The West is back

Published in (Wellington), 22 March 2022

Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine has changed the world. Regardless of how it ends, its consequences will last for decades.

This watershed moment could restore the West as a political force. To see why, it is worth considering some history.

The Cold War era is often associated with the arms race between East and West. While that military confrontation between the two blocs was a key element of the Cold War, it was not the defining one.

At its core, the Cold War was a philosophical divide: liberalism vs socialism, democracy vs totalitarianism, freedom vs oppression.

These ideological differences found their expression in the political and economic institutions created in the Cold War. In the West, these were NATO, the European Economic Community and the G7. Their counterparts in the East were the Warsaw Pact and the Comecon.

These institutions were more than just military or trade alliances. They were alliances of values.

For example, the preamble of the NATO Treaty underlines its signatories’ determination to “safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilisation of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law.”

During the Cold War, such affirmations mattered even more because the other side had a diametrically opposed belief system. It was this contrast which strengthened the commitment.

Thus, Western countries reconfirmed their adherence to their set of liberal values through their common institutions. Meanwhile, despite political differences, there remained a common core of values spanning almost the entire domestic political spectrum.

In a way, it did not matter if the Republicans or the Democrats governed the US. Or whether the Social Democrats or the Christian Democrats led West Germany. Or whether the socialists or the conservatives ran France. Their countries’ basic adherence to the Western values set was never in question.

During the Cold War, the old West remained highly coordinated internationally, and it was relatively cohesive domestically.

But just as having a common enemy unites, so the lack of a common enemy can drive apart. And that was the story since the end of the Cold War.

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, there was jubilation and relief in the West. Not just because the West had won the confrontation with the Soviet Empire. But also because the West’s values had prevailed – and especially its core value: freedom.

The mood of the time was captured by Francis Fukuyama when he proclaimed “the end of history”. Admittedly, Fukuyama’s actual thesis was a bit more nuanced than that. Still, the feeling that liberalism had won once and for all was widespread.

Soon afterwards, we talked about the “Washington Consensus”, a set of liberal economic policy principles any country should follow. Globalisation was meant to carry the liberal agenda to every corner of the world.

Yet this liberal triumphalism sowed the seeds of its own destruction.

Without its external enemy, Western democracies gradually forgot what they were about. It is what happens to a muscle you do not use for a while: it becomes weak. As there was no obvious systems competition anymore, Western leaders and commentators thought they no longer had to define themselves in opposition to an anti-liberal, anti-democratic threat. And so they didn’t.

Worse still, in the belief they had already reached the Kantian nirvana of perpetual peace, Western democracies became blind to rising external threats. Assuming that everyone was just as liberal as themselves (or would at least soon become so), they allowed unchecked interactions with countries far removed from any semblance of liberalism.

At the same time, Western democracies fragmented domestically. Domestic political differences became stronger, and democracies more polarised. This development was amplified by funding for radical groups and politicians from autocratic governments.

To round it all off, because there no longer seemed to be any genuine threats, Western countries reduced their military expenditure. They also lost their vigilance against strategic dependencies on energy and resources.

Let us translate these abstract observations into concrete examples.

When Donald Trump campaigned on ‘America first’, it was the antithesis to liberal internationalism and globalisation, and Trump’s campaign was helped by Putin. When the United Kingdom invited Russian oligarchs to London, it turned a blind eye to the sources of their wealth.

When the French far right campaigned against the EU, it was Russian money that helped pay for it. And when the Germans cut their defence spending and made Russia their main energy supplier, they told themselves it made commercial sense.

The enemies of liberalism never thought that way. For Russia’s Putin, China’s Xi – and maybe also for Turkey’s Erdoğan – politics always remained a zero-sum game. They spotted the West’s naïve weaknesses and sought to exploit them. One by one.

That is the backdrop to Putin’s aggression on Ukraine. Putin had perceived the West as divided – because he had helped divide it where he could. And he saw a West that was so weak it barely demurred when Russia swallowed Crimea in 2014. A West that liked Russian money, needed Russian gas and was not prepared to stand up for its own values. A West that allowed Putin to get what he wanted.

Despite that, Putin seems to have miscalculated. Instead of humiliating the West once again, Putin’s war is – so far – achieving the opposite: it is reviving it.

This is thanks to the heroism of the Ukrainian people and their President, Volodymyr Zelensky.

A CNN commentary summed it up perfectly: “Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his courageous nation have already done more to transform the West’s policy toward Russia than 30 years of post-Cold War summits, policy resets and showdowns with Russian President Vladimir Putin.”

Ukraine has been on its westwards trajectory for decades. Indeed, the Ukrainians had a revolution over association with the EU in 2014. And now they have a President in Zelensky whose courage and determination puts Western politicians to shame.

Unlike any Western leader of the past 30 years, Zelensky stands up to fight for his country’s freedom to go West. When the US offered to evacuate him from Kyiv at the beginning of the war, he replied, “I don’t need a ride, I need ammunition.”

Zelensky held up the mirror to Western leaders. And he forced them, or shamed them, to finally take a stand: for their own values.

Without Zelensky’s resistance, Germany would not have abandoned its cowardly appeasement policy and allocated an extra €100 billion (NZ$166 billion) to defence this year. Without it, we would not have seen the wave of sanctions against Russia. And surely, the West would not have taken the big step of cutting Russia’s ties to SWIFT.

Is it an exaggeration to say that Zelensky has, single-handedly, revived the West?

The West, which after 1989 lost sight of its values, may have found them again. By confronting the external enemies of liberal democracy, it may regain its own liberal-democratic strengths.

If that is the outcome of this conflict, the West will be ready for the next geopolitical challenges to come. And President Xi will think twice about his ambitions in the South China Sea.

The West may also rethink its own domestic priorities again. It has taken a brutal and existential challenge to sort out what matters – and what doesn’t.

If that is the outcome, then at least out of Putin’s atrocity, out of his monstrous and barbaric war, may come something good. And that would be a comeback of a strong West, committed to its values. And with Ukraine as a free, liberal, democratic nation under the rule of law – just the kind of country the NATO Treaty talked about and that the EU should want to have as its member.

Putin’s war on Ukraine, and Zelensky’s heroism, force us all to take a stand. It leaves no room for neutrality, even if dressed up as an independent foreign policy.

When ever-neutral Switzerland joins the EU in their sanctions against Russia; when Finland and Sweden now think about joining NATO; when Singapore firmly puts itself behind the West; when pacificist Germany and Japan rearm themselves: As all of this is happening, times have fundamentally changed.

The only choice left for countries to make is which side they will be on.