TCUP Director Emily Channell-Justice attended the first annual Taras Shevchenko Conference on Ukrainian Studies at Indiana University in Bloomington, March 6-7, 2020. The conference brought together a diverse group of researchers in various disciplines in social sciences and the humanities for two days of engagement and discussion. Additionally, organizers took advantage of a special event: Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch received the Richard G. Lugar Award on behalf of Indiana University’s Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies.
Yovanovitch discussed her experience in the State Department and the importance of U.S. commitment to democracies around the world. She began by reflecting on the “awesome, literally awesome, and dangerous” collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Beginning her work in the Foreign Service in 1986 with an interest in the region, her concerns at that time were focused on the future of the formerly Soviet nuclear arsenals that were spread around four new countries after 1991. She described how the United States used public funds to help those countries eliminate their nuclear arsenals—an unprecedented use of taxpayer money, but serving U.S. interests because it reduced the risk of nuclear catastrophe.
While recognizing that democracies are not perfect systems—Yovanovitch quoted Winston Churchill, who called democracy the “worst form of government, except for all the others”—the former ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, Armenia, and Ukraine said that the United States must serve as an example to others around the world. To get it right, she said, we need a strong, resilient Department of State, fully funded and staffed to meet the challenges of the day. She prioritized our commitment not only to the rule of law but also to generosity of spirit, the giving back that is essential to serving the state. But Yovanovitch was most committed to the truth, stating that government officials should never be afraid to challenge assumptions, and their priority should be to counter disinformation.
Speaking about Ukraine, Amb. Yovanovitch described how challenging the post-Cold War era has been: without bipolar Cold War institutions bringing order to the world, there is a bit of a muddle. Russia is taking advantage of this confusion, and it is an expansionist power with the goal of keeping the core safe. If Russia’s goal is to sow confusion and doubt, Ukraine is its testing ground. As examples, she cited the current military conflict in Eastern Ukraine, as well as the use of energy politics as a tool to exert political influence. Further, Russia’s election meddling was present in Ukraine before widespread meddling in the Brexit campaigns and in American elections in 2016. Disinformation, Yovanovitch said, is dangerous for democracies because of the confusion and uncertainty it sows.
But Amb. Yovanovitch remains committed to democracy, as democracies are less likely to go to war and less likely to tolerate corruption because their legal systems are more likely to work, and there is accountability. Most people, she said, want to live in a safe environment, where they can have a job and put food on the table. They want to live their lives as they want. In the United States, we take our freedoms for granted, and we are fortunate to be able to take them for granted. Totalitarian states take all of that away. Aside from better geopolitical relationships, these intangibles are part of what Yovanovitch sees as the best version of the democratic political system.
When taking questions from the audience, Yovanovitch was asked to comment on the major issues facing students who aspire to become foreign service officers. She described the continuing significance of weapons of mass destruction, but she also focused on the environment and poverty. She challenged students to think about how to reinvigorate international institutions in a constructive way. Another student asked Amb. Yovanovitch about her experience as a woman in the State Department. She described a general environment that was not as hospitable to women because it was created by men. While she also stated that her own foreign service graduating class was divided evenly between men and women, she noted that the more important question is where women are. Women are less likely to be in positions of real power—sometimes this is self-selected, but she prompted the audience to think about how to make it easier for women to remain in the State Department and achieve high level positions.
Amb. Yovanovitch described her work in Ukraine as the hardest job she had ever had, and in many ways, the most rewarding. Her talk echoed her support for Ukrainian territorial integrity and self-determination. She shared her favorite Taras Shevchenko quote, which exemplifies this sentiment: “Борітеся—поборете,” which she translated as “Struggle on and be triumphant.” Yovanovitch’s legacy in Ukraine and here at home certainly will reflect her commitment to the struggle for democracy and truth.