Lessons from a Law Professor in Ukraine

May 1, 2014

Kiev Ukraine protests(Editor’s Note: Jeff Matsuura is a regular contributor to this blog on topics related to law and technology.  He recently served as a law professor in Kiev as part of the William Fulbright International Education Program.) 

As the crisis in Ukraine unfolded, I had the extraordinary opportunity to spend more than a month in Kiev teaching law to graduate students at one of Ukraine’s oldest and most highly regarded universities.  While there, I came to the conclusion that the people in Ukraine who are trying desperately to hold their country together in the face of a clear and immediate threat to its existence are displaying courage, grace, and strength that should make Americans reconsider what it means to be a global leader.

Ukraine faces an immediate existential threat.  With Russian troops on its soil and tens of thousands more of those troops armed and ready at the border, the threat to its national existence is arguably more immediate than that ever faced by the United States.  Yet, in the face of that threat, Ukraine continues to conduct its normal activities and to invest resources in areas such as education in an effort to prepare for a future currently very much in peril.  Although threatened by potentially overwhelming force, Ukraine has the discipline and foresight to continue investing in education for its young people.  It considers education to be vital for its national future, and even an immediate existential threat does not lead the country to waver on that point.

If Ukraine, while confronting one of the world’s leading military powers, refuses to relinquish or even defer its goals for the future, why is the United States seemingly so quick to back away from significant plans for the national and global future?  Although the United States sees itself as a global leader, it is increasingly reluctant to act like one.  When facing important short and long-term challenges, America now routinely claims that it can not afford to take action or that its resources must be directed toward all of the profound threats it now faces.

Ukraine, with its relatively small economy and limited resources actively plans for and invests in its future, even in the face of a dire threat posed by a major power.  In contrast, although facing nothing that even approaches the level of the immediate existential threat confronting Ukraine, the U.S seems to exaggerate the magnitude of the existing threats it faces and then uses those threats as excuses in an effort to justify abandoning or ignoring important national and international initiatives.  Which nation is acting more like a global leader, Ukraine or the United States?  To my disappointment, the answer is all too clear.

In these comments, I have deliberately avoided addressing the issue of an appropriate American response to the crisis in Ukraine.  It will, however, not surprise the reader to know that my personal opinion, based not on any grand geo-political analysis, but instead based on my feelings of respect and friendship for my colleagues and students in Kiev, is that the U.S. should take an active role to assist, support, and help sustain the government of Ukraine at its time of extreme need.

I did not write this essay to advocate more active intervention by the U.S. in Ukraine.  Instead, these comments simply reflect the respect and friendship I have developed for the people I met and worked with in Kiev, who continue to work hard investing in a better future, even in the face of a profound threat to that future.

Wisdom, persistence, and sacrifice applied in pursuit of important future objectives are key elements of true leadership.  My friends in Kiev display those traits each day in the face of overwhelming odds.  Yet we in the United States, who have so much security and so many resources, seem to be reluctant to make a similar level of commitment to the future.  Surely, we can do better.  W must do better.  The people in Kiev and in other at risk places elsewhere in the world have earned the right to expect us to act like the global leaders we claim to be.  Global leaders do not manufacture excuses to justify abandoning or deferring bold and important actions for the future.  Instead, global leaders act like the people in Kiev, working hard each day to build a better future, in the face of any and all threats they encounter along the way.