On three fronts — South Korean trade, Ukrainian/Russian diplomacy and Afghan war fighting — the Obama administration is being increasingly pressured by unfolding events to shed ideology and rationalizations and come quickly to a realistic analysis of world events and their consequences. In each of these cases, in the absence of very prompt United States policy decisions and actions, we shall incur long-term irreversible economic, geopolitical or national security harm. I will discuss the Afghan war decision in a future column.
In the case of South Korea, last week the European Union completed a bilateral trade deal (requiring approval by the European Parliament) with South Korea. While the 2006 U.S. deal with South Korea languishes unratified by both a Congress and White House controlled by the evidently protectionist wing of the Democratic Party, the Europeans cannot believe their luck. They basically copied our hard-negotiated tentative agreement, and if they soon ratify it, they will be able to take economic advantages over the United States.
European officials are “ecstatic” about the access they have gained. Catherine Ashton, the EU trade commissioner, told the Financial Times, “I think the package is the best we’ll ever get and I think it’s a fantastic package for Europe.” “There is no doubt the Korea-US agreement was used as a benchmark or even a model from the Korean side,” Christopher Dent, professor of East Asian political economy at the University of Leeds, told the Financial Times last week.
The pact would increase trade for South Korea-EU by about 20 percent — surging past current U.S.-South Korean trade levels if the U.S. fails to ratify our treaty first. Indecision by the U.S. government will in fact be a decision to lose up to $25 billion per annum of trade and jobs to the Europeans.
On the Ukrainian front, Russia is ratcheting up heavy pressure on the country to vote for the pro-Russia candidate in the January election, while ambiguous American policy and actions are undercutting pro-Western forces in Ukraine.
Last week, The Guardian — a prestigious leftist British newspaper — headlined an article thus: “Ukraine fears for its future as Moscow muscles in on Crimea. As Ukraine prepares for its first presidential election since the Orange Revolution, there are signs that its giant neighbour to the east will not tolerate a pro-western outcome.”
The crunch may come over Crimea, currently part of Ukraine but sought by Russia as in olden days.
It was, of course, at Yalta, in Crimea, that the U.S., Britain and the Soviet Union drew spheres of influence that deeply shaped the Cold War that followed.
Today, as The Guardian ruefully notes, “almost 65 years after the ‘big three’ met in the Crimean seaside resort of Yalta — now in Ukraine — the question of zones of influence has come back to haunt Europe. Russia has made it clear that it sees Ukraine as crucial to its bold claim that it is entitled to a zone of influence in its post-Soviet backyard.”
This follows Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s August letter to Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, seen by diplomats as an “unprecedented diplomatic mugging … a seething letter,” which said not only that Yushchenko is a “nonperson” but also that Russia was reviewing Russia and Ukraine’s 1997 friendship treaty, a reference that The Guardian characterized as “a hint that Moscow may no longer respect Ukraine’s sovereign borders.”
These disturbing events are being seen explicitly by Europe and Ukraine in the context of President Barack Obama’s recent decision to reverse our policy to place anti-missile defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic. Again, as even the leftist Guardian explains:
“‘A lot of people in this part of the world are seriously s——ing themselves,’ one analyst in Yalta admitted bluntly. ‘We don’t know what Obama’s deal (with Moscow) was. They think that Russia will take it as a green light,’ he added. Washington insists it dropped the shield following a new assessment of Iran’s nuclear threat. But many in Ukraine believe the White House sacrificed its commitments to eastern Europe in order to ‘reset’ relations with Moscow.”
President Obama’s refusal to meet with Yushchenko when they were both in New York for the recent United Nations conference is taken by some as further evidence that Washington is abandoning to Russian suzerainty the former Soviet-controlled states of eastern Europe.
The Europeans strongly oppose Moscow’s imperial assertions but seem unable to speak out, let alone act, without American leadership. In fact, Brussels has indicated that Ukraine has no hope of joining the EU in the foreseeable future.
This European passivity comes in the face of President Obama’s idealistic call at the U.N. last month that “those who used to chastise America for acting alone in the world cannot now stand by and wait for America to solve the world’s problems alone.”
It seems that Europe, in fact, will stand by. The world may say it disapproves of bold American leadership, but it fears — and is powerless in — its absence. Except, of course, to nibble at our economic ankles while we are inattentive.