The events in the Crimea have the potential to become the most serious threat to world peace since the Cuban missile crisis. It will take wise decision-making by Obama and Putin to avoid that outcome.
Russia's buildup of troops in the region and our sending of warplanes to a former Soviet Republic and a warship to the Black Sea are reckless. These are high-risk stakes. In the worst-case scenario they could lead to a confrontation between the U.S. and Russia, military powers armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons.
Heads of government think they can control the events they unleash, but they relinquish control to the extent that they rely on violence to achieve their ends. A few hotheads on either side could trigger a confrontation, just by firing a few shots.
Both Republicans and Democrats, for their part, rival one another for unhelpful responses. Sarah Palin and John McCain apparently think they predicted these events in 2008. If they read the biased "liberal media," they would have seen reported in the New York Times as far back as October 10, 2003, a Russian announcement that they would intervene in former Soviet Republics to protect ethnic Russians if necessary. Against the background of the turmoil in Egypt, Libya, and Iraq, it takes little imagination to think Russia might understandably have a concern for the large Russian population in the Crimea, as well as for the security of its military bases there. Occasionally the most obvious explanations for an action are closest to the truth.
Hillary Clinton, on her side, could not have been more deeply offensive to many Russians – who suffered 20 million losses to the Germans in World War II – than to liken Russia's actions to those of Hitler in the 1930's. She's correct, of course, that Hitler exploited the plight of ethnic Germans in foreign countries to his advantage. But she neglects to mention that he also used to his advantage Woodrow Wilson's principle that national aspirations "must be respected; peoples may now be dominated and governed only by their own consent." We support the right of the Ukrainians to overthrow their government. Why not the right of the people of Crimea to self-determination?
Other U.S. policies are coming home to roost in this crisis. Recognition of state sovereignty has long been the stabilizing pillar of international law, requiring that states not interfere in the internal affairs of other states. The Russians, of course, have done this. But against what background? The U.S. intervened militarily in Panama, Grenada, Yugoslavia, Iraq, and Libya and did so (in part or whole) in the name of protecting civilians, whether American or foreign.
The rationale for these actions is humanitarian intervention, or what it is more recently called, The Responsibility to Protect (commonly known as R2P), after a 2001 report commissioned by the Canadian government. That is high-minded, of course, but it comes at a cost. When states reserve the right to intervene militarily in the affairs of other states, even to protect civilians, the international system that has been in place since the founding of the UN begins to come unraveled. The Russians are contributing to this by their actions in Crimea. But we opened the door for them. You cannot redefine the rules to suit yourself and then complain if others play by them.
The U.S. should cool the rhetoric and promote negotiations that include all of the relevant parties, including the Crimeans (whose claim to self-determination we don't recognize) and the Ukrainians (whose new government the Russians don't recognize). We could then provide a model of world leadership the American people could be proud of and just perhaps avert disaster.
Robert L. Holmes is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Rochester. He is the author of "On War and Morality," and a collection of his essays, "The Ethics of Nonviolence" was published last summer.