As America publicizes an extensive list of financial, technology and military sanctions against Russia to deter an invasion of Ukraine, the Administration is leaving one of its most potent tools in the shed.
Washington Post columnist David Ignatius noted in the January 7 Washington Post that the U.S. would like to turn Ukraine into a “porcupine” – a kind of prickly, difficult prey that would be not only hard to attack, but even more difficult to swallow. The U.S. and its allies, he said, are strengthening Ukraine’s defense forces, supplying training and supplies, as well as ideas about how a population united against Russian aggression could make Putin pay dearly.
What we and our allies should be doing, but are not, is redoubling our efforts to strengthen the Ukrainian population’s democratic instincts and orientation.
Throughout the former Warsaw Pact countries as well as the nations once part of the Soviet Union, people no longer look on the collapse of the USSR as a calamity. They no longer want to live under Russian domination. Young people especially don’t look back fondly on Soviet communism. Nationalism, freedom and the early stages of democracy have taken root. Neither in Ukraine or anywhere else does anyone want to go back to the “bad old days.”
America should use our natural advantages to strengthen and fortify those democratic instincts. Last year the U.S. was set to spend $12.6 million in “field-led” activities in Ukraine. These activities supercharge connections to the West. Ramping them up would mean:
- Inviting more of the ascendent young political and economic leadership of Ukraine to the United States for short-term orientation visits.
- Offering Fulbright and other scholarships to live and study in the United States to Ukrainian students and young professors.
- A rapid increase in the number of reading rooms and libraries, happily hosted by Ukrainian universities and municipalities. These places are where Western books, magazines and media can be found on myriad subjects including political organizing, market economic principles, human rights, civic leadership, and resisting oppressors.
We can send distinguished Americans to lecture, speak and teach on any and all the subjects relevant to building and defending democracy.
We can, in a word, peacefully support the democratic impulse in Ukrainian society. They don’t need our guns or our money; they need our ideas, experience, and encouragement.
All of this comes under the rubric of public diplomacy – the State Department’s language-fluent officers who specialize in listening to, as well as informing and educating, people in other countries. We’re already supporting media literacy and support for independent media, plus social media activities to call out Russian aggression and rally international support.
Public diplomacy includes all of this: public events, conferences, seminars, youth travel, exchanging foreign students, encouraging and supporting studies of democracy, the rule of law, market economics, and the professional orientation travel of rising social, political and opinion leaders. It cultivates long-term relationships, builds understanding, underpins our advocacy, and increases our influence over events.
Public diplomacy is America’s best tool to make Ukraine a more prickly porcupine, one that will long resist Russian oppression.
A career public diplomacy officer and former U.S. Ambassador to Latvia, Brian Carlson is Vice President of the Public Diplomacy Council and advises private clients on military and foreign affairs issues.