Foreign policy is complicated stuff. In theory, diplomacy is the buffer between uneasy peace and avoidable war. In the 21st century, there are more reasons to tolerate uneasy peace, beginning with economic interdependence. At the same time, war is more sudden and devastating than ever, making it less desirable than ever. Both factors elevate diplomacy, pre-war deterrence and the need for U.S. leadership. President Obama needs to step up.
What happens when a major player on the world stage — in this case, Russia, possessor of intercontinental ballistic missiles — throws caution to the wind and invades another country? What should U.S. leaders do? In the context of history, three principles frame the answer.
First, to resolve international conflicts, understand the facts. Ukraine, like many regions formerly dominated by the Soviet Union, has a divided culture, fractious past and history fraught with conflict and underestimation, which makes sovereignty dear. Russia, meanwhile, has a long-standing fear of encirclement. Rational or not, the fear makes Russia preoccupied with a warm-water port. That port is Sevastopol, Crimea, which since 1989 has been part of Ukraine — although home to the Russian fleet. Thus, Russia and Ukraine negotiated an agreement that, until now, permitted Russia to use of the critical port.
Ukraine's claim to the Crimea rests on sovereignty; Russia's rests on perceived necessity and cultural ties. History seems to be moving swiftly. Crimea has now declared itself free of Western Ukraine — which abrogates the Ukrainian Constitution — but in a way, so does Ukraine's currently unelected leadership. Establishing a clear case for sovereignty is, alas, a complex business, as the world has recently witnessed in Egypt, Syria, Kosovo and elsewhere. Sovereignty belongs to "the people" — but to which people?
Second, diplomacy only succeeds when credible. While Russia's military action was not justified under international law, it was not random. It was calculated and the result of failed diplomacy. Diplomacy requires credible deterrence. "Peace through strength," Ronald Reagan's axiom, says it all. The phrase is predictive. When democracies neglect deterrence, adversaries test it. After the Germans had taken the Rhineland, Neville Chamberlain declared "peace in our time." His appeasement led to nearly six years of war.
Vladimir Putin saw little Western reaction to his 2008 aggression in Georgia. By May 2010, Mr. Obama had lifted sanctions levied by President George W. Bush. In March 2012, Mr. Obama was assuring Mr. Putin's placeholder, President Dmitry Medvedev, that "after the election, I'll have more flexibility." What more did Mr. Putin need to believe Mr. Obama had given him license?
If any doubt remained, Mr. Obama's Bambi-eyed blink at Mr. Putin — the failed promise to take action against Syria's use of chemical weapons — resolved the issue decisively. Mr. Obama would take no action. In contrast, Mr. Putin was about power, taking action. He assessed Mr. Obama's character, inexperience on the world stage and disposition toward shrinking U.S. commitments as an opportunity. He watched as Mr. Obama rolled back America's military presence, amputated alliances, bartered with enemies, and pared back the military budget. Mr. Putin was engaged, Mr. Obama confused.
Third, successful U.S. diplomacy requires presidential leadership. Where was Mr. Obama when an anticipatory, private dialogue about the Ukraine's predictable evolution might have ridden Russia off the play, provided Russia with the U.S. view of Ukraine's uncertain future, and assured Russia that we did not oppose access to a warm water port? Where was the early warning? Was the future so hard to see? Instead of geopolitics, Mr. Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry were mumbling about global weather.
Where do we go from here? Should Mr. Obama go to war with Mr. Putin to regain lost face? Of course not. War with Russia is not an option unless we are attacked, which would be in no one's interest. Neither is "whispered appeasement." If Mr. Obama did not know it before, he does now: Appeasement fails, whether the object is Iran or Russia.
What should the president do? Learn and acknowledge what Reagan and Winston Churchill before him instinctively knew. Strength alone secures peace. Mr. Obama should use the Crimea as a pivot point, offering a major address on U.S. resolve to defend liberty and support allies through a rededication to peace through strength. He can reaffirm U.S. commitment to a strong force structure, power projection, 11 aircraft carriers, and a stable — not shrinking — military budget. He can give unconditional support to allies, including Israel, Taiwan, Japan and Eastern Europe. There should be no question left about U.S. resolve. This alone will change the equation, no matter how Crimea plays out.
Then some diplomacy is in order. He should shed Chamberlain and hove to Churchill and Reagan. The result will be salutary — for the United States, world peace and his political legacy. By demonstrating appreciation for the nuances of geopolitical history, the complex nature of sovereignty, importance of borders and self-rule, fidelity to allies and sanctity of alliances, he will restore U.S. credibility. He should make Mr. Putin work with Ukraine's new leadership, dump the delegitimized former president, demilitarize bristling East Ukraine, and conduct a fair referendum on Crimea's future, or face escalating sanctions. Mr. Obama needs to stop putting American credibility — and thus security — at risk, and start leading.
Robert B. Charles is a former U.S. assistant secretary of state and heads a consulting firm in Washington D.C.