03/31/2014 12:36 pm ET Updated May 31, 2014

Obama to Mr. Bare-Chested: You're Just a Regional Power

From time to time, Europe has fretted about a perceived loss of interest in the Old Continent by its transatlantic partner. In the 1970s, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger wanted to compensate for a lack of American attention toward Europe and to calm European fears of a Soviet-American condominium. In a speech in April 1973, he inaugurated what he called the "Year of Europe." Unfortunately it contained a phrase that he would come to regret: "The United States has global interests and responsibilities. Our European allies have regional interests." The furor that resulted in Europe took some of the sheen off of Kissinger's initiative. Michel Jobert, then the French foreign minister, took the lead in defending a belittled Europe and became Kissinger's nemesis.

President Obama, perhaps aware of the toxic history of the term Kissinger used, had this to say in a speech at the close of the Nuclear Security Summit at the Hague on 25 March: "Russia is a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors, not out of strength but out of weakness."

This is hardly how Vladimir Putin would describe his current regime in Moscow, now that he is on a roll, staking out an interest in the millions of Russians living outside the boundaries of the Russian Federation as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. With his idea of creating a "Eurasian Customs Union," to which Belarus and Kazakhstan have become members and to which Ukraine was a prospective member before Viktor Yukanovich fled from his palace-cum-zoo, Putin can hardly have been said to have confined his ambitions to the realm of the "regional." Nevertheless, with its lowered population, its dependence on oil and gas, its weak manufacturing sector, and its anemic GDP growth which the World Bank predicts will be close to zero for the first quarter of 2014 (Financial Times, March 27, 2014), Russia is clearly a reduced state from the USSR of Cold War times.

Notwithstanding Obama's gratuitous slap at Russia's "regional" classification, Putin, with his apparent ambition to recreate in some way or another the dimensions of the former Soviet Union, has suddenly emerged as a threat to the global world order.