Democratic politics and the multiple audience problem:  the case of Ukraine

One reason politics is so hard is that our words are often heard by different audiences, and a message that is well-calibrated for one type of listener may work poorly for listeners with different roles, values, or interests.

To illustrate:  Phillips O’Brien has a piece in the Atlantic with the headline “Time is on Ukraine’s side, not Russia’s”.  He did not choose the headline, but this morning he defends it.  He argues that it is important to convey a sense of optimism about the prospects for a Ukrainian victory.  Americans and other western publics will support aid to Ukraine if they feel that Ukraine has a reasonable prospect of winning.  On the flip side, O’Brien notes that pro-Russian propagandists like Tucker Carlson emphasize Russian strength, because this will tend to reduce western support for Ukraine.

This all sounds reasonable to me.  If the goal of your communication is to keep public support for Ukraine strong, optimism is the order of the day.  But O’Brien is an influential guy.  It seems very likely that his opinion pieces in the Atlantic and elsewhere are part of the mix inside the Pentagon, the State Department, and the White House.  And optimism about the prospects of a Ukrainian victory may encourage the White House and others in the foreign policy establishment to be cautious in supplying Ukraine with the additional weapons it needs to secure a timely victory.  It may even give Russia a chance to regain its footing and to turn the war into a bloody stalemate that eventually ends in substantial territorial gains for Russia.

In short, the right message to send to the administration is not a message of unqualified optimism.  Instead, it should emphasize (in addition to the moral and strategic importance of a clear and fast Ukrainian victory) the risk that delay in sending aid will lead to stalemate, demoralization, and defeat.

It should also highlight the political importance of continued Ukrainian advances to President Biden and the Democrats.  A year from now, the Democrats – perhaps Biden himself – will be in the midst of a critical election campaign.  If Ukraine is well on its way to victory, Americans will remain relatively united behind it, and this will bolster the democratic candidate (especially if Biden seeks re-election).  On the other hand, if the war in Ukraine has bogged down into a bloody stalemate that will drag down the democrats.

O’Brien is optimistic about Ukraine’s prospects in the war.  He’s a smart, knowledgeable person, and his views about the strengths and weaknesses of the two armies have proven remarkably prescient.  But the war is entering a new phase, and it is not obvious that Ukraine will be able to go on the offensive against dug-in Russian troops defending much shorter lines.  However you assess the probabilities of successful Ukrainian offensives this year, getting the Biden administration and our European allies to give Ukraine more and better weapons will surely help.  And the way to do this is by highlighting the risk of stalemate.

The upshot is this:  the right message on Ukraine at this moment depends on your intended audience.  For the public, it makes sense to offer a hopeful message, for the reasons O’Brien gives.  For the administration, a more cautious message seems appropriate.  How this conflict should be resolved depends on who you expect to hear what you say, and how likely it is that you can influence their attitudes and choices, and how important it is to change their attitudes and choices. 

Democratic politics is hard.