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The editor’s view

Democracy versus despotism – a global issue

by Hans Dembowski


One year after the insurgency, activist calls for action in Washington.

One year after the insurgency, activist calls for action in Washington.

US President Joe Biden is known for saying that the Ukraine war is a conflict between Western democracy and eastern despotism. His narrative makes sense, but it does not tell the full story.

The truth is that this conflict is not only raging in Ukraine. Western democracies, after all, are being challenged by authoritarian populists, whereas many Russians do not agree with their government and some of them still dare to express their opposition.

Russia’s regime is fast becoming totalitarian. For two decades, President Vladimir Putin has continuously been making life harder for opposition parties and more recently begun severely restricting civil-society space (see me on www.dandc.eu). However, there always was some scope for expressing dissent. Now, by contrast, Putin has begun to outlaw the expression of thoughts that do not coincide with his own. His rule is thus no longer merely autocratic, but totalitarian. Democratic resistance must thus become clandestine.

Matters are far more transparent in western countries, and it is easy to see that democracy is not in a good shape. In France, more than 40 % of voters opted for Marine Le Pen, a right wing extremist, in the recent presidential elections. In the USA, Donald Trump won an even larger share in the presidential elections in 2020 and even after the insurgency of 6 January 2021, many Republican policymakers still pretend, without offering any evidence, that Joe Biden somehow “stole” the election. It adds to the worries that Republicans are changing voting laws at the level of individual states that make it harder for minorities and young people to vote, which makes Democratic majority less likely.  Indeed, in US politics, the minority often wins (see Katie Cashman and me on www-dandc.eu).  

There are obvious problems in other EU countries too. Yes, the Polish government has become an eager supporter of Ukraine, but it is clearly more driven by fear of Russia than by democratic principles. In regard to the rule of law, freedom of expression, citizens’ fundamental rights and related issues, it has aggressively deviated from the EU. Things are similar in Hungary, and the Hungarian government has a pattern of still being soft on Russia.

Indian ambivalence

Biden and other western leaders clearly want to isolate Russia internationally and mobilise other governments to support Ukraine. They are eager to engage Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, hoping to somehow draw him into their camp. However, his autocratic leanings are well known, and though he shies away from explicitly endorsing anti-Muslim violence, his central government and the state government that are run by his party do very little to rein in brutal action by the supporters. Moreover, they stoke anti-Muslim sentiments in election campaigns.

So far, Modi is not taking sides. In relevant UN votes, India abstained. The background is complex. India has a long history of importing Russian weaponry and depending on Russian commodities. Since independence in 1947, the country has kept the distance to the western countries, many of which are former colonial powers. It certainly plays a role, however, that Modi himself is not interested in human rights and probably likes the idea of unilaterally changing borders by use of military means in Kashmir, should an opportunity arise.

Disappointment in developing countries

Indeed, many governments of developing countries have not endorsed the west in the current scenario. Colonial history is only part of the reason. It also matters that western governments have all too often not lived up to promises (see Imme Scholz on www.dandc.eu).

Western leaders, I think, should keep pointing out that Putin has a long history of supporting populist forces in the west, from the Brexit campaign in Britain to Donald Trump in the USA and Marine Le Pen in France. It will also make sense to make people aware of the fact that all of them have a pattern of attacking democratically legitimate government action. Like Putin, they claim to restore the greatness of their nation, but do not offer solutions to everyday problems and in many ways serve the interests of the superrich elite. There is indeed such a thing as plutocrat populism, and it is dangerous (see me on www.dandc.eu).

If western leaders want democracy to prevail, it makes sense to support the democratically legitimate government of Ukraine, a sovereign nation. That is not enough however. To be credible, they must fight antidemocratic forces and kleptocracy at home. And they must challenge partners and would-be partners like Modi who do not consistently live up to democratic principles either.

Rule of law

Fareed Zakaria of the Washington Post recently argued that Biden should use a different distinction, according to which the big struggle is one between the rule of law and lawlessness. He has a point, and he was right to add an important implication, which is that the USA should join the International Criminal Court. Staying outside means to undermine the rule of law at the international level. There would also have to be a reassessment of the Iraq war, which George W. Bush, a previous US president, started without securing a UN mandate, neglecting the US Security Council’s rightful monopoly on deciding these matters.

As I argued previously (see my comment on www.dandc.eu), Russia’s attack on Ukraine was – and is – an attack on humanity as a whole. Armed warfare is taking place in Ukraine, but the economic impacts via food and energy prices affect every nation. Moreover, the war is distracting attention from urgent global challenges, especially climate change. Isolating Russia must thus be the top priority.

The Russian regime clearly does not care about international law or the multilateral order at all. It does not even pretend it does. Unfortunately, however, the west does not have a consistent pattern of adhering to multilateral agreements and principles. Western nations tend to opt for multilateral solutions when it suits them and stick to their narrowly defined national interest when they can. This kind of ambivalence has weakened international institutions. Had the west been a convincing advocate for - and facilitator of - global public goods, isolating Russia in the international arena would now be much easier. To weaken Putin, western policymakers should get their act together fast. They must not only defend democracy in Ukraine, but at home and in allied countries too.

Hand Dembowski is the editor in chief iof D+C/E+Z.
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