Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2023.01.18

What Taiwan can learn from Zelenskyy’s visit to Washington

The Ukrainian leader knew his audience when he recently addressed U.S. lawmakers, Taipei should do the same

the Japan Times on December 23, 2022

The U.S.A. Taiwan

While watching Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s address to a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress earlier this week, I thought about the lessons that Taiwan must learn from his visit if the self-governed island wishes to survive a Taiwan contingency.

I was mesmerized by Zelenskyy’s skill at communicating with the U.S. president and members of Congress, as well as ordinary Americans.

The president of Ukraine and his able aides knew exactly what they were doing. The following are seven lessons my friends in Taipei — both from the Nationalist Party of China and Democratic Progressive Party alike — need to learn if they wish to secure political, economic and military support from Washington during a Taiwan crisis, which could happen within mere years rather than decades.

Win hearts and minds

First and foremost, to win a war against Beijing, Taipei must win American hearts and minds. Zelenskyy was genius in starting his speech by saying “In all states, cities and communities, all those who value freedom and justice, who cherish it as strongly as we Ukrainians in all our cities in each and every family, I hope my words of respect and gratitude resonate in each American heart!”

He added, “This battle is not only for life, freedom and security of Ukrainians or any other nation … this struggle will define in what world our children and grandchildren will live, and then their children and grandchildren. It will define whether it will be a democracy of Ukrainians and for Americans — for all.” These words rouse the American fighting spirit.

Naturally, he was echoed by U.S. President Joe Biden who said in a joint news conference, “When Ukraine’s freedom was threatened, the American people — like generations of Americans before us — did not hesitate.” Zelenskyy’s narrative was so effective in connecting his war in Ukraine to the creeds and values that most Americans sanctify and cannot ignore.

Afghanistan vs. Ukraine

Taiwan should not repeat the same mistakes the Afghan government made in 2021. When Taliban forces overran Afghanistan, President Ashraf Ghani fled the country. In contrast, the president of Ukraine announced he was determined to stay when Russian troops invaded his country on Feb. 24. Americans may not come to their aid unless Taipei is determined to fight.

Speak to Americans

Zelenskyy, who said in his speech, “We have the same values and the same understanding of life, the sense of life,” knows the words that inspire Americans. Biden told reporters, “The American people know that if we stand by in the face of such blatant attacks on liberty and democracy and the core principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity, the world would surely face worse consequences.”

Biden continued, “American people are prepared to have us stand up to bullies, stand up for freedom. That’s who we are as Americans. And that’s exactly what we’ve done … . We’ve provided humanitarian assistance to help the millions of Ukrainians who have been forced to flee their homes because of Putin’s inhumane and brutal war.” Those proclamations are so inspiring.

Personality matters

Biden likes in-person meetings. He said, “I don’t think there’s any, any, any substitute for sitting down face-to-face with a friend or a foe and looking them in the eye. And that’s exactly what’s happening at this moment … . And I think — I may be mistaken, but I know — I judge every leader by the way they (and) what they say to me, their consistency and looking me in the eye.”

“This guy” he went on to say, pointing to Zelenskyy, “has in his, to his very soul is who he says he is. It’s clear who he is. He’s willing to give his life for his country and all the folks who are with (and) came with him today.” Zelenskyy seems to know how to handle the U.S. president and I am almost certain that he can handle all other U.S. leaders, including Donald Trump.

Moral advantage

In the United States, as I understand it, the memory of the Holocaust and the plight of the world’s diaspora matter. Zelenskyy remembered to refer to the “dear representatives of diaspora, present in this chamber and spread across the country.” Likewise, Biden didn’t forget to note that, “Tonight is the fourth night of Hanukkah, a time when Jewish people around the world — President Zelenskyy and many of the families among them — honor the timeless miracle of a small band of warriors fighting for their values and their freedom against a much larger foe.”

Generalized narrative

Zelenskyy tried to define the war against Russia as part of a global struggle by the world community when he said, “it will prove to any potential aggressor that no one can succeed in breaking national borders, committing atrocities and reigning over people against their will.” Then he added, “When I was in Bakhmut yesterday, our heroes gave me the flag. The battle flag. The flag of those who defend Ukraine, Europe and the world at the cost of their lives.” Taiwan must create the same narrative for the United States.

Use history as a guide

Zelenskyy in his speech touched on America’s experience during World War II, comparing Russia’s aggression to “the other tyranny, which in the Battle of the Bulge, threw everything it had against the free world.” He also said, “Just like the brave American soldiers, which held their lines and fought back Hitler’s forces during the Christmas of 1944, brave Ukrainian soldiers are doing the same to Putin’s forces this Christmas.”

Finally, he concluded his speech by saying, “I recall the words of the President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, which are so good for this moment: ‘The American People in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.’ The Ukrainian People will win, too. Absolutely.”

Ukraine has yet to win its war against Russia, but the country and its president have already won the hearts and minds of the American people — which is something Taiwan may have to do sooner rather than later.