KELLY: Remembering who Americans are

A nation that cannot define itself cannot defend itself — or others

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At last week’s Nuclear Security Summit in the Netherlands, President Obama assessed the ongoing crisis in Ukraine and determined that “it would be dishonest to suggest there is a simple solution” to Russia’s lawless capture of Crimea.

Fifty years ago, president-to-be Ronald Reagan addressed the challenge of that era’s much more daunting Russian domination and famously suggested, “Perhaps there is a simple answer — not an easy answer — but simple.”

Reagan called upon America to learn from our past, defend our values, stand by our friends and pledge before our foes: “There is a price we will not pay. There is a point beyond which they must not advance.”

In other words, before even delving into the intricacies of specific policies and strategies, we had to come to terms with the stakes of the struggle at hand and our role in that struggle — and beyond. “You and I have a rendezvous with destiny,” Reagan proclaimed.

A half-century later, we live in very different world — without the Soviet Empire — thanks in major part to Reagan taking his advice with him to the White House. Times have changed, but the “not easy, but simple” principle of “peace through strength” is as relevant as ever.

Unfortunately, Mr. Obama seems beholden to a much different outlook when it comes to foreign affairs, stemming from a radically different understanding of our purpose in the world.

The debate over Crimea’s fate will carry on, and it is my hope that much more effective sanctions will soon be imposed on the Russian Federation. Beneath Ukraine’s plight and Vladimir Putin’s aggression is an unmistakable elephant in the room; namely, an American superpower increasingly uncomfortable with its own identity and responsibilities.

“Peace through strength” is transforming into “strength through reluctance.” That reluctance is leading to retreat. The world senses it; our friends — from Israel to Poland to Taiwan — fear it; our enemies are counting on it. After all, a nation that cannot define itself cannot defend itself, or lead others.

Over the past five years, the world has witnessed an American administration preferring to “lead from behind” and refusing to take our role as the world’s indispensable nation seriously. Recently, The New York Times reported, “Mr. Obama acknowledges, at least in private, that he is managing an era of American retrenchment.” Hence, the president’s recent budget proposal to chop our military down to pre-Pearl Harbor levels — even as China is boosting its own defense budget by more than 10 percent.

Obsessed with fulfilling its own talking point that “the tide of war is receding,” the Obama administration has decided that by disarming our defenses and retreating from the world, peace will somehow follow. History says otherwise.

After World War I, after the exhaustion of Vietnam, and even after the end of the Cold War, our temptation to trim our defenses and sit out world affairs was only greeted with more war and new terror. Today’s unfolding reality, not just in Ukraine, tells a similar story.

From the renewed bloodshed in Afghanistan to the black flags of al Qaeda now waving in Iraq, from Iran’s march toward nuclear weapons to the ongoing civil war in Syria, when we fail to confidently lead, crises only worsen, and a heavy price — in blood, treasure and American credibility — is paid.

This administration — and whatever one comes next — must commit to reversing course. Above all, we must re-establish an America that our allies can depend upon and our enemies rightly fear. “Decline is a choice,” as Charles Krauthammer puts it, and it remains in our own hands whether we maintain our power and pride on the world stage or allow it all to wither away.

Three years before taking office, while we were still trapped in another period of weakness and self-doubt, Reagan urged America to face the world as it was, not as we wished it to be, and accept that “like it or not, trouble will not be avoided.”

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