Testimony of Ambassador John O’Keefe, Executive Director, Open World Leadership Center For the Legislative Branch Subcommittee Of the Committee on Appropriations, United States Senate and House of Representatives, Fiscal Year 2018

May 12, 2017

Testimony of Ambassador John O’Keefe, Executive Director, Open World Leadership Center For the Legislative Branch Subcommittee Of the Committee on Appropriations, United States Senate and House of Representatives, Fiscal Year 2018


I appreciate the opportunity to offer testimony on behalf of the Open World Leadership Center. The Open World Leadership Center (Open World or the Center) has served Congress through its international professional exchange program since our inception in 1999.

The Center administers the Open World program, one of the most effective American exchange programs for emerging democracies. The program has enabled more than 26,000 global leaders to engage and interact with Members of Congress, Congressional staff, and thousands of other Americans, many of whom are the delegates’ direct professional counterparts.

The Open World program focuses on assisting Congress in its oversight responsibilities and on conducting exchanges that establish lasting professional relationships between the up-and-coming leaders of Open World countries and Americans dedicated to showcasing U.S. values and democratic institutions. The Center’s nonpartisan nature as a legislative branch agency, independent from the priorities of any presidential administration, is an important asset of the program. The Open World program brings emerging federal and regional political leaders to the United States to meet their American counterparts and gain firsthand knowledge of how American civil society works. This hands-on and close up look at our processes – and the people who run them – has a unique impact on our delegates. The Open World experience provides the impetus for improvement; delegates return home and set to work creating change based on the models they have seen.

The “Soft” Power of Exchange:

The elected officials and young professionals from across the former Soviet states and other countries who, thanks to Congress, come on the Open World program each year have seen the best of America up close and personal. They go back to their homes with an improved impression of our country and they share their positive impressions with their friends, family, community, and professional counterparts. These are the people that go into elected office, run cities, teach the next generation, and craft the foreign policy that directly affects the United States.

Open World’s Legislative Branch Identity:

A question that I hear every so often is, “Why is the Open World Leadership Center in the Legislative Branch?” The most compelling answer to this is simply that the placement in the Legislative Branch allows our program to engage influential, democracy-minded Russians and others from more closed countries – products of the Putin Generation looking for positive change – that would otherwise choose not to travel on an Executive Branch exchange. It can be a risky and reputation-damaging proposition for a Russian to come to the United States as a participant in an Executive Branch program. In April of 2017 Open World hosted five in-demand Middle East specialists from Russia. They were blunt in telling us that they felt secure on our program, in large part due to its legislative branch identity.

“Open World appealed to the members of our delegation by being nonpartisan, politically neutral, and outside of executive branch politics. The programming fosters a free, open, deep and meaningful exchange of ideas between peers.” – Group Statement by Middle East Specialists from Russia, April 2017

Furthermore, the Open World program is a proven asset to the Congress because it directly benefits their constituents. In 2016, Open World placed delegations of young professionals in all 50 states and brought the most members of parliament groups than ever before, 16.

Front Line against Fake News and Anti-American Propaganda:

The Open World program is a proven effective method of directly combating anti-American disinformation and propaganda being disseminated out of Moscow into its neighboring states as well as into other countries via sophisticated and well-funded communications methods such as the RT television channel. In the three years since Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution and the subsequent illegal annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation, the world has seen undisputed evidence that Russian troll farms are blanketing airwaves and the Internet with stories designed to disrupt the news cycle. Through our embassy in Kyiv and other sources we find European-minded, anti-corruption activists and young Members of Parliament that see a great opportunity in participating in the Open World program.

Similar Russian tendencies are at play in Georgia and Moldova, both European Union-oriented governments and with regions mired in frozen conflicts with Russia. Open World directly engages members of parliament from both countries as well as their leading NGO and social services influencers.

Keeping Russia Close: U.S.-Russia relations continue to be strained. In fact, it is reminiscent of a time 18 years ago when our founder Librarian of Congress Emeritus Dr. James H. Billington grew increasingly concerned about our two country’s relations during the NATO action in Yugoslavia. He envisioned a mini-Marshall Plan to keep goodwill strong at the grassroots level, when our diplomatic efforts were at a stalemate. Dr. Billington took his concerns not to the State Department, not to private international funders, but to Congress, to the Appropriations Committee, in fact, because it was his vision that a new model of exchange program would support the international oversight activities of U.S. legislators. They agreed with Dr. Billington, in effect creating a new support agency for the Congress. In 1999, the nascent Open World program brought over 2,000 Russians to the United States for professional programming hosted by their American counterparts, including Members of Congress, all across the country.

Today, the Open World Leadership Center continues to conduct a highly-regarded international exchange program in the United States Legislative Branch and plays an increasingly vital role in the political landscapes of many countries throughout Eurasia, and in particular, Russia and Ukraine. Open World has supported leaders who, early in their careers, have become influential within their communities and in the national arena. For example, Alexei Navalny, Russia’s most well-known Kremlin critic was an unknown 29-year-old lawyer when he came on the Open World program in 2005. Navalny was hosted in Dallas, Texas on the Local Governance theme and went on to rise in the ranks of a strong and active movement against Vladimir Putin. Navalny is only one example demonstrating Open World’s expertise in selecting the most promising individuals to come on the program usually right at the moment that they are about to ascend in their profession. We communicate with these alumni, track their results, and present them to Congress to show how effective our exchange model is.

One profound insight our delegates derive from their experience in the U.S. is that elected officials truly are accessible and accountable to the citizens of their jurisdictions. Another powerful element, again consistently praised by our delegates, is the impact of home stays—delegates living with American families while in the United States. One delegate succinctly described “seeing an America I didn’t know existed.”

Congressional leadership is instrumental in advancing democracy and strengthening civil society worldwide. With its support by Congress Open World is a strategic long-term investment in our security, a matter of principle, and a crucial source of our international influence and strength. Open World is committed to these efforts while recognizing the possibility of uncertainty and setbacks, understanding that progress requires our unwavering dedication to enduring principles and goals.

Open World’s Powerful Alumni Network:

Open World maintains a vast alumni network across Russia, Ukraine, and the other countries of the former Soviet Union. Many members of the alumni 26,000-strong community are active in their communities, regions, and at the federal level. They are a valuable resource to our diplomatic missions abroad. The communications multiplier effect is a major result of the Open World program. Our alumni dispel myths and untruths about the United States and help promote a positive message about the American reality.

For Open World’s Russia program, the objective is to have participants return to Russia with a more positive view of America; to add to their professional skills through direct contact with U.S. citizens engaged in similar work; and to counter the Russian information war by providing an objective view of the American people and our society. These programs are intense ten-day thematic visits to the U.S. that expose young and emerging Russian leaders to democratic practices, civil rights, good governance, transparency in media, sound health and education policy and practices, the provision of social services, and economic development strategies.

Open World has had enormous success in Russia due to a continuous low-key presence there since 1999 providing our colleagues from Russia with broad exposure to American democratic and free-market institutions.

Open World’s Ukraine program helps Ukraine mature in the aftermath of revolution and enhance its leaders’ skills and capabilities to advance the country’s agenda. These programs come at a time when part of Ukraine has been annexed and it faces continuing Russian aggression in the East and South, and through Russian-controlled media.

The Open World program also focuses on the institutional development of civil society organizations and the promotion of democratic and economic reform. The subthemes of the program are aimed primarily at fighting corruption, promoting transparency and accountability in governance, furthering decentralization of power, and improving the business climate to enhance trade capacity, particularly as it relates to the agricultural and energy sectors.

Open World has had growing success in Ukraine as it has worked steadfastly there since 2003 to be responsive to its developmental and societal needs. More than 3,200 outstanding alumni now serve in leadership positions throughout the country. In 2016, Open World’s 46 Ukraine programs were hosted in 44 U.S. communities in 32 states, providing our colleagues from Ukraine with broad exposure to American democratic and free-market institutions. To exemplify some programmatic results:

Open World is supporting its alumni in the Parliament and throughout the country’s legal institutions to assist actual judicial reform. Open World works with its U.S. judicial partner, the International Judicial Relations Committee of the Judicial Conference of the United States (whose Head is chosen by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court), on creating intense programs that outline a practical path toward judicial reform.

Two members of the new Cabinet of Ministers are Open World alumni. Open World alumni are in top leadership positions in the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Education and Science, and the Ministry of Youth and Sports. The Prime Minister is a strong supporter of the project and has been a very active supporter of the Birmingham (Alabama) -Vinnitsa partnership program that Open World implements.

Open World alumni are among the leadership in Ukraine’s Parliament and many others serve as key staff members. These dedicated alumni are eager to work with Open World to expand this element of programming.

Open World Strategic Goals:

The Open World Leadership Center Strategic Plan for 2016–2020 builds on the excellent work done under the previous plan. We have adopted goals that will strengthen our work with members of Congress and continue to cement our legislative identity. The plan sets the Center’s direction for the next five years. This iteration is an update that includes activities through 2020. The strategic plan review process includes an effort to ensure that our goals are measurable and attainable, despite limited staff resources. Our performance measures, which are based on the Government Performance and Results Act, are challenging, though obtainable. The Center’s three goals are to: ensure that the Center is a resource, an asset, and a sound investment for Congress; expand the reach of the Center to countries strategically important to the United States; operate as a model cost-effective, responsive agency.

Plans for 2017 and Beyond:

In the ever-shifting landscape of U.S-Russian relations and our relations with other strategic countries in the region, the Open World Leadership Center is poised to address emerging issues such as: Anti-American sentiment; Countering Russia’s influence; Global health concerns; and Democracy programs. Open World was designed to be and has remained agile and can create programming quickly to support Congress in their response to pressing international oversight issues.