The Obama challenge to Putin's lawlessness

From Crimea to China to Egypt, authoritarian regimes are defying international norms. In a speech in Europe, President Obama wisely stands up for rule of law derived through democratic procedures, citing Putin's Crimea grab as Exhibit A for what not to do.

President Barack Obama gives a speech in Brussels March 26 where he attended an EU-US summit.

In a speech Wednesday to young Europeans in Brussels, President Obama directly challenged Russia to once again show respect for international law. He said the rushed referendum on Crimea’s secession, watched over by Russian soldiers and in violation of Ukraine’s Constitution, will never be recognized by the West.

His words echo a similar American challenge to China for recent violations of maritime law in claiming islands long owned by other countries. And on Monday, the United States condemned Egypt for a bizarre death sentence handed down hastily to 529 people for the murder of one policeman. The court trial of Islamists lasted for only two days with little evidence presented and many defendants absent. The mass sentencing “defies logic,” the US said.

The theme of Mr. Obama’s speech – “the rules of the world must be lifted up” – is thus apt for the times. Too often authoritarian regimes act outside international rules and even outside their own rules. When rules are written by the consent of a free people through democratic means, they cannot be lightly trampled. The same goes for international law set in place by a majority of nations.

Obama’s speech included a rebuttal to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who had cited US military actions in Kosovo (1999) and Iraq (2003) as justifications for his annexation of Crimea. A former constitutional law professor, Obama cited specific reasons why those two US wars were within international norms in contrast with Mr. Putin’s justification for Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.

“No amount of propaganda can make right what the world knows is wrong,” Obama said.

Rules derived through democratic governance are a way to keep a check on centralized power, a big reason why those who rise to power in a democracy often cloak their lawless power grab in the rhetoric of “legality,” as Putin has often done at home and abroad.

Obama has wisely left a door open for Russia to reverse its actions in Crimea while at the same time asking Europe to “meet the challenge to our ideals, to our very international order.”

In Egypt, too, the US is trying to encourage the military regime led by Gen. Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi to move toward democratic rule of law while at the same time condemning the trials of protesters that are conducted in violation of international human rights law.

When a ruler regards his people as “too small to govern themselves,” as Obama said in the speech, this violates fundamental ideals of freedom and rules derived from the power of the governed.

While sanctions against Russia for its grab of Crimea may help, the West must also decide whether to now retreat in defending the global order. Obama’s speech was a clear call to join in resisting Russia’s challenge to international norms while reminding Putin that Russia can benefit by supporting them.

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