A Ukrainian opportunity

Crisis in Ukraine gives liberal democracies a chance to mend their image

Drew Thompson

The escalation over the past several weeks of the military situation in Ukraine is not the first time in recent memory that world governments and the media have generated hype around a series of maneuvers by an unaccountable, rogue regime. Each time, conditions settle once more into a tense equilibrium.  

That is not to understate the threat that Russia poses to Ukrainian sovereignty and democracy. Intelligence reports indicating that Russian President Vladimir Putin intends to invade must be taken seriously. However, in the drama of the moment, ignoring the macro-trends governing world affairs becomes easy. Larger processes as opposed to individual spurts of drama are what will make the world a better or worse place to live.  

In Ukraine, several principles core to the world order are at stake, and the situation intersects several important trends. For me, the most concerning trend impacted by Russian aggression and the Western response is the worsening environment world-wide for liberal democracy.  

The conditions for encouraging democracy are already abysmal. China joins Russia in repeatedly quashing freedoms at home and threatening to do so abroad. In particular, many are beginning to see the model provided by Chinese authoritarianism as a viable alternative to the boons granted by a democratic regime.  

International influence furnishes a leading theory as to why countries choose to democratize or further strengthen an existing democracy. World leaders find engaging with countries of similar regime type easier; moreover, their citizens see the freedoms granted to their democratic counterparts and demand the same at home. When a country democratizes under such pressures, both economic growth and stability tend to increase. Thus, a world with many strong democracies is a world which is, in theory, wealthier and more peaceful.  

There are therefore very real incentives for promoting democracy abroad. And given the boons accrued by democratic countries, an authoritarian swing ranging from Latin America to Southeast Asia is concerning indeed and offers ills portends for the years ahead.  

The response the West puts forth, even if an invasion does not come to pass, is therefore critical to stemming the tide of illiberalism. 

While his Afghanistan fiasco may have led to the present situation and certainly tarnished the image of democratic countries, President Joe Biden deserves much credit for his world summit on democracy, his attempt to take up the mantle and lead the free world.  

Still, the conference was mostly words, the force and commitment behind them unclear; Ukraine provides the chance for America to take substantive action to show support for democracies worldwide. As Animal Mother says in “Full Metal Jacket,” “You talk the talk. Do you walk the walk?”  

Democracy is a system that can produce results and unity if China’s promotion of its own system is to be countered. Doing so requires President Biden to thread the needle, given the fractious nature of Western democracies at the moment.  

Both the British and Americans seem onboard with severely punishing the Russians if need be. However, France and Germany—two of the world’s most important democratic countries—are reluctant to join the Anglo-Americans in lock step.  

Several weeks ago, French President Emmanuel Macron called for Europe to pursue “strategic autonomy,” a concerning sentiment that further divides democracies and worsens its brand. In meetings with U.S. officials, the new German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, for some time was non-committal on his country’s response to a potential invasion. He at last clarified his country’s position this week, stating that he would indeed shut down the Nord-Stream 2 pipeline should Russia invade. 

Concurrently, President Putin and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, met in person for the first time in two years. During their meeting, they issued statements expressing enhanced cooperation and coordination between their countries. A unified authoritarian axis continues to be cemented.  

What a contrast. To developing countries—the ones most vulnerable to authoritarian tendencies—which system seems better able to operate and provide assistance? Which seems to offer better stability?  

Of course, people often miss the fact that the fractious nature of democratic politics both nationally and internationally is perhaps the system’s greatest strength. 

Still, that is not obvious, and careful branding on the part of democracies is required. When push comes to shove, this happens, as it did during the First and Second World Wars, but the goal should be to prevent war rather than uniting only when it is nearly too late.