own choices. Yes, we believe in open economies based on free markets and innovation, and individual initiative and entrepreneurship, and trade and investment that creates a broader prosperity. And, yes, we believe in human dignity — that every person is created equal, no matter who you are, or what you look like, or who you love, or where you come from. That is what we believe. That’s what makes us strong.
And our enduring strength is also reflected in our respect for an international system that protects the rights of both nations and people — a United Nations and a Universal Declaration of Human Rights; international law and the means to enforce those laws. But we also know that those rules are not self-executing; they depend on people and nations of goodwill continually affirming them.
What was threatened by Russia’s actions in Ukraine was not only a movement towards those democratic ideals, it was a challenge to the “international system that protects the rights of both nations and people.”
Beyond Crimea, Vladimir Putin has demonstrated over the last few years that he is engaged in the “weaponization of information” to sow division and doubt in Western democracies. As Neil MacFarquhar reported:
The fundamental purpose of dezinformatsiya, or Russian disinformation, experts said, is to undermine the official version of events — even the very idea that there is a true version of events — and foster a kind of policy paralysis…
Although the topics may vary, the goal is the same, Mr. Lindberg and others suggested. “What the Russians are doing is building narratives; they are not building facts,” he said. “The underlying narrative is, ‘Don’t trust anyone.’”
This goes beyond what Russia did to hack and release private information on Democratic candidates during the 2016 campaign. As MacFarquhar and others have noted, it is something that is currently happening in many European countries. That is why President Obama included this in his statement yesterday about our response:
In addition to holding Russia accountable for what it has done, the United States and friends and allies around the world must work together to oppose Russia’s efforts to undermine established international norms of behavior, and interfere with democratic governance.
When it comes to Netanyahu, we see the same challenge to democratic ideals and a disruption of international norms. While it is true that Israel is a democratic country, that cannot be said of the Palestinians who live under occupation…a situation that is not sustainable. As Tom Friedman wrote, at some point Israel will have to face the fact that it can no longer be Jewish or it can no longer be democratic. Friedman also summarizes how this situation affects international order.
What is Iran’s top goal when it comes to Israel? That Israel never leaves the West Bank and that it implants Jewish settlers everywhere there.
That would keep Israel in permanent conflict with Palestinians and the Muslim world, as well as many Western democracies and their college campuses…A West Bank on fire would become a recruitment tool for ISIS and Iran.
Just as much of Latin America used the Cuban embargo to point the finger away from their own country’s abuses and lay the blame on the U.S., Middle Eastern dictators use the Palestinian issue to keep the focus on Israel as the villain and avoid accountability for their own democratic failures. That ensures a Middle East that is constantly in chaos.
Over the course of his presidency, Obama has attempted to rally international support to challenge these threats to both democracy and international order. His success in organizing global sanctions against Russia and in negotiating an agreement with Iran on their nuclear weapons program provided opportunities for Putin and Netanyahu to engage in diplomatic solutions that would foster peace and democracy. Rather than take advantage of those opportunities, these two leaders have chosen to further inflame the situation. As he prepares to leave office, President Obama responded.