Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

How Obama can save the day

By Frida Ghitis
updated 12:17 PM EDT, Wed March 26, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Frida Ghitis: In the past few years, the influence of the West on global stage has declined
  • Ghitis: Obama in Europe must reinvigorate Atlantic alliance and put its enemies on notice
  • The worst regimes in the world stand to gain if the West loses its leading role, she says

Editor's note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review. A former CNN producer and correspondent, she is the author of "The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television." Follow her on Twitter @FridaGhitis.

(CNN) -- In the years since President Barack Obama moved into the White House, Western influence on the global stage has declined. With Russian troops massing on Ukraine's borders and NATO's top commander warning that Russian President Vladimir Putin may be preparing to make another move after annexing Crimea, there is an urgent priority.

President Obama has arrived in Europe at what could turn out to be a hinge point in history. It is crucial that he use this fraught occasion to launch a strategy to reinvigorate the Atlantic alliance, reassure its friends and put its enemies on notice.

Frida Ghitis
Frida Ghitis

Obama and other Western leaders called for Syria's Bashar al-Assad to step down, yet he has arguably grown stronger since then. The government of Egypt, once a close ally of the West, has spun away. Russia blatantly ignored American and European calls not to invade Ukrainian territory. The U.S. has surprisingly little influence even in Afghanistan, where it still has thousands of troops.

The loss of American and European influence is not just a loss of geopolitical clout for one bloc. The West stands for many of the principles that the world has consecrated as universal, such as rule of law, respect for international norms and the protection of human rights.

The United States and its European allies possess a triple arsenal of enormous power.

First, they embody ideals that hold powerful universal appeal. Second, their combined economies, despite the recent downturn, easily dwarf any and all of their rivals. Third, the U.S. and its allies remain the undisputed top military power on Earth.

Obama must launch a program to re-energize the partnership of the democratic West, brandishing the unity of the alliance and the universality of the principles it espouses.

No, Europe and the U.S. have not behaved in perfect accordance with those principles, but their institutions and laws, however flawed, still aim for governments that derive power not from corruption, force or manipulation but from the will of the people. It's a system in which individuals are solemnly respected by the state and where laws are fairly made and justly applied to all people, including those who disagree with the government.

The decline of the West's relative power means that the forces that strive for these norms have grown weaker. It means there is less strength to prevent or reverse ongoing catastrophes, such as the war in Syria or the infamy that unfolds every day in North Korea.

It means Putin, whose rule is increasingly authoritarian at home, has found it possible to move without worry and cross what were international borders until just a few days ago, violating not only international law but also an agreement signed by Moscow in 1994 vowing to respect Ukraine's borders. The weaker West has allowed Putin to fearlessly flaunt his disdain for any pushback from the international community while his heavily armed forces bare their teeth across the eastern side of Ukraine's border, and from the south, from within what used to be Ukraine's Crimea.

Obama: Russia stands alone
Obama takes a swipe at Putin

And he had no reason to fear that the West would do much to stop it.

Obama's response to Putin's actions in Ukraine has gradually taken on a more credible character. The latest round of sanctions, announced on Friday, bites a little closer to Putin's inner circle. The real test is now, when he is meeting with allies in Europe. The decision to expel Russia from the G-8 would constitute a dramatic and important symbolic move.

Putin will dismiss every decision with bravado. The move not to hold the next G8 summit in his shining Sochi, rebuilt at enormous cost for his showcase Winter Olympics, has to sting.

Russians, many of whom had grown disenchanted with Putin, have nevertheless rallied around their strutting President. An upsurge in a leader's popularity, however, is common in situations like these. Russians don't want their country to become an international pariah. Eventually, some will see that what is happening is clearly not, as Putin describes, the result of an aggressive America or of a West that seeks to diminish and humiliate Russia.

Putin's closest associates, the men who have enriched themselves in his autocratic system, will swear their support. But they want access to global markets and they want the prestige of rubbing elbows with global elites. They see themselves as successful, worldly and sophisticated businessmen. They don't want the world to perceive them as outlaw cronies in an isolated regime.

Putin's actions have a thin silver lining. They may just help awaken the West from its depressive slumber and shake the U.S. from the conceit that it can pay less attention to the rest of the world without consequences.

The past few years have been painful for Europe and for the U.S. and have eroded the relationship. Friction between the two sides of the Atlantic blurred the strong ties that still bind the allies. Europe, still struggling with a deep recession, is having a case of low self-esteem. And Americans, too, for good reason, are not feeling particularly proud of their democratic institutions.

And yet, the protesters who occupied the square in Ukraine's capital yearn for a system that resembles what they see from their European neighbors, particularly the ones in Eastern Europe, which were once under Moscow's domination.

Obama must revitalize the alliance. Remind its members and the world what it stands for and just how much it can do. Help end European reliance on Russia fuel. Convince London and Paris and Berlin that they can do without the oligarchs' cash.

He must schedule frequent, high-profile working meetings to take steps to isolate Russia and clarify what the West seeks -- not domination of Russia's neighborhood, but a system of prosperity and democracy that benefits every country, including Russia, if it chooses to play by the rules. And countries that mass their troops, threatening to invade their neighbors, must pay a high price, a price that will escalate if they make another move.

Then the West's influence in the global stage may just reverse course, and that will be bad news for the world's worst regimes. It's a long game, but that is the priority right now.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Frida Ghitis.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:56 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
updated 4:15 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
updated 3:28 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
updated 11:35 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
updated 9:50 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
updated 11:07 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
updated 1:55 PM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
updated 3:53 PM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
updated 3:33 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
updated 6:11 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
updated 3:14 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
updated 8:14 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
updated 4:16 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
updated 1:29 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
updated 2:04 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
updated 11:18 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
updated 9:24 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT