Putin’s war reminds us why liberal democracy is worth fighting for

Russia’s totally unprovoked, unjustifiable and immoral invasion of Ukraine would seem to mark the end of an era – one that began with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. In this post-Cold War era , Western ideas about politics, economics, and culture spread across the world largely unchallenged, and American power supported the international system. It was not a time of tranquility — think of the wars in Yugoslavia and the Middle East. But it was a time when American power and liberal democracy seemed to triumph, and the international system seemed to work more cooperatively than at any time in history.

Pax Americana began to decline for many reasons, including the rise of countries like China and India, disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan, and financial and democratic crises in the West. But the most disruptive force was the return of an imperial Russia, determined to recreate a sphere of influence in which it could dominate its neighbors. For the past decade, President Vladimir Putin’s Russia has been the world’s great geopolitical disruptor, actively trying to unravel the rules-based international system.

Farid Zakaria Washington Post

For many commentators, the current crisis is proof that this system has collapsed and that the democratic era was only a brief fantasy. David Brooks writes that “history returns to barbarism”. Robert Kagan said that “the jungle” grows back. But is this kind of pessimism justified? I have more hope that in today’s terrible news lurks powerful positive forces.

After all, what caused this crisis in the first place? It’s very simple: the overwhelming desire of Ukrainians to live in an open and democratic society. Let’s not forget what infuriated Putin and led him to invade Ukraine for the first time in 2014. It wasn’t a Ukrainian statement asking for NATO membership; it was the efforts of the kyiv government (a pro-Russian government at the time) to finalize an “association agreement” with the European Union. When Ukraine’s president finally balked at the deal – under pressure from Russia – he was met with massive street protests and parliament removed him from office. This is what triggered Putin’s first invasion of Ukraine.

Ukraine was not alone in choosing a pro-Western path. Over the past three decades, most of the countries that were part of the Soviet bloc have chosen one by one to become more open, liberal, democratic and capitalist. None are perfect – some far from it – but from the Baltic States to Bulgaria, from large countries like Poland to smaller ones like Moldova, most have embraced some version of democratic politics and open market economy . There has been a setback in countries like Hungary and Poland. But broadly speaking, the movement of these countries towards Western values ​​since 1989 is surely an affirmation of the vitality of the liberal democratic project.

Putin’s reaction is a bloody and brutal effort to stem this tide of democratization. He watched in horror as the movement swept across Ukraine, Georgia and, even in 2020, Belarus, which saw the largest pro-democracy protests in that country’s short history. They were savagely suppressed, with the help of Russia, and now Putin has one more country he can only control through fear and force.

As for the liberal international order, it has more defenders than one might imagine. The most eloquent statement in support came this week at the UN Security Council, not from any of the Western powers in the room, but rather from Kenya’s ambassador to the UN, Martin Kimani. He said almost all African countries have deeply flawed borders. They were drawn to colonial powers, often dividing ethnic and linguistic groups. But, he pointed out, African leaders had decided to live with their imperfect borders because to challenge them would have been to invite an endless series of wars and insurgencies. Instead, these countries chose to honor international law and the United Nations system. Kimani said, “Rather than form nations that always looked back in history with dangerous nostalgia, we chose to look forward to a greatness that none of our many nations and peoples had ever known. “

Far from Europe, what is the crux of the problem between China and Taiwan? It is the fact that the people of Taiwan want to live in an open, free and liberal society, and they fear that their way of life will be stifled by a communist dictatorship.

I do not want to minimize the problems facing democracy and liberalism. Almost 25 years ago, I noted with concern the rise of “illiberal democracy” and highlighted in particular the wrong turn that Russia (among other countries) was taking. I have seen the erosion of the liberal democratic values ​​I hold dear in my native India, and in the country of which I am a proud immigrant, the United States.

But what the backlash shows is that liberal democracy and the rules-based international order must be defended – vigorously, even aggressively. With the voices of nationalism and populism so strong, it seems that liberal values ​​are reluctant to defend them shamelessly. To those who dwell on the problems of liberal democracy rather than its promises, I say, “Let them go to Ukraine. The people of Ukraine show us that these values ​​- of an open society and a free world – can be worth fighting for and even worth dying for.
The question for all of us is: what will we do to help them?

Fareed Zakaria’s email address is [email protected]