The incoherence of Trump’s ideas, and his struggles to present them in a reasonably clear and informed way, also preclude what should be a meaningful discussion between the candidates. It would be valuable for the American people to hear the central arguments of the foreign policy establishment, of which there is no better representative than the Democratic nominee, challenged. However, between Trump’s inability or refusal to do anything more than speak in seemingly random superlatives, insults and promises about foreign policy, and Matt Lauer’s obsession with a political scandal about which every American has already made up their mind, we missed this opportunity yet again.
While people in Eastern Europe can’t vote in this election, Polish Americans, Latvian Americans, Ukrainian Americans and other Americans with roots in countries that feel threatened by an aggressive Russia do. Many of these voters are part of the very demographic groups upon whom Mr. Trump will rely on for his path to victory against Hillary Clinton. Mr. Trump needs a record proportion of white votes to win this election; and he particularly needs them in states of the upper Midwest, including Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin that have long had large numbers of voters with roots in Eastern Europe.
At first glance, this seems like a minor event. The resignation of a non-president of a non-state in a small and poor region of the Caucasus is not the kind of thing that generally grabs headlines. The broader context, however, suggests that we should pay a bit more attention to these events, particularly as the West is increasingly concerned about Russian aggression.
A Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine would put Putin’s assertions about Ukraine to the test; conversely, the Ukrainian state and society would be put to the test as well. If the Ukrainian people rise up in an insurgency, the occupation would fail, leaving Russia either stuck in a long and unwinnable conflict or forced to retreat. The outcome of such a conflict could also threaten Putin’s own hold on power within Russia. On the other hand, if there is no insurgency following the invasion, then Putin could claim vindication that, despite more than twenty years of de jure independence, Ukraine was never really a state.
The debate in the U.S. about how to respond to the Russian invasion has shows the complete self absorption of much of the American political establishment. Russia invaded Crimea primarily because of Russia's interest in Ukraine, domestic political issues in Russia, and as a reaction to recent political events in Ukraine. However, the response in Washington, particularly from the right, has suggested that Russia acted because of America's, and specifically President Obama's, weakness. This assertion was, of course, more about politics in the U.S., than anything happening in Ukraine, but it nonetheless demonstrated that for many what happened in Crimea had to be attributable to something that the U.S., and the Obama administration, did or did not do.
Statements from various American politicians and organizations with whom Gharibashvili met contained the usual platitudes about Georgia’s strides towards democracy and the strength of the bilateral relationship. The most significant thing about those statements, however, may well have been what was not said. Only a few days before the trip, former Georgian Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili, a very close ally of former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and for most of the previous decade the second most powerful man in Georgia, was sentencedhttp://www.eurasianet.org/node/68094 to five years in prison for various abuses of power.
Russia's invasion Ukraine has set off paroxysms of frustration, anger and incredulity in the west, not least in Washington. Some policy makers and pundits are struggling with ways to constructively address the problems raised by Russian action, others struggle to ensure that somehow President Obama is blamed for these events, and many are trying to figure out the complexity, context and background of these events. Understanding the conflict in Crimea, and the best way forward for the US, requires holding several, conflicting, and often unappealing, ideas in one's head at the same time. These are four of the most important of these ideas.
These are serious challenges blocking Ukraine's hopeful path to stability - never mind democracy. They are not insurmountable, but it remains as likely as not that Ukraine's next chapter will resemble the lost years of 2004-2010 - minus a few eastern territories. If the country is to remain united, powerful passions in Kiev, however righteous, must be tempered in favour of pragmatism.
The challenge for the new Ukrainian leadership is not to strike a decisive victory for the West and democracy and somehow defeatRussia, but rather to build a new consensus in the country that doesn’t treat half the population as absolute winners and the other half as absolute losers. Ukraine has to move beyond the cycles of alternating victories for forces from western and eastern Ukraine, ephemeral wins that have stymied the political development of the nation in the past decade.
Yet, the West rarely recognizes that Russia, like countries in the West, has its own interests. To Westerners, Russia’s actions are part of a storied narrative: It consistently acts in outrageous ways to thwart not Western interests, but also moral and political good in Ukraine. There’s a big problem with that view: By recasting a struggle between two political forces and interests as one simply between right and wrong, the West makes it more difficult to understand and combat Russian influence. If the U.S. and Europe want to change Russia’s behavior, they must toss those antiquated, Cold War notions, and accept that modern tensions are substantially based on economic and political interests, not just on latent Russian anger, or its alleged inferiority complex. That means accepting, for example, that scolding Russian leaders for breaking Western rules and expectations won’t provoke changes in Moscow. More dramatically, it may require the U.S. to recognize the limits of its ability to influence outcomes in Ukraine or other countries where Russia also has interests at stake.
With regards to North Africa, western democracy assistance proved to be a minor player in the recent breakthroughs. Although democracy assistance organizations were active in Egypt and elsewhere in the months and years leading up to the Arab Spring, support for these organizations was outweighed by such a substantial degree by western support for the authoritarian regimes, that the west, and the U.S. in particular, has been broadly viewed in the region, probably accurately, as being responsible for keeping the old regime in place for so long rather than for helping accelerate its downfall.
It is still too early to know whether or not the extraordinary events earlier this year in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere in North Africa will lead to meaningful and enduring advances for democracy, but the resignations of Hosni Mubarak and Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and the threats to the leadership other autocrats in the region have not been lost on authoritarian and semi-authoritarian leaders seeking to remain in power in other parts of the world.
The Obama administration is behind the curve and sounds strangely out of it with regards to the developing situation in Egypt. Although this is not altogether surprising, it is still disappointing. The U.S. policy towards Egypt, as well as other countries in that region — essentially providing financial and other support to non-democratic leaders in exchange for some stability and cooperation on some security related interests — was always a short term strategy which could never last for very long. In fairness to the administration, this policy has been a bipartisan problem which has gone on for decades, but, it has exploded now during the Obama administration’s watch.
While civil society advocates all over the world should be happy to see Ben Ali and Mubarak depart from power, celebrating recent events in North Africa as a democratic breakthrough is premature. There is still a lot of hard work to be done. For the United States, viewed as the deus ex machina in the Color Revolutions and as the dictators’ patron in North Africa, the challenge will be to find a way to become part of this process, and to become relevant to political development in post-Mubarak Egypt and post-Ben Ali Tunisia.
The Belarusian regime has already resorted to violence and repressive measures, arresting presidential candidates and numerous activists, cracking down on demonstrations and beating demonstrators. In this regard the Lukashenka regime is significantly different than the regimes in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan in 2003-2005 who were all either unwilling or unable to use violence to crackdown on demonstrators. This suggests that if regime change occurs in Belarus, it will not be as peaceful as it was in these other countries.
U.S. policy in the former Soviet Union is defined more by continuity from Bush to Obama, than it is by change between the two administrations, but the latter seems more open to viewing the region with some nuance. This means that issues such as democracy and NATO membership while still important to the U.S. may be viewed differently by the new administration. Of course, that also means these issues may not be viewed differently, but these are the kinds of questions that should be discussed during this trip.
You know it is a rough time for democracy in the former Soviet Union whenimages of fisticuffs from the floor of the Ukrainian parliament are broadcast all over the world; and that those images of fistfights, eggs being thrown and wrestling over a giant Ukrainian flag represent some of the better news regarding democracy in the region. Obviously, debate and discussion is more appropriate than violence and shouting matches in any legislature, but sadly, this incident is one of the rare signs of democratic life in the region.
Regardless of how events play out in Kyrgyzstan, it is now clear that US policy there in recent years has been misguided. The U.S. allowed itself to be manipulated into supporting a government that was not only corrupt and undemocratic but also weak and incompetent because of the strong need to have access to the Manas Air Force Base which is only a few miles from Bishkek. It is worth noting that the U.S. had to provide Bakiev thugocracy a contract worth roughly $180 million, in the form of loans, grants and contracts, all of which was looted by the ruling clique, in exchange for access to the base.
President Obama has certainly made foreign policy mistakes, but he has also set a different tone that, in the disparate cases of Iran and Ukraine, has been the right one. The administration has understood that one of the lessons of the last ten years is that democracy is about processes not electing leaders and that a fairly elected leader who is not enthusiastically pro-American is still a leader with whom we can and should work. Another lesson has been that from Iran to Venezuela, one of the best ways to shore up domestic support for an unpopular leader is to rhetorically attack that leader in Washington. By avoiding this very tempting pitfall, Obama has weakened Ahmadinejad more than any inspiring speeches about freedom ever could have. In Iran, Obama made a tough but right decision. In Ukraine the decision was a little easier, but in either case it should be recognized that the administration got it right.
In other words, maybe the Orange Revolution never really happened at all. Obviously, the events on Kiev’s Maidan in late 2004 happened, leading to Yuschenko’s becoming president, but it is possible that in the excitement of the moment, too much was read into these events. The victory in December of 2004 by a former prime minister under Leonid Kuchma over Kuchma’s sitting prime minister may simply not have been the pivotal and revolutionary moment which it looked like at the time. Rather, it may have been another stage in Ukraine’s continuous path from Soviet republic to something else.