Center for American Progress

RELEASE: Key Lessons for President Obama on Crimea and Ukraine from Presidents Reagan and Clinton
Press Release

RELEASE: Key Lessons for President Obama on Crimea and Ukraine from Presidents Reagan and Clinton

Washington, D.C. – Today, as the Obama administration prepares its next steps in response the growing crisis in Crimea and Ukraine, the Center for American Progress released an analysis of historical examples from Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton that offer lessons on how the United States should conduct business when reacting to international crises that pull American leadership and strength into question.

First, the report looks at the Reagan administration’s reaction in 1983 to the Soviet downing of a civilian Korean airliner and its response to the terrorist attack against U.S. Marines on a peacekeeping mission in Lebanon. Second, the report analyzes the Clinton administration’s initiative to proactively expand and deepen partnerships in Europe during the 1990s through its Partnership for Peace.

In the past couple months, the U.S. debate on Ukraine has quickly broken into two familiar camps, and the political divisions have been predictable. In the first camp are those working hard to solve the crisis, being hard-nosed but not reckless, such as Secretary of State John Kerry. In the second camp are the critics of the Obama administration’s national security policy.

These critics have made calls for a tougher U.S. stance against Russia, with one member of Congress stating that President Vladimir Putin was emboldened by the Obama administration’s “trembling inaction,” followed by a coalition of Republican senators introducing legislation calling to authorize military assistance for Ukraine.

Despite these critics’ worries, reemergence of the Cold War is very unlikely; Russia is far too stressed economically and far too dependent on Western countries. It is also imperative to recognize that the United States, Russia, and the European Union are not symmetrical players in the field. By comparing the United States’ and Russia’s relative strengths in regard to their size, economic vibrancy, military size and capability, and the attractiveness of their political and economic systems, it is easy to see why the United States still holds many of the cards, with Russia playing a very weak hand.

“The divisive partisanship at home and in Congress makes it harder for America to move swiftly and jointly with a common purpose,” said Rudy deLeon, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and co-author of the report. “But President Obama is rightly following in the footsteps of Presidents Reagan and Clinton. The best steps forward are to diffuse the situation in Ukraine, and these historical examples from President Obama’s predecessors offer guidance on what the United States can do to respond to specific events to proactively shape trends and expand possibilities.”

As the Obama administration focuses on the current crisis in Ukraine, the lessons from President Reagan and President Clinton offer suggestions for what the United States can do when faced with problems abroad to proactively shape trends and expand possibilities. Specifically, it should:

  • Carefully calibrate actions to underscore America’s inherent strengths and highlight Russia’s weaknesses.
  • Lead partners and allies in joint actions, a stronger choice than acting alone.
  • Remember that focusing too much on political criticism can leave policy rudderless and reactive to events. This is especially important today, as the opinion echo chamber is even louder and more distracting than it was during previous administrations.
  • Build public support to enhance the long-term goals and strategies essential for success.

Read the analysis:

To speak with an expert on this topic, contact Anne Shoup at 202.481.7146 or [email protected].