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 3:41 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
updated 12:45 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
updated 2:18 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
updated 1:43 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
updated 4:28 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 3:39 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:09 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT