Remarks by the President in Address to European Youth
Palais des Beaux Arts
So I come here today to insist that we must never take for granted the progress that has been won here in Europe and advanced around the world, because the contest of ideas continues for your generation. And that’s what’s at stake in Ukraine today. Russia’s leadership is challenging truths that only a few weeks ago seemed self-evident -- that in the 21st century, the borders of Europe cannot be redrawn with force, that international law matters, that people and nations can make their own decisions about their future.
To be honest, if we defined our interests narrowly, if we applied a cold-hearted calculus, we might decide to look the other way. Our economy is not deeply integrated with Ukraine’s. Our people and our homeland face no direct threat from the invasion of Crimea. Our own borders are not threatened by Russia’s annexation. But that kind of casual indifference would ignore the lessons that are written in the cemeteries of this continent. It would allow the old way of doing things to regain a foothold in this young century. And that message would be heard not just in Europe, but in Asia and the Americas, in Africa and the Middle East.
And the consequences that would arise from complacency are not abstractions. The impact that they have on the lives of real people -- men and women just like us -- have to enter into our imaginations. Just look at the young people of Ukraine who were determined to take back their future from a government rotted by corruption -- the portraits of the fallen shot by snipers, the visitors who pay their respects at the Maidan. There was the university student, wrapped in the Ukrainian flag, expressing her hope that “every country should live by the law.” A postgraduate student, speaking of her fellow protesters, saying, “I want these people who are here to have dignity.” Imagine that you are the young woman who said, “there are some things that fear, police sticks and tear gas cannot destroy.”
We've never met these people, but we know them. Their voices echo calls for human dignity that rang out in European streets and squares for generations. Their voices echo those around the world who at this very moment fight for their dignity. These Ukrainians rejected a government that was stealing from the people instead of serving them, and are reaching for the same ideals that allow us to be here today.
None of us can know for certain what the coming days will bring in Ukraine, but I am confident that eventually those voices -- those voices for human dignity and opportunity and individual rights and rule of law -- those voices ultimately will triumph. I believe that over the long haul, as nations that are free, as free people, the future is ours. I believe this not because I’m naive, and I believe this not because of the strength of our arms or the size of our economies, I believe this because these ideals that we affirm are true; these ideals are universal.
Yes, we believe in democracy -- with elections that are free and fair; and independent judiciaries and opposition parties; civil society and uncensored information so that individuals can make their own choices. Yes, we believe in open economies based on free markets and innovation, and individual initiative and entrepreneurship, and trade and investment that creates a broader prosperity. And, yes, we believe in human dignity -- that every person is created equal, no matter who you are, or what you look like, or who you love, or where you come from. That is what we believe. That’s what makes us strong.
And our enduring strength is also reflected in our respect for an international system that protects the rights of both nations and people -- a United Nations and a Universal Declaration of Human Rights; international law and the means to enforce those laws. But we also know that those rules are not self-executing; they depend on people and nations of goodwill continually affirming them. And that’s why Russia’s violation of international law -- its assault on Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity -- must be met with condemnation. Not because we’re trying to keep Russia down, but because the principles that have meant so much to Europe and the world must be lifted up.
Over the last several days, the United States, Europe, and our partners around the world have been united in defense of these ideals, and united in support of the Ukrainian people. Together, we've condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and rejected the legitimacy of the Crimean referendum. Together, we have isolated Russia politically, suspending it from the G8 nations and downgrading our bilateral ties. Together, we are imposing costs through sanctions that have left a mark on Russia and those accountable for its actions. And if the Russian leadership stays on its current course, together we will ensure that this isolation deepens. Sanctions will expand. And the toll on Russia’s economy, as well as its standing in the world, will only increase.
And meanwhile, the United States and our allies will continue to support the government of Ukraine as they chart a democratic course. Together, we are going to provide a significant package of assistance that can help stabilize the Ukrainian economy, and meet the basic needs of the people. Make no mistake: Neither the United States, nor Europe has any interest in controlling Ukraine. We have sent no troops there. What we want is for the Ukrainian people to make their own decisions, just like other free people around the world.
Understand, as well, this is not another Cold War that we’re entering into. After all, unlike the Soviet Union, Russia leads no bloc of nations, no global ideology. The United States and NATO do not seek any conflict with Russia. In fact, for more than 60 years, we have come together in NATO -- not to claim other lands, but to keep nations free. What we will do -- always -- is uphold our solemn obligation, our Article 5 duty to defend the sovereignty and territorial integrity of our allies. And in that promise we will never waver; NATO nations never stand alone.
Today, NATO planes patrol the skies over the Baltics, and we've reinforced our presence in Poland. And we’re prepared to do more. Going forward, every NATO member state must step up and carry its share of the burden by showing the political will to invest in our collective defense, and by developing the capabilities to serve as a source of international peace and security.
Of course, Ukraine is not a member of NATO -- in part because of its close and complex history with Russia. Nor will Russia be dislodged from Crimea or deterred from further escalation by military force. But with time, so long as we remain united, the Russian people will recognize that they cannot achieve security, prosperity and the status that they seek through brute force. And that’s why, throughout this crisis, we will combine our substantial pressure on Russia with an open door for diplomacy. I believe that for both Ukraine and Russia, a stable peace will come through de-escalation -- direct dialogue between Russia and the government of Ukraine and the international community; monitors who can ensure that the rights of all Ukrainians are protected; a process of constitutional reform within Ukraine; and free and fair elections this spring.
So far, Russia has resisted diplomatic overtures, annexing Crimea and massing large forces along Ukraine’s border. Russia has justified these actions as an effort to prevent problems on its own borders and to protect ethnic Russians inside Ukraine. Of course, there is no evidence, and never has been, of systemic violence against ethnic Russians inside of Ukraine. Moreover, many countries around the world face similar questions about their borders and ethnic minorities abroad, about sovereignty and self-determination. These are tensions that have led in other places to debate and democratic referendums, conflicts and uneasy co-existence. These are difficult issues, and it is precisely because these questions are hard that they must be addressed through constitutional means and international laws so that majorities cannot simply suppress minorities, and big countries cannot simply bully the small.
In defending its actions, Russian leaders have further claimed Kosovo as a precedent -- an example they say of the West interfering in the affairs of a smaller country, just as they’re doing now. But NATO only intervened after the people of Kosovo were systematically brutalized and killed for years. And Kosovo only left Serbia after a referendum was organized not outside the boundaries of international law, but in careful cooperation with the United Nations and with Kosovo’s neighbors. None of that even came close to happening in Crimea.
Moreover, Russia has pointed to America’s decision to go into Iraq as an example of Western hypocrisy. Now, it is true that the Iraq War was a subject of vigorous debate not just around the world, but in the United States as well. I participated in that debate and I opposed our military intervention there. But even in Iraq, America sought to work within the international system. We did not claim or annex Iraq’s territory. We did not grab its resources for our own gain. Instead, we ended our war and left Iraq to its people and a fully sovereign Iraqi state that could make decisions about its own future.
Of course, neither the United States nor Europe are perfect in adherence to our ideals, nor do we claim to be the sole arbiter of what is right or wrong in the world. We are human, after all, and we face difficult choices about how to exercise our power. But part of what makes us different is that we welcome criticism, just as we welcome the responsibilities that come with global leadership.
We look to the East and the South and see nations poised to play a growing role on the world stage, and we consider that a good thing. It reflects the same diversity that makes us stronger as a nation and the forces of integration and cooperation that Europe has advanced for decades. And in a world of challenges that are increasingly global, all of us have an interest in nations stepping forward to play their part -- to bear their share of the burden and to uphold international norms.
So our approach stands in stark contrast to the arguments coming out of Russia these days. It is absurd to suggest -- as a steady drumbeat of Russian voices do -- that America is somehow conspiring with fascists inside of Ukraine or failing to respect the Russian people. My grandfather served in Patton’s Army, just as many of your fathers and grandfathers fought against fascism. We Americans remember well the unimaginable sacrifices made by the Russian people in World War II, and we have honored those sacrifices.
Since the end of the Cold War, we have worked with Russia under successive administrations to build ties of culture and commerce and international community not as a favor to Russia, but because it was in our national interests. And together, we've secured nuclear materials from terrorists. We welcomed Russia into the G8 and the World Trade Organization. From the reduction of nuclear arms to the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons, we believe the world has benefited when Russia chooses to cooperate on the basis of mutual interests and mutual respect.
So America, and the world and Europe, has an interest in a strong and responsible Russia, not a weak one. We want the Russian people to live in security, prosperity and dignity like everyone else -- proud of their own history. But that does not mean that Russia can run roughshod over its neighbors. Just because Russia has a deep history with Ukraine does not mean it should be able to dictate Ukraine’s future. No amount of propaganda can make right something that the world knows is wrong.
In the end, every society must chart its own course. America’s path or Europe’s path is not the only ways to reach freedom and justice. But on the fundamental principle that is at stake here -- the ability of nations and peoples to make their own choices -- there can be no going back. It’s not America that filled the Maidan with protesters -- it was Ukrainians. No foreign forces compelled the citizens of Tunis and Tripoli to rise up -- they did so on their own. From the Burmese parliamentarian pursuing reform to the young leaders fighting corruption and intolerance in Africa, we see something irreducible that all of us share as human beings -- a truth that will persevere in the face of violence and repression and will ultimately overcome.
(Full text: White House, 26 March 2014)
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