Washington reclaimed its voice at Kiev. Here’s hoping it doesn’t lose it again.

Nearly a decade ago, President Bush provided important moral support to Ukraine’s “Orange Revolution,” criticizing the government after a fraudulent presidential election and pressuring officials to replace it with a fair one.

President Obama, the quintessential anti-Bush, has generally eschewed the public promotion of human rights at moments of social ferment, believing the United States should not – as he put it after Iran’s fraudulent presidential election of 2009 – “meddle” in the internal affairs of other nations.

But, at least since the end of World War II, America has played an important role in advancing freedom and democracy overseas by pressuring authoritarian governments and providing moral and tangible support to democratic movements.

Now, in an unexpected but welcome development, Obama and his team have decided to assume that role in – ironically – Ukraine, which is now witnessing its largest demonstrations since the “Orange Revolution.” The issue this time is whether the country will align with Europe or fall increasingly within the orbit of an expansionist Russia.

The tumult in Kiev, where protests are attracting hundreds of thousands of people despite freezing temperatures, reminds us why the United States plays this role, what it hopes to accomplish, and what it can mean for people across the world who seek political freedom and economic opportunity.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich had been working with European Union officials in anticipation of signing a landmark trade deal, known as an “Association Agreement,” which was years in the making. But, in late November, he bowed to pressure from Russian President Vladimir Putin, set aside the European trade deal, and said he’d pursue closer economic and political ties with Moscow.

That set off the protests, centered in Kiev. The government turned the dispute into a human rights issue last week by ordering a crackdown, with riot police beating protestors and government-controlled courts banning more demonstrations until January.

In the latest development, Yanukovich met with Putin this week and the two announced that Russia will provide $15 billion in emergency loans to help Ukraine avoid a financial crisis as well as a sharp cut in natural gas prices.

Ukraine is caught between the economic opportunity that Europe can offer and the big-power pressure that Putin is imposing. The Russian strongman, who has described the Soviet crack-up as the 20th Century’s “greatest geopolitical catastrophe,” hopes to resurrect Russian global power by, among other things, recreating Moscow’s regional hegemony. He is eyeing Ukraine, which was part of the Soviet Union, as a key target.

Fortunately, America has stepped up, inserting itself in what has become a consequential fight over human rights.

Generally, the United States promotes freedom and democracy abroad for both moral and selfish reasons. Morally, Americans believe their nation should use its vast power to extend the blessings of freedom and democracy across the globe. Selfishly, Americans believe a freer, more democratic world will be a safer, more stable, and more prosperous one from which the United States will benefit.

When Yanukovich moved to suppress the protests, Secretary of State John Kerry set aside his normal reticence to ruffle diplomatic feathers and said, “The United States expresses its disgust with the decision of Ukrainian authorities to meet the peaceful protest in Kiev’s Independence Square with riot police, bulldozers and batons, rather than with respect for democratic rights and human dignity.”

Noting that Vice President Biden told Yanukovich by phone that U.S. attitudes toward Ukraine would depend on the government’s “respect for democratic principles, including freedom of assembly,” Kerry added that “the United States stands with the people of Ukraine. They deserve better.”

Then, Senators John McCain, a top Republican, and Chris Murphy, a rising Democrat, provided bipartisan congressional support for the Administration’s efforts by visiting Kiev’s Independence Square on Sunday, with McCain telling the assembled throng, “People of Ukraine, this is your moment. This is about you, no one else. This is about the future you want for your country. This is about the future you deserve… The free world is with you. America is with you. I am with you.”

On the same day that he spoke about Ukraine, Kerry marked “Human Rights Day 2013,” noting that, over the years, he had witnessed the “tears of joy in the eyes of a Filipino woman” who voted for the first time after the fall of Ferdinand Marcos; “pride on the faces of young girls in Afghanistan” who can receive an education in a post-Taliban country; and “the courage of Libyans who filled Freedom Square” to help topple Muammar Gaddafi and then petition the new democratic government.

What he didn’t say is that each of those joyous events came in the aftermath of U.S. efforts to unseat an authoritarian regime.

The United States retains enormous diplomatic, economic, military and, yes, moral power to pressure autocrats and encourage democrats. Washington reclaimed its voice at Kiev. Here’s hoping it doesn’t lose it again.

Lawrence J. Haas, former communications director for Vice President Gore, writes widely on foreign affairs and is author of “Sound the Trumpet: The United States and Human Rights Promotion.”

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