During the Republican National Convention last week, the U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo got a lot of attention for using public resources to travel to Israel to give a convention speech he could have delivered from his living room. The abuse of his position for party politics was an untoward, unprofessional, and unethical contravention of longstanding norms, if not the law. Yet in the long run, less important than what Pompeo did last week is what he didn’t do: stand with the courageous people of Belarus.
The last month has been a seismic political moment in Belarus, replete with dramatic scenes recalling other historic European flashpoints—Prague in 1968, Gdansk in 1980. Stunning mass protests erupted in the wake of the flagrantly rigged Aug. 9 elections in which incumbent Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko—in power for a quarter century and known as “Europe’s last dictator”—claimed victory despite widespread fraud and a likely loss to opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. Having stepped up in July after her husband was denied registration as a candidate and arrested by the regime, she proved a capable if unlikely politician, and she managed to consolidate the opposition and draw huge crowds at rallies in the weeks before the election. After Lukashenko declared himself the winner, Tsikhanouskaya fled to Lithuania, fearing for her safety.
The official U.S. reaction to the rigged election and resulting protests has been weak, but the U.S. diplomatic response is even more disappointing. On the day after the election, Pompeo issued the obligatory statement professing to be “deeply concerned” about the vote that was “neither free nor fair”—an understated reaction. Two days later, on Aug. 12, he addressed the Czech parliament in Prague in a 14.5-minute speech called: “Securing Freedom in the Heart of Europe.” In his speech, Pompeo mentioned China, the Chinese government, and the Chinese Communist Party 20 times; he never once said the word “Belarus.” There has been no formal statement from the White House. Once more, we have to wonder whether President Donald Trump is more worried about ruffling feathers in Moscow than he is about advancing democratic values and U.S. national security interests.
It’s a missed opportunity. A different president, whether Republican or Democratic, would have had long calls with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron, and Russian President Vladimir Putin. There would have been a clear, timely, and public rejection of the election as a farce and a call for Lukashenko to negotiate with protesters and the opposition. The secretary of state would be working the phones and conducting shuttle diplomacy, working with the Europeans to present a united position that Lukashenko must be given an off-ramp, while communicating with the Russians that the U.S. and European position is not a matter of geopolitics but of commitment to the rights and freedoms of the Belarusian people, and all the while reaffirming publicly that the future of Belarus is for Belarusians to decide.
Putin sensed the United States and Europe were not coordinated, and decided to move forward with his own agenda.
Instead, Pompeo and Trump have been missing in action. And while the Europeans have moved forward with a number of laudable steps—including allocating financial resources to support victims of the regime’s crackdown and independent media—when Washington is absent, there is no opportunity for U.S. leadership and no opportunity for a coordinated and cooperative U.S.-European approach.
Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun deserves credit for his effort at picking up the ball fumbled by Trump and Pompeo and doing his best to run with it. He traveled to Vilnius and Vienna in the last 10 days to meet European colleagues and opposition candidate Tsikhanouskaya, and to support the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in its efforts to mediate a negotiated solution to the political crisis. Biegun is a skilled diplomat, and has said the right things, including at an emergency meeting of the OSCE Permanent Council last weekend, when he called for an end to the crackdown on protestors, the release of political prisoners, and new elections in which the people of Belarus are “provided the self-determination to choose their own leaders through a truly free and fair election under independent observation.” Unfortunately, Biegun cannot do this on his own—this level of statecraft requires the “oomph” that can only come from the White House and the secretary of state. Pompeo’s belated statement this week that the United States might sanction those responsible for human rights abuses in the election’s wake is welcome, but falls short of a real strategy.
And that’s heartbreaking, because Biegun’s efforts are a reminder of what could be—and of the opportunity that the United States, and with it the West, may be missing. Much has been made of Putin’s role in all this; since the early days after the election, some have been predicting that Putin would rush in with troops to reinforce Lukashenko. But Putin’s initial statement—like Pompeo’s—was tepid. The Russians are certainly active covertly on the ground in Minsk, but, at least until this week, Putin appeared to be holding back. Lukashenko has skillfully played the West and Moscow against each other in recent decades, cozying up to one in order to entice concessions from the other; this has not endeared him to Putin. Putin sees Lukashenko as a loser who makes other autocrats, like himself, look bad by association. And no one in the region has a more acute paranoia about popular discontent than Putin. He has seen the crowds of hundreds of thousands in the streets of Minsk in the wake of the election. He knows that Lukashenko lost the election, and that if he remains in office, he remains as a corpse. In the short term, that might be ok for Putin—he has experience turning corpses into puppets—but he knows that a political corpse must sooner or later be replaced. It’s clear that Putin wasn’t immediately ready to take action to secure Lukashenko’s grip on power. It’s unclear what alternatives Putin might have seen as acceptable.
We should not accept the Trump administration’s failure as the Belarusian people’s fate.
It’s possible that in the weeks after the election, Putin would have been open to some sort of negotiated solution that provided a face-saving exit for Lukashenko and a new chapter for the Belarusian people. Perhaps he would still be open to such an outcome now. But his latest move—using a birthday call last Sunday to invite Lukashenko to Moscow—seems to suggest that he is moving out of his “wait and see” phase. If so, the explanation is not that protests have ended—on Sept. 1, high school and university students were beset by Lukashenko’s thuggish security forces with dramatic violence—but may be that Putin sensed the United States and Europe were not coordinated, and decided to move forward with his own agenda.
There may still be time, but given Trump and Pompeo’s manifest failures on so many issues, there may not be hope. Diplomatic wins on behalf of freedom are hard enough to come by when political leaders and skilled diplomats work in concert—but they are nigh impossible when those at the top are incompetent and unprincipled. As with so much else in the Trump administration, it is not just that they do so much that is bad—the abuse of public office, the attacks on institutions, the rampant corruption—it is also that they miss so many chances to do good. We may never know how big of an opportunity was lost. But we will know that the United States failed to do what it could for 10 million people who deserve—in Pompeo’s own words—“freedom in the heart of Europe.”
This is not to say that we should accept the Trump administration’s failure as the Belarusian people’s fate. For Americans wondering what political courage they might be called upon to muster in the face of an authoritarian sabotaging elections, the people defiantly protesting in Belarus because they are unwilling to play the fools for Lukashenko’s farce have been an inspiring example. As for Americans, they cannot say that they believe in universal values like freedom and human dignity and not hear the call of the Belarusian people, and cannot be champions of those values without making an effort to answer it. The Belarusian people may yet achieve the end of the Lukashenko era, but it will be in spite of the United States’ silence, rather than in harmony with its commitment to freedom.