Tunisia and Ukraine: Linchpins of U.S. interests

The Obama administration’s announcement this week that it plans to quadruple military resources devoted to deterring Russia in Europe highlights how seriously U.S. and NATO leaders view the threat posed by Russia. Ukraine is struggling to save its young democracy and stave off public disaffection with the new government’s valiant but halting reforms, even as Russia continues its campaign of military and economic goading. 

South across the Black and Mediterranean Seas, Tunisia is experiencing some of its worst social unrest since the Arab Spring revolutions of 2011, illustrating the vulnerability of the only country to push through the transition without civil war or a return to dictatorship. U.S. leaders are concerned about the threat posed by ISIS extremists there and across the broader region.  As in Europe, they are reportedly preparing new military options to address the threat in both Syria and Libya.

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For many Americans, and likely some U.S. policymakers, Ukraine and Tunisia – with populations of just 45 million and 10 million respectively -- may just look like two more problems in a shockingly long list of foreign policy challenges around the globe. Such an assessment would be a crucial—and possibly irreversible—error, with consequences that could cascade across whole regions and reverberate for decades.  Ukraine and Tunisia offer crucial opportunities for America and its allies to advance their strategic interests and potentially transform today’s dangerous security environment at a time when U.S. national-security policy resembles an endless and dangerous game of geopolitical whack-a-mole.

Both countries are strategic linchpins.  Both countries merit U.S. backing that includes -- but also extends far beyond -- military support.

Ukraine boasts a freely and fairly elected government in a region beset by democratic reversal.  A people-powered revolution, which tragically led to bloodshed on Kyiv’s central square, ushered in a new reform government that is struggling to advance fragile democratic reforms, jump-start a teetering economy, and repel Russian and Russian-backed forces that have invaded and occupy parts of the country. 

Tunisia is the Middle East’s only Arab democracy.  It also has a freely and fairly elected government that is struggling against radical extremists who are intent on derailing it.  Tunisia is also home to four civil society organizations that won the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize for their success in promoting a peaceful political transition.

The success of these two countries would do far more to thwart Russian efforts to destabilize large areas of Eurasia or counter threats posed by Islamist extremist organizations like ISIS than any anti-propaganda initiative or any bombing campaign in Syria.  And the cost is likely to demonstrate a far better return on investment for U.S. taxpayers than billions of dollars spent on more tactical responses. It would help America reassert the importance of universal values we hold dear, not just for ourselves but for all those willing to strive for them.

During the Cold War, American strategists understood that shoring up allies and ensuring the vitality of free-market democracies was at least as important as defending against Cold War military provocations. American presidents from Truman to Reagan worked to unite Europe and draw newly decolonized states in Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America toward democratic governance and free-market economies through the power of attraction. The success of countries like these contributed at least as much to the Iron Curtain’s collapse as U.S. military might; and neither would have been successful without the other.

This approach is needed now, at a time when success in Ukraine and Tunisia is still possible but hardly assured. The strategic and moral consequences of their failures would be enormous.

A failed Ukraine would not only dishonor the sacrifices of those who died on the Maidan and the efforts of reformers who are fighting corruption. It would be a clear sign to countries across Eastern Europe, the Caucusus and Central Asia that Russian intervention cannot be deterred and that efforts to advance democracy and participate in the international economy are unlikely to pay off.

A failed Tunisia would not only be a tragedy for Tunisians who led the Arab Spring and united to transform their society peacefully.  It would be an unparalleled victory for ISIS and other extremist movements – already recruiting heavily in Tunisia -- as well as a blow to all those within the region who wish to establish just, representative governments.

Both countries need U.S. and European assistance urgently to consolidate their respective transitions and meet legitimate citizen demands.  This should include:

·         Financial assistance to shore up struggling economies;

·         Security assistance to help legitimate armed forces repel unlawful and destabilizing attacks within their borders;

·         Governance assistance, particularly to fight corruption and engage populations rapidly souring on reform across these diverse countries; and

·         Support for vocational education, entrepreneurship, scholarships and educational exchanges to productively engage large youth populations.

To be sure, both governments have weaknesses, including corruption, internal political squabbles, and lack of accountability. The abrupt departure of yet another Ukrainian reform minister is cause for particular concern. But both governments are committed to reform and the values of participatory governance, civic rights and rule of law in regions where all are under siege.  Their newly empowered citizens are demanding change and reform-led growth.

A U.S. foreign policy that prioritizes Ukraine and Tunisia is a strategic vision with the potential to transform, not just respond to, a threatening global security environment. It is a vision both Democrats and Republicans have reason to support.

Lord is president and CEO of IREX, a global education and development organization that works in both Tunisia and Ukraine. Taylor is the executive vice president of the U.S. Institute of Peace, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, and former special coordinator for Middle East Transitions.

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