Obama’s cautious style has left US foreign policy lagging events. On Ukraine, he must take the lead

The impression remains that under Mr Obama, America is in global retreat

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For Barack Obama, the de facto Russian annexation of the Crimea – not to mention the risk of further such encroachment into Ukrainian territory – is by far the greatest foreign policy challenge of his presidency. It is a test of both his own and his country’s credibility, in what increasingly seems a last act of the Cold War, the confrontation that dominated the second half of the 20th century.

First and foremost, Mr Obama must reverse perceptions. His cautious and cerebral style in many respects is to be admired. His judgement is sound; unlike his immediate predecessor he thinks long and hard before he acts, weighing advantages and disadvantages in almost professorial style. The supreme manifestation of these virtues was the 2011 commando raid to eliminate Osama bin Laden. Beyond doubt, this commander-in-chief is capable of taking tough decisions.

But the impression remains that under Mr Obama, America is in global retreat. It has withdrawn from Iraq, and seeks to be out of Afghanistan by the end of the year. In the 2011 Nato campaign in Libya which unseated Colonel Gaddafi, White House officials spoke almost with pride of “leading from behind”. Over Syria, the administration’s performance has been hesitant, to put it mildly.

The sense of scaling back has only been underlined with the plans mooted last week by Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel for a substantial reduction in the Pentagon budget, including a cut in regular forces to the lowest levels since before the US entered the Second World War. Not just Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin, but other potential rivals like China, have surely gained the sense that this White House will not react as forcefully as others in the past, and that they can act with relative impunity.

Periods of retrenchment, to focus on problems at home, are nothing new. They occurred after the Korean and Vietnam conflicts, and at the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union – this latter supposed by some to signify “the end of history” and the irreversible triumph of Western liberal democracy. But history has a way of biting back. In this confrontation with a re-assertive Russia, there can be no leading from behind by America.

Of course, Russia has legitimate and unique interests in Ukraine, which sits astride the East-West fault line. But that does not mean it can simply annex chunks of the country as it sees fit. Mr Obama must articulate, loudly and clearly, a plan of action in the likely event that Moscow does not reverse course.

Direct military intervention by the West is unthinkable, as Mr Putin knows. But there are other means of ensuring that Russia pays a price. The expulsion of Russia from the G8 (an organisation it should never have been permitted to join in the first place) should merely be a start. Stiff sanctions against Russian individuals and institutions should also be introduced by Washington and its allies. Even more painful would be measures limiting Russian access to the international financial system, as the latest decline in the rouble’s exchange rate may be signalling. Most important of all however, Mr Obama must take charge – with a forcefulness and a conviction that of late have often been absent.

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