Quick, and without doing Google: What’s the capital city of Belarus? (Hint: It rhymes with Pinsk.) Second question: Is Poland a landlocked country? Third question: What is an oblast?
Bonus question: Which of these countries are not members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization? (a.) Norway (b.) Georgia (c.) Ukraine. (d.) Latvia.
Answers: Minsk is the capital of Belarus; no, Poland’s northern coast is on the Baltic Sea; an oblast is a political district, similar to a province, a term still used in Russia and other East European countries; and neither Ukraine nor Georgia are members of NATO, though a commission chaired by Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin recently urged the Biden administration to declare both countries “major non-NATO allies,” signifying an upgrade of the U.S. defense relationship with them.
His Maryland constituents might not be aware of it, but the Democratic senator currently chairs the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, known as the Helsinki Commission, an independent U.S. agency that monitors human rights and security in Europe. Cardin has been a member of the commission since 1993, and he’s chaired it two previous times.
The commission’s recent letter to Biden, first reported by Foreign Policy magazine, said: “Although the United States has consistently supported Ukraine’s and Georgia’s NATO membership, Russia’s occupations and ongoing invasion expose the tragedy of long-stalled Euro-Atlantic enlargement.”
Enlargement refers to the expansion of membership in NATO. Both Ukraine and Georgia were promised it several years ago, but remain outside the defense alliance. Anyone following Russia’s invasion closely should know that Ukraine’s relationship with NATO is both a reason for Russia’s attack and a key to Ukraine’s survival.
“Absent strong and proactive U.S. backing for Ukrainian and Georgian NATO membership,” Cardin’s commission wrote, “[Russian President Vladimir] Putin will continue to take ample advantage in his aspirations to upend security and cooperation in Europe and [push] his neocolonial agenda.”
I submit all of this — my East European quiz, Cardin’s role on the Helsinki Commission — because of the war in Ukraine. While Americans are said to have little time for international affairs, a crisis of this scale usually stirs more interest. And not just because conflict affects the prices we pay at the pump, but because Russia’s war on Ukraine is an atrocity and because it represents a serious threat to the stability of Europe and the future of democracy. Most Americans understand what’s at stake, according to recent polls. Majorities of us support more military assistance for Ukraine and the continuation of economic sanctions against Russia.
We might fail quizzes about geography and world affairs, but most rational Americans appreciate the need to have foreign policy on a sure footing — and experts in our government who know what an oblast is.
This is a favorite subject of mine: The importance of calling Americans to public service and retaining those already serving the nation well. This is especially important in foreign relations, where expertise is required and must be nurtured over time — not disrupted by know-nothings.
Unfortunately, the latter is what happened at the State Department. There was a disturbing brain drain during the Trump administration, with first Rex Tillerson and then Mike Pompeo serving as secretaries of state. Tillerson came in with a plan to significantly cut staffing and scale back diplomatic efforts; Pompeo politicized the department. Several senior staffers resigned and many of those who remained were demoralized.
“The Trump administration belittled diplomacy and any professional advice in trying to make foreign policy judgments,” Cardin told me recently. “[Diplomats] were totally shut out during the Trump years. So there was a significant morale problem. … Tillerson’s cuts decimated the department’s capacity to do its mission.”
I bring up Cardin again because, at age 78, he continues to be a busy man. In addition to his role on the Helsinki Commission, he serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and chairs a subcommittee on the State Department. He sees a lot of problems and challenges there — a loss of experience and expertise, numerous positions that need to be filled, and a need for diversity among the men and women who represent the nation around the world.
“Foreign service has always attracted the brightest people,” Cardin said. “And the department has always been very selective. We always had a lot more people interested in foreign service than we had spots for them, but that is certainly reversed and we have not gotten back to the numbers we need.”
Cardin and a Republican senator, Bill Hagerty of Tennessee, are pushing legislation to modernize the department with better training of the men and women in the Foreign Service.
“Diplomats need training,” Cardin said. “They need language training, cultural and diplomatic training. And we have a school for that. But, in order for that to work, you need to have enough personnel so you can fill in while a career person is in training.”
The State Department needs a hiring surge and the Biden administration has proposed funding it. But recruiting and training diplomats — having them in place during the ordinary execution of foreign policy or in a monstrous crisis like the one in Ukraine — takes time.
Cardin thinks Secretary of State Antony Blinken, along with his deputy Wendy Sherman and undersecretary Victoria Nuland, provide the leadership a department in recovery needs.
“We have talented people at the top, the right people in place,” Cardin says. “But it would not be accurate to say things are good. They are not good.”