Putin Has Destroyed the Liberal International Order but Liberal Democracies Are Destroying Themselves
Blaming him for the global democratic slide fundamentally misdiagnoses the problem
Wikipedia Commons. Author Bake Necko
With each passing day, the world witnesses a fresh spate of horrors from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Some commentators posit that Putin’s invasion is part of his broader assault on both the liberal international order and democracies. The New York Times’ German Lopez goes so far as to suggest, “The growing ruthlessness of authoritarian leaders, particularly Russian President Vladimir Putin” is a “big factor” in democratic backsliding.
There is little doubt that Russia’s invasion stands as a signal challenge to liberal internationalism. But Putin’s role in precipitating a broader democratic decline in liberal democratic countries is a different question. Holding him responsible for that overstates his influence and gives him far too much credit for trends beyond his control.
Putin has restored great power politics to the center stage, laying bare — and accelerating — two burgeoning challenges to the existing international order:
One, the trend towards multipolarity. While experts have anticipated the decline of the US-led system of alliances and institutions, most predicted that such a transition was still some years away. Russia’s brazen violation of international law, its recent pact with China, and the emergence of new centers of economic and political influence outside the liberal western sphere indicate that the end of the American unipolar order might well be close at hand. As Robert Kagan writes in the Washington Post, the resurgence of Russian military aggression, alongside Chinese gains in East Asia and the Pacific, heralds “the end of the present order and the beginning of an era of global disorder and conflict as every region in the world shakily adjusts to a new configuration of power.” Putin’s unprovoked aggression might yet strengthen the NATO alliance while weakening Russia, but his disdain for Western powers will potentially embolden China to similarly test US commitments in Asia.
Two, personalist dictatorships that are rising all over the world present particular risks to the liberal order and the international stability that it produced. Countries that are dominated by a single leader who wields outsized influence on government policies and outcomes by superseding the limits of his nation’s laws and institutions tends not to respect the rules-based international order either. Putin and China’s Xi Jinping exemplify this trend, but they are joined by many others, such as Hungary’s Victor Orbán, Turkey’s Recep Erdoğan, Ethiopia’s Abiy Ahmed, and Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro. As this Foreign Affairs essay “The New Dictators: Why Personalism Rules,” puts it these regimes “produce the most risky and aggressive foreign policies; they are the most likely to invest in nuclear weapons; the most likely to fight wars against democracies; and the most likely to initiate interstate conflicts.”
However, Russia’s impact on the internal state of democracies is less convincing. Some commentators suggest that Russia’s assault on Ukraine represents an “inflection point” between liberal democracy and autocratic systems.
To be sure, Russia has tried to destabilize Western democracies by interfering in their elections and thwarting democratic movements in others. But it is unclear whether such actions have played a meaningful role in abetting global democratic backsliding.
In fact, current research tells us that the drivers of democratic backsliding are largely rooted in internal factors, often linked to populism and societal polarization. In longstanding democracies, such as India and Brazil (not to mention the United States), which have experienced a deterioration in the quality of their governance, illiberal leaders have exploited large legislative majorities to dismantle checks on the executive branch, diminish freedom of expression and independent media, attack minority rights, and demonize political opponents. Such backsliding is occurring independent of Russia or China’s illiberal activities. In a congressional hearing in January on the global rise of authoritarianism pointedly noted, Anne Applebaum, a Poland-based writer who has written extensively about the rise of illiberal strongman politics in Eastern European countries, noted: “Washington likes to talk about China and Chinese influence because that’s easy, but actually what really links this group [of authoritarians] is not China but rather a common desire to preserve their personal power.”
Liberal democracies should push back against Putin’s aggression because a revanchist Russia is bringing war and catastrophe to millions of people, undermining the liberal international order, and destabilizing international politics in alarming ways. But conflating Putin’s actions with the loss of democratic governance in disparate countries around the world misunderstands the problem.
So why is global democracy in decline?
During the same Congressional hearing in which Applebaum testified, Yale University historian Timothy Snyder observed that the main problem facing democracies — in particular, the United States — is that they no longer know what they stand for. They have a loss of confidence. “I think we’ve had a problem representing what the ideals and achievements of democracy actually are,” he noted. “The lack of ideology is a big problem for us.” In the U.S., in particular, he observed, political parties had largely stopped talking about the future and instead are either trying to revive the “glorious past” or defend the present.
On the one hand, then, strongmen figures have become more skilled at wielding propagandistic narratives to justify their rule, and deploying coercive tactics to keep citizens in line. On the other hand, democracies increasingly can’t defend themselves. They are stuck in gridlock, unable to solve basic problems all of which undermines public confidence that they can perform. Indeed, the more defensive democracies become and struggle to explain to their citizens that their systems can deliver meaningful results, the more ground authoritarians have to stand on to justify their own behavior.
Performance problems are not exclusive to democracies, of course. Authoritarian countries also have a wealth inequality problem — usually far greater than democracies. The kleptocratic wealth captured by Putin and his cronies, or the wide income disparity in China (research indicates that the top 10 percent of Chinese adults earn 14 times more than the bottom 50 percent) shows that economic inequality cuts across democratic and authoritarian political systems. Likewise, the alleged political efficiency of autocratic leaders is purchased at the cost of massive political corruption.
But in many respects, that doesn’t matter. Authoritarians need not prove that they are superior to democracies, they just need to show that liberal democracies are not superior to them. They undermine the case for democracies by showing that democracies are no more adept at providing public goods to their citizens, addressing inequality or generating politicians capable of subordinating their own personal interests to the broader good of the country.
This dynamic leads to a vicious cycle: advanced democracies continue to flail due to their inability to adequately confront their own political divisions, authoritarians subsequently exploit democratic weakness by pushing the bounds of the international system, the resulting damage to the liberal order further corrodes the standing of the United States and its democratic allies. If anything, the erosion of the liberal international order is a result of internal democratic backsliding rather than the other way around.
The coming weeks in Ukraine will go a long way towards determining whether this order will survive. Ukrainians have courageously resisted the Russian onslaught and even beaten it back. At this stage, it is entirely possible that they might even defeat Russia. Western democracies have shed their reservations and have tightened an economic vise around Moscow. It is possible that Putin might yet escalate the conflict by resorting to tactical nuclear weapons. Or he might find some face-saving way to back down. The world waits, holding its breath.
But regardless of what he does, authoritarian leaders around the globe will continue to find creative ways to subjugate their citizens and pillage their countries’ resources. Liberal democracies will still have to contend with polarized publics, populist movements, and political disillusionment.
Paradoxically, Putin’s shameless invasion may have done global democracy a favor and “accidentally revitalized the West’s liberal order,” as American Enterprise Institute’s Kori Schake puts it. The sight of courageous Ukrainian citizens defying Russian tanks and missiles to defend their nation and democracy has galvanized anti-war protests around the world, from Berlin to Lahore. Perhaps the growing international solidarity with Ukraine will inject much needed life into domestic movements for democracy that are right now on the defensive. But democracies should also recognize that this newfound cohesion generated from confronting a common Russian enemy will not solve their internal crises of confidence. That will require tackling their illiberal pathologies at home.
Democracies should also be careful about the tactics they use to confront Russia’s invasion. If they forsake their underlying values to contain Russia, they risk undermining the essence of the liberal international order.
During the Cold War, U.S. policymakers made a cold calculus — they would prop up despots if those leaders would materially assist in the fight against communism. As President Franklin D. Roosevelt reportedly said about supporting unsavory leaders, “He may be an S.O.B., but he’s our S.O.B.” U.S. backing for authoritarians such as the Philippines’ Ferdinand Marcos, the Congo’s Mobutu Sese Seko, or Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, resulted in devastating human rights trade-offs.
Fast forward to 2022, Biden’s team is exploring similar bargains. U.S. officials flew down to Venezuela in early March to probe whether easing sanctions against Nicolás Maduro’s repressive regime would garner geopolitical support against Russia. Likewise, Biden’s team is now pushing to improve relations with Saudi Arabia — a regime he called a “pariah” during the 2020 presidential campaign – in their bid to encircle Russia.
U.S. officials are understandably searching for any available leverage to pressure Russia. But Biden should consider the high moral costs of making deals with autocrats. It would be unfortunate if the U.S. campaign to salvage democracy in Ukraine ended up facilitating authoritarianism in other parts of the world.