Ukraine: Is It Time for Public Diplomacy?

Thursday, March 6th 2014

Henry Kissinger notes in the Washington Post  on March 5, “Public discussion on Ukraine is all about confrontation.”  

And yet, this is a situation where neither the United States nor the Europeans have any reasonable way to use their military options in resolving the crisis.  Even the President’s most vocal critics do not suggest we put American boots on Ukrainian ground.

So, as Lenin said, "What is to be done?"

This is a good time for diplomacy.  There should be, and apparently there is a good deal of diplomatic work going on in Washington and other capitals.  Most of that is focused on convincing Mr. Putin that he should not continue his “illegal actions in Ukraine” and promising severe consequences if this Russian action continues.  We’ve threatened things such as President Obama not going to the next G-8 meeting in Sochi, and we announced a visa ban on officials and others deemed responsible for actions that have undermined Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

But, if you were President Putin, would any of this dissuade you?  After all, these Russian moves in Ukraine seem to be quite popular in Russia itself, and perhaps even as well among a certain group in eastern Ukraine.  Putin doubtless believes, as he indicated in his press conference Tuesday,  that he has the Russian people and their mental image of Russia’s history on his side.

What can move Putin and his circle of supporters is public diplomacy



No, not Facebook posts or Twitter messages, although the State Department is apparently busy with both of those.   (See Ambassador Larry Pope’s comment on the current fascination with social media in the article preceding this one, second Q&A.)

The best public diplomacy is where your actions match and reinforce your words.  Indeed, actions always speak louder than words, at least when addressing the public consciousness.   So, how about some public diplomacy like this:

The President could announce that, because Putin’s actions in Ukraine have changed our assessment of Russia’s adherence to existing treaties and international norms of national behavior, we are going to start work again in earnest on the missile defense shield in Eastern Europe.

This means that we will resume immediately the planning and construction of the necessary missile defense facilities in Poland and the Czech Republic.  Of course, that will mean that American military personnel and contractors will be going to those countries right away.  Once there, they are not only working on the missile system, but they are serving – as our troops did at Germany’s Fulda Gap for so many years – as a trip wire to ensure America’s  alliance with Eastern Europe is fully backed by the might and power of the United States.  Sending Americans to the region – visibly –  also strengthens the resolve and rewards the courage of our newest NATO allies on Russia’s borders.  Perhaps we could even find reasons to send some people to the Baltics, Hungary, Turkey and other allied countries too?

The U.S. missile defense shield may or may not be a military threat to Russian ambitions, but its resumption surely would constitute a major public image defeat for Putin among his own people.

Next, we could announce that, because Russia has failed to abide by international norms of behavior, we are joining our allies and partner countries around the world in seeking to have Russian banned from the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil.  And maybe from the summer Olympics in 2016? This is, after all, the kind of sanctions policy that produced real results when applied to South Africa in the apartheid years. 

Sure, some countries will not want to invoke sanctions on sports, but they need to be reminded about the sanctity of national borders and territorial integrity.  If the Russians can do it to Ukraine, what about all the other existing disputed or tense border regions around the world? "Do you want the world community to come to your aid in time of crisis, or not?"

Even the threat of Russia being declared a “pariah nation” in the eyes of the world sporting community would be a major blow to Putin’s public support at home and underline the serious nature of his Ukrainian error.  

Third, we should announce that we’re starting a “Nuremburg list” – a list of all those individuals responsible for, or complicit in damaging the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, as well as those who – in the past or in the future – commit crimes against people and property in Ukraine.  People who find themselves on such a list not only face visa bans preventing  travel for them and their children to the U.S. and western Europe for the rest of their lives.  Depending on the crime, some individuals may face judgment before the International Criminal Court or later civil and criminal courts in any nation.  Look how the worldwide pursuit of Nazi criminals is ceaseless, even this many years later. 

The mere existence and publication of such a list is a powerful weapon in the world of public opinion – now and later.  It is a reminder that the people who supported and carried out the 2014 Russian incursion into Ukraine, the ones who profited from it, the ones who committed human rights crimes,  are all guilty in the eyes of the world.

And then, how about asking Congress to fund a large, new (Note: I said “new” meaning “new funding”) academic exchange program to bring young Ukrainians to the United States for studies in American universities in subjects such as economics, law, political science and government?   As public diplomacy veterans know, it’s not just the education they get, but the life-changing experience of living and sharing their lives with Americans for a year or two. 

If you want an  immediate public diplomacy payoff, just name the new grants “the Putin Scholarships.”

The U.S. and the European Union may not have military options to turn the Ukraine situation around.  Therefore this is precisely the time to think creatively about public diplomacy.

2 people have commented on this article so far

Board member 

Summary: A career public diplomacy officer, Brian Carlson advises the InterMedia research organization on military and foreign affairs issues and manages communication strategies for private clients. 


Ambassador Brian E. Carlson, a former Career Minister in the United States Foreign Service, currently assists international media and audience analysis firm InterMedia on defense and diplomatic sector activities. authors name for more info

Author: Brian Carlson

We welcome comments from our readers that advocate and shed light on the subject of public diplomacy. We avoid discussion that is politically partisan, commercial in nature or offensive. To prevent inappropriate comments and spam we screen each comment before publishing it, so please excuse us if you do not see your remark right away.

Excellent ideas

These are wise and measured yet firm steps. But they are predicated on a genuine commitment to break a strategic approach to Russia that is deeply intertwined with other parts of US foreign policy. Syria and Iran come to mind. Fine article. Let us hope that it gets a hearing.

We are under the same sun and

We are under the same sun and under the same moon but the politics keep us away and this is the ugliness of the politics. Ukraine issue is getting too much.

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