THE HAGUE — President Barack Obama has shunned comparisons to the Cold War era on his trip to Europe this week, focusing on diplomacy while saying Russia is no longer a global power.
On Tuesday he sought to calm allies rattled by Moscow’s seizure of Crimea from Ukraine, pointedly referring to the United States as “the most powerful nation in the world.”
“Russia is a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors — not out of strength, but out of weakness,” Obama said. “The fact that Russia felt compelled to go in militarily and lay bare these violations of international law indicates less influence, not more.”
Obama’s comments during a news conference in The Hague came at the end of a two-day summit on nuclear security. He is scheduled to give a speech Wednesday in Brussels, where he is expected to argue that the world remains undeterred in its turn toward democracy.
The president wants to reassure Americans that the U.S. is not poised to go to war over Ukraine, while pushing back against Republican critics who charge that a renewed Cold War is emerging on his watch and that he is not standing up to his rival.
He rejected the contention, made by then-GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, that Russia was the most serious threat to U.S. interests. “They don’t pose the No. 1 national security threat to the United States,” Obama said, adding that he was much more worried about a terrorist attack in Manhattan.
As he has done in private meetings all week, Obama will make the case in his address to college students and others at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels that democracy, human rights and civil society were the winners in the decades-long standoff between the Soviet Union and the West, although that progress may be tested from time to time.
“There are always going to be bad things that happen around the world, and the United States, as the most powerful nation in the world, understandably is looked to for solutions to those problems,” Obama said Tuesday. “And what we have to make sure we’re doing is that we are putting all elements of our power behind finding solutions, working with our international partners, standing up for those principles and ideals in a clear way.”
In the United States, public concern about Russia has increased since its annexation of Crimea last week. A new Pew Research Center poll shows that 35 percent of Americans think Obama isn’t being tough enough in response, and 43 percent think he is handling the situation about right.
But Americans are also reluctant to get too involved in Ukraine, with more than half saying it is more important to keep a healthy distance, according to the poll.
Many Europeans, meanwhile, are encouraging bolder American leadership.
“There is no geopolitical conflict which can be solved without the United States,” Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said Tuesday as he stood at Obama’s side. “I applaud the fact that President Obama’s administration is active in every arena — Ukraine, Iran, Syria, the Middle East peace process, and so many other parts of the world.”
The White House says the president acknowledges that Europeans are looking for strong U.S. leadership. Obama pushed his speechwriters to add historical context and broad themes to early drafts of the speech. And he rejected an early draft because he thought it was too focused on Russia.
When he speaks Wednesday, he is not planning to offer new foreign policy initiatives or to sketch a new Obama doctrine, according to advisers familiar with the president’s plans.
Instead, he wants to urge the international community — world leaders and private citizens alike — to maintain the vigilance needed to strengthen democracy and defend the rule of law. The U.S. may or may not get involved militarily, goes the Obama argument, depending on whether its security interests are at stake.
The White House has suggested that Obama will try to gird his counterparts in the West for the slow task of isolating Russia for its annexation of Crimea. He will affirm U.S. support for the fledgling Ukrainian government and emphasize to Russian President Vladimir Putin that he could still pursue a diplomatic solution and that he would face consequences otherwise.
On Tuesday, Obama for the first time acknowledged that Crimea was Russia’s for the foreseeable future.
“There’s no expectation that they will be dislodged by force,” he said. “And so what we can bring to bear are the legal arguments, the diplomatic arguments, the political pressure, the economic sanctions that are already in place, to try to make sure that there’s a cost to that process.”
Obama also defended American influence in the world.
“You know, the truth of the matter is ... the world’s always been messy,” he said. “And what the United States has consistently been able to do, and we continue to be able to do, is to mobilize the international community around a set of principles and norms.”