Ukraine,Venezuela and the Lessons of History & U.S. Power

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The protests in Ukraine and Venezuela have laid bare a new fault line in the 21st century. Along this fault line sit an increasingly globalized middle class, eager to link themselves with the West and modernity, and a corrupt ruling class that seeks to maintain ill-gotten privileges that are vestiges of a discredited past.

While no one wants to return to a Cold War era of confrontation and brinksmanship, the United States can benefit from the wisdom of some of the great Cold War presidents in confronting divides. First and foremost, they would advise that America and its allies cannot remain passive in the face of provocations by those who seek to oppress their people and their neighbors.

No one should be surprised that Viktor Yanukovych, the deposed Ukrainian president, chose an authoritarian alliance with his overseers in the Kremlin instead of opening his nation to the European Union. As the once closed doors of his ostentatious mansion are flung open, and the extent of his ill-gotten gains is revealed to his impoverished people, it becomes clear just how much Yanukovych had to lose from political and fiscal transparency.

This same dynamic exists in Venezuela, where protests have pitted middle-class students and urban dwellers against the Chavez-inspired government of Nicholas Maduro. Similar to Yanukovych and Vladimir Putin, Maduro and the heirs of the Chavez regime continue to enrich and empower themselves while the Venezuelan people suffer shortages of basic necessities, including food, medicine, and fuel—ironic for a hydrocarbon rich nation. The level of cronyism is evidenced by the fact that the Chavez children still occupy the Caracas presidential palace, living in luxury while many of their countrymen go hungry.

In both Ukraine and Venezuela—and Russia as well—the societies are thus divided between a political elite built around patronage and corruption, and an increasingly globally aligned middle class who yearn for economic reform and a voice in decisions regarding own destiny. This is the fault line of our times. The great Cold War presidents would be clear that America must stand firm on the side of those seeking freedom and dignity.

President Eisenhower also understood that economic strength was the wellspring of American power. For him, U.S. military might flowed from our fiscal vitality. Similarly, the United States can show power today by emphasizing why our free and open markets are superior to cronyism and corruption. While economic sanctions appear to be an easy tool for confronting these nations, there is more to gain through economic exchange that empowers middle classes and intellectual elites.

President Kennedy insisted on a flexible U.S. military and the full spectrum of options it afforded. He felt it was important to demonstrate that the United States could conduct military operations that went beyond the deployment of massive U.S. conventional or strategic nuclear forces. In today’s environment, he might advise the Pentagon to use U.S. Special Forces, training missions, and military assistance to build the capabilities of allied nations. During the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy learned the limitations of covert action, but he continued to support tools like the Green Berets. He would likely applaud Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s current defense budget and guidance, which emphasizes Special Forces and nonconventional capabilities such as cyber-warfare. There is also wisdom for the ages in Kennedy’s pledge, in his 1961 inaugural address, to both allies and the oppressed:

“To those old allies whose cultural and spiritual origins we share, we pledge the loyalty of faithful friends. United, there is little we cannot do in a host of cooperative ventures. Divided, there is little we can do—for we dare not meet a powerful challenge at odds and split asunder. To those peoples … across the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required.”

Finally, President Reagan understood the importance of balancing strength with the flexibility to exploit political openings presented by rivals. While the beginning of his administration was marked by a military and diplomatic effort to push back against Soviet expansion and nuclear blackmail, when Mikhail Gorbachev presented an opening for reform and negotiation, Reagan seized the opportunity.

In doing so, he set in motion the events that led to victory in the Cold War, successfully breaching the divide of Reagan’s time that kept hundreds of millions of Eastern Europeans enslaved by Soviet tyranny. Reagan also set up the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a grant-making semi-independent organization under USAID that promotes democracy. Reagan might have advised that Putin be given a face-saving opportunity to roll back his oppression and rejoin the community of nations.

Reagan might also have favored encouraging the use of NED as an independent organization, to give the United States the flexibility to act proactively in a changing strategic environment to bring Venezuela and Ukraine back into the American orbit.

In addressing the challenge presented by Putin and his erstwhile comrades, it is most important for the United States to reestablish its leadership. Our allies do not want a return to Cold War geopolitics, but they still look to Washington as the one capital that can rally the West to collective action against a common threat.

The American people are tired of war and recession, but we cannot retreat from our responsibilities and our role as a global leader. If the collective voices of our greatest Cold War presidents could impart one lesson of history, it would likely be that when people anywhere stand up and fight for freedom and justice, the United States, and American power, must stand with them. 

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