American political analyst Lincoln Mitchell, who is a former Columbia University professor, author and political commentator for the New York Observer, visited Ukraine recently. He had been to this country before and contributed a few Ukraine-themed articles. But this time, as he explained to The Day, he was invited by American NGO Eurasian Democracy to present his new book The Democracy Promotion Paradox in Kyiv as well as to talk to people and find out what was happening here. An Amazon reviewer of his latest book said that Mitchell was an experienced practitioner of democracy promotion in the world. Thus, our conversation with him began with the question of whether he agreed with that description.
“Yes. I have worked in democracy promotion. I was a chief of party for the NDI in Georgia from 2002 to 2004, and I have worked for the NDI in many countries including this one in 2007-08, but not just Ukraine and Georgia, also Azerbaijan, Armenia, Russia a little bit, and also in other parts of the world, like the former Yugoslavia, the Middle East. Most recently, I worked in a lot of projects doing evaluating democracy assistance programs in many countries, and I continue doing it now.”
Meanwhile, James Traub wrote that the paradoxes you depict in your book reflect not only a vexed policy, but also the burden of a superpower that desperately wishes to do good in the world. What do you say to that?
“Well, this is the real crux of the book. Democracy promotion spring out of both the very best and the very worst of the American political character, and what I mean by that is: the best of the American political character is the belief that people, all over the world, have the right to freedom, the right to choose their own leaders, the right to live we think of as a free, democratic life, and everybody can achieve this regardless of how they look like, regardless of how they worship or don’t worship some higher being. It’s not like one has to be Christian or Protestant, you can be any religion. And it is universal goal and everybody can do it. That’s the best of American spirit.
“The worst of the American spirit is ‘we’re most powerful, you have to be like us.’ And democracy promotion draws on both those trends in the American political character, and that’s the big picture paradox.
“There are other paradoxes as well, some of which are relevant in Ukraine, because Ukraine today is a much freer country than some other countries in the world. One example is that our democracy promotion, the programmatic side, still focuses on heavily technical solutions to deal with increasingly political problems. What I mean by that is that a typical democracy promotion program today in Ukraine or elsewhere is focused on working with the parliament, with the Rada in this case, to help them do constituency service better.
“But the real reason that the parliament is not a functioning democratic institution is because all political parties that control it don’t want that to happen. In some countries, it’s really just controlled by the president, and he doesn’t want it, because people there just want to steal money and get immunity from prosecution.
“These programs, which are well-intentioned and technically very competent, are not solving the real problem. It’s like you have a nail sticking out and you have a very expensive screwdriver, and you cannot get the nail out. It’s the same idea – that’s a wrong approach.
“That’s an example of a paradox which is likely to be very concretely understood here. But there are ones as well. One of the things I’m talking about in my book is that the language of democracy promotion is on the one hand very soft – ‘we are here to help, to nurture, to facilitate’ – so these are kind of soft verbs, as opposed to ‘fight, build, overthrow.’ When it’s urgent, we have to fight, when it’s not so urgent, we facilitate.
“And that’s our role, in Ukraine as well as in other countries. You know, when Yanukovych was the president, before the Euromaidan movement, we didn’t quite know what to make of that: on the one hand, we wanted to believe that he was elected fairly, that was the position of the United States, I was here in 2008, and 2009, maybe, and there was the sense: ‘Hey! Look, Ukraine is now a two-party system, just like us.’ Now, the truth was much more complicated. I don’t know if all your readers agree, but you had one group which was much less committed to democracy than the other, and when they came to power, they began to roll back the democracy. We didn’t quite want to see that.”
And if one takes Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, who of them, in your opinion, will be inclined to follow the logic according to which the US has to do good in the world?
“I think the question of how much should we be engaged with the rest of the world divides both our parties. It’s not a difference between the Democrats and Republicans, but in the Democrats and in Republicans. On the Democratic side, to reveal extent, this was one of the differences between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. Hillary Clinton is a much more conventional foreign policy figure. She believes that we are a superpower which should do good in the world, that’s one of her core beliefs. Bernie Sanders believes that superpowers mostly create problems for the rest of the world. Now, he has lost that primary, but not given up.
“The Democratic side has nominated someone who has the conventional view – like Obama, like Bill Clinton, like Al Gore. Now, the Republicans also have that fight. So, on the Republican side you have Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, people like that. The differences between them and Hillary are significant in that they would be probably more quick to use military options, they are not as savvy diplomatically, particularly Ted Cruz has nothing of the diplomatic skills of Hillary Clinton…
“And then you have Trump. Trump represents the other side of the Republican party, which is less engaged with the rest of the world. If Trump were elected president, you could easily see him saying: ‘this democracy promotion is stupid, we should stop it.’ Now, how he would turn that sentiment into our law, policy, that’s a different story, because I don’t think he really understands how the Constitution works, but that would be his intention.
“So, my sense is that if Hillary Clinton wins, we will remain committed to democracy promotion. My concern, however, is that I don’t see Hillary Clinton as bringing people to her office, her government, that would attack this issue, that would bring this efficient kind of creativity that is needed to address these paradoxes. I don’t see that from a Clinton administration. I could be pleasantly surprised, that’s the challenge. Trump would just want to stop what he doesn’t understand.”
Do not you think that the West is partly to blame for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, annexation of Crimea and ongoing aggression in eastern Ukraine?
“When we talk about Russian foreign policy, this is also a result of the Russian regime and the Russian leadership, because of Putin’s personal style and ambitions, but also because of his need to stay in power, his need to give something to his constituents – he can’t give jobs, can’t give democracy, maybe he can give them Crimea? And then to continue. So this vision which includes the Donbas region and all that is one he can give the people of Russia to help bolster his regime. Now, there are some in the West who have said ‘no, it’s all the US’s fault, because we have tried to expand NATO.’ But it’s not my view.”
We in Ukraine may say that the US has not fulfilled its obligations under the Budapest Memorandum, which guaranteed our territorial integrity and sovereignty.
“Yes, you see, my view is very different, but what I want to say is that Georgia and Ukraine are related, albeit different. We were not fully aware of what we were dealing with Russia and with Putin. As we began to seek to more actively incorporate Ukraine and Georgia into Western structures and Western institutions, like EU association, we should have anticipated a response from Putin. That was the fault of the West – not understanding that Putin would do that, but we should have been prepared for something.”
Many US experts believe that the US should provide Ukraine with lethal defensive weapons, imposing a greater price on a possible future invasion by Russia. We are not going to attack Russia, after all. What do you think about that?
“No one thinks that Ukraine is going to attack Russia. The fear in the United States among those who say ‘No’ is that once you start sending weapons, then you have to send people to show them how to use them, then you have to send advisers, and then some American gets killed, and we have a much bigger conflict. I don’t know whether it’s true or not, but we have to have that discussion. I don’t know how he looks in the media here, but Putin in the Western media looks like a villain from the movie, he acts like a villain from the movie, not just in terms of what he does in his foreign policy, but the way he behaves. So, it is very easy to vilify him, and it is appropriate, but that limited the debate.
“Again, looking towards the next election and the next administration, Hillary Clinton is more likely to send defensive weapons than her predecessor, and Donald Trump says he is friends with Putin. He is campaigning in the US, not Ukraine, but there are Ukrainian-Americans voting in this election.”
What do you think about the role played by Paul Manafort who helped Viktor Yanukovych and other dictators to become presidents?
“I never met him. What strikes me is that when Trump went to hire a political consultant, he did not take somebody who was really contemporary, knowledgeable in American campaigns, even with the Republican party. He picked somebody who has a very different skill set, and that was very telling about Trump. You know, Manafort’s relationships in this part of the world are also very telling. In American campaigns, they are won and lost at the very local level, especially in close states. In a good presidential campaign, you have to know two or three people in every precinct who were doing your work, you have to know who the major opinion leaders are in every small ethnic group in every important state, you have to know what leader of what civic organization could sway 500 votes because this neighborhood really cares about this issue. That is the level of granularity of presidential campaign. Well, Trump is all up here, it’s all the high level, he is in media, he is tweeting, Manafort is masterminding, moving the chess pieces around – it’s nothing down here, at the real level of the campaign.”
What can the US do to strengthen democracy in Ukraine so as to make it a successful nation and an exemplary success story for the Russians?
“Well, I don’t think that even if Ukraine becomes a success, Russia will say that it wants that Ukraine. Ukraine has a lot of work to do in a lot of kind of obvious areas, which include strengthening democratic institutions, so that the Rada is a functioning legislative deliberative body, strengthening judicial independence, judicial processes, so that the courts fight corruption. Those are the basics. Obviously, the Russian presence in Crimea, the Russian presence in the Donbas makes it much more difficult. These are major policy challenges, it’s not easy, but the ways in which you solve these problems are important. If you wanted democratic Ukraine you have to solve these problems through democratic processes. If you want to fight corruption, you don’t fight corruption by witch hunts, by throwing people in jail with show or no trials, by arresting hundreds of people of which several may be guilty. These are not quick-fix problems, it requires building institutions, not putting faith in kind of messianic figures.
“I know it, I worked all over the world. And it’s impossible for me with my background in Georgia to come to Ukraine and not to look at Saakashvili and feel that there is a cautionary tale that seems to have been lost on Poroshenko and lost on the Ukrainian people. And Saakashvili’s story, his pitch is, ‘through the strength of my personality, I can solve these problems.’ Well, if you look closely at the Georgian case, you saw the real change in low-level corruption, he almost eliminated low-level corruption, that’s very impressive, we have to recognize that. But high-level corruption remained, crony capitalism remained, shaking down businesses for tax fees and throwing people in jail remained. There were problems of democracy. He did not need to shake down the opposition talk shows, he did not need to destroy the television station Imedi, he did not need to harass people from the opposition. But he had gotten these habits. So that’s a cautionary tale for Ukraine in general. I mean, in 2012, fully 60 percent of Georgian people in an election in Georgia that he controlled voted against him, because of the abuses, because of the stagnating economy.
“I think that the Ukrainian people and Ukrainian leadership would benefit from knowing that full story. Georgia in 2013, in 2012 was basically Georgia that was in 2005. They lost time. And who wins when Georgia loses time? Who wins when Ukraine loses time? That’s what we want to avoid, and that’s a cautionary tale as well for the Ukrainian people.
“To sum up – the processes matter, the habits that you make matter a lot. It’s not only about Ukrainian people, there is same thing in the United States. There are people in the United States who say ‘we don’t care about rule of law, we don’t care about freedom of the press, we want this guy because he is magical.’ Now, I don’t compare Saakashvili and Trump. It’s the same instinct that American people are having, and it’s a mistake. And Hillary Clinton comes and says ‘well, it will take time, I’m going to do one step at a time.’ It’s not very interesting, but she is right.”