President Barack Obama’s speech to the United Nations on Wednesday signaled a shift: America leading from behind was being ditched in favor of America leading from up front.
For obvious reasons the press focused on what he said about fighting ISIS – it is the issue of the day, the one that grabs us by throat because it strikes fear into our heart. But it was on another subject entirely that Obama’s hardened tone was the more striking. The subject was Russia, it was what the president of the United States finally said about Russia.
For many months America’s response to Russian aggression has been muted. In comparison for example with someone like Anders Fogh Rasmussen – the outgoing Secretary General of NATO – Obama’s posture vis-à-vis Putin has been positively puny. It has been Rasmussen who has been insisting, certainly since Russia seized Crimea, that Putin has a “master plan” to “establish a zone of Russian influence … covering the former Soviet space.” Obama meanwhile was slow to get on board, slow to take seriously the threat posed by Putin to the European order.
But, on Wednesday the president’s temper was different. On Wednesday he listed hard facts, among them that “Russia poured arms into Eastern Ukraine, fueling violent separatists and a conflict that has killed thousands.” On Wednesday he cited the differences in world view, Russia’s vision is one in which “might makes right” and America’s is one in which “right makes might.” And on Wednesday he put forth in no uncertain terms what America was determined now to do: it would support the people of Ukraine; it would reinforce its NATO allies and uphold its commitment to collective defense; and it would impose a cost on Russia for aggression.
At the United Nations the president could have chosen to focus nearly exclusively on ISIS – but he did not. He seized the moment to send a clear, more global message. Whatever he was in the past, he no longer was in the present. While he was slow to change, reluctant to change, Obama has changed. Of the president it may now safely be said that he is prepared to see the world as it is, not as he would prefer it to be.