The race for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Republican Ron Johnson was, until recently, tightly focused on domestic policy. While there were references to Johnson’s bizarre July 4, 2018, junket to Moscow, where he partied with members of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle, the discussions by the Democrats tended to focus on jobs, health care, education and environmental issues.
Now that Putin has invaded Ukraine, however, the tenor of the debate has shifted. Domestic issues will continue to be highlighted, but foreign policy can no longer be ignored. That’s significant for Steven Olikara, the founder and former CEO of the Millennial Action Project, who has traveled widely, engaged with activists around the world and, among many other responsibilities, served on the advisory board of UW–Madison’s International Division.
Olikara is one of almost a dozen announced candidates, and he has not gotten as much attention as the perceived frontrunners. I have always thought that the 31-year-old contender merits a closer listen. Now, however, it’s essential to pay attention.
In recent conversations with the candidate, I’ve been struck by his nuanced views on the challenges facing the United States in a rapidly changing global order. With a perspective that places a “dignity for all” emphasis on preserving human rights and protecting human lives, Olikara advocates for a foreign policy approach that centers on multilateral cooperation, deterrence of armed conflicts and humanitarian support. “I believe we must take an empirical, long view of our actions, as opposed to drawing on ego and knee-jerk reactions that are counterproductive,” he says. “This means we should leverage our power intelligently, coupling a 21st century military force (e.g. more cyber defenses) with strong global partnerships to serve our interests and values, and deter potential threats.”
That long view led Olikara to speak frequently about the Russia-Ukraine crisis last year, when few of the other candidates were paying attention. Now, as the invasion has moved the issue to the front burner, he speaks with the clarity of someone with a history of being highly informed and highly engaged.
“I want to be clear,” Olikara says. “Russia has violated international law by invading Ukraine. The human suffering among Ukrainians that will result from Putin’s actions is tragic, and is the direct result of his unjustifiable act of aggression. America has a role and interest in deterring further Russian aggression, and to make sure other autocrats think twice before conducting similar actions. To do so, America should work with our global partners to protect the dignity of Ukrainians and hold accountable those directly responsible for violating that dignity — without entangling ourselves in a military conflict that costs American lives and leads to unintended global consequences.”
When I asked Olikara for specifics, he provided them.
“After the events of this past week,” he said,“I believe our top diplomatic priority should be expanding our multilateral coalition, particularly with Asian countries, to exert additional pressure on Putin and protect the dignity of the Ukrainian people. The U.S. must be the primary global leader and convener. We must create a united front of nations from the West to the East.”
With regard to the role the U.S. military should play, Olikara says, “I still do not believe the U.S. should put troops in Ukraine. However, as a result of Putin’s invasion into Ukraine, we must ensure this conflict doesn’t spread beyond Ukraine. Shoring up our forces in surrounding NATO countries is a smart strategic move to deter Putin from extending the invasion into these nations.”
Regarding sanctions, the candidate made the case for a targeted approach. “They should exert maximum pressure on those responsible for this violence, particularly the Russian elites, not innocent Russians,” says Olikara, who explains that, “My experience working with Sudanese pro-democracy activists as a founding board member of the African Middle Eastern Leadership Project, or AMEL Project, strongly influenced my view of sanctions policies. Many young Sudanese leaders in civil society were wrongly harmed by Western sanctions.”
Even as sanctions are implemented, Olikara argues, “We should keep communication channels open with Russia. I understand this policy is often a radical idea among the foreign policy establishment. However, I believe these communication channels help to prevent misunderstandings of military engagements and unintended escalations. President Kennedy’s leadership during the Cuban Missile Crisis, in which his administration utilized communication systems with the Kremlin, highlights why this approach is so important to achieve peaceful resolutions.”
When Olikara speaks about foreign policy, he often makes connections to domestic concerns — identifying the intersections that former President Barack Obama often highlighted.
“I believe our democracy recession domestically directly impacts our ability to lead globally," Olikara says. "Putin’s decision to invade now isn’t happening in a vacuum. He saw that the U.S. and other Western democracies have become increasingly divided, tribal, and paralyzed by political dysfunction. He, of course, has had a direct impact in contributing to this democracy recession.
“We must show the world that Americans are unified in our commitment to democracy and put in the work to renew our democracy here at home.”
“Finally,” says Olikara, “I believe that spending endlessly on the last couple decades of wars, rife with mission creep, also helped to present this opportunity to Putin. We must be much smarter, more focused, and more strategic with our foreign engagements in the future. Part of why I call for changing the business model of politics, starting with money in politics, is because of the influence of our military-industrial complex in funding politicians and getting us into misguided wars.”