Sunday, March 06, 2022

Ukraine in the Global Battle Between Liberal Democracy and Illiberal Autocracy

Recently, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch was interviewed by David Remnick at The New Yorker.  

She said:  ". . . the thing about the U.S. and NATO and the European Union is that we have ideas.  We are about democracy and freedom and capitalism and security, as well as individual liberties.  It's a fact that people are better off under democracies. . . . It's our ideas that attract others.  Russia under Putin doesn't really have that power of attraction.  He only has the power of coercion, and we are seeing that now in Ukraine in a brutal way."

Is that true?  Are the modern Western ideas of liberalism--democracy, freedom, and capitalism-- powerfully attractive to human beings today?  Is it true that people are better off when they live in liberal capitalist democracies?  Or has the power of those liberal ideas faded in recent history?  Must Putin rely only on the power of coercion?  Or does Putin also have the power of some illiberal ideas in defeating modern liberalism?  Do we see those illiberal ideas manifest in the thinking of Traditionalist philosophers like Alexander Dugin and Steve Bannon, who support Putin?

That the war in Ukraine is part of the global battle of ideas between liberal democracy from the West and illiberal autocracy from the East has been affirmed by Ukrainian philosophers like Volodymyr Yermolenko.  Yermolenko is a political philosopher and political scientist in Ukraine who is the editor of Ukraine World, an English-language news outlet.  He has recently written an essay for The Economist.  Michelle Goldberg has written an article about him for The New York Times as explaining why Ukrainians believe they can win.

"Freedom is the key trait of Ukraine's identity as a political nation," Yermolenko says.  He explains:

"Ukrainian political culture is based upon anti-tyrannical, democratic and republican values.  Most Russians tend to approve of their tsar; Ukrainians identify with opposition to him.  Within politics they see a social contract.  This harks back to the early modern era, when the Ukrainian warrior class known as Cossacks made agreements with their leaders which ensured recognition of their rights and freedoms.  This mode of thinking runs deep and it is impossible to eradicate.  The Cossack, a free warrior on the open steppe, is one of the symbols of Ukrainian identity."

The word "Cossack" is derived from an Old East Slavic word kozak for "free man."  In speaking about how political culture arises from a "social contract" between free men to secure their rights and freedoms, Yermolenko restates the ideas of Lockean liberalism.

Yermolenko continues:

"Ukraine is also a political nation.  It is not centered exclusively on any single ethnic, linguistic, or religious identity.  It is pluralistic.  You can be a Ukrainian speaker, Russian speaker, or a speaker of Crimean Tatar and be ready to defend Ukraine.  You can be Ukrainian Orthodox, Greek-Catholic, Roman Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, or Jewish and stand shoulder to shoulder for this country.  Ukrainians have a Russian-speaking president who has Jewish origins."

Thus, in contrast to the ethnic and religious nationalists, Yermolenko sees that Ukrainians have embraced liberal pluralism, and that they can still be united in their patriotic defense of their country because they are united in their commitment to the liberal values of a free society.  If he is right, Ukrainian political culture is both cosmopolitan and patriotic.  It is cosmopolitan in affirming the universal values of liberalism and patriotic in affirming the national identity of Ukraine as rooted in those values.

That Ukrainian sense of national identity has been formed largely in response to Putin's aggressive attacks on Ukraine--first his annexation of Crimea and the invasion of the Donbass region in 2014 and now his invasion of the rest of Ukraine.  Marie Yovanovitch observes: "When I was in Ukraine in the early two-thousands, nobody knew the words to the national anthem.  By the time I came back, in 2016, everybody knew the anthem.  They put their hands on their hearts.  The same is true now, as Russian troops are targeting kindergartens."

Yermolendo agrees:

"Our sense of Ukrainian identity has taken on a greater intensity in the past few years.  Russian aggression since 2014 helped consolidate it among people who might earlier have felt close to Russian culture or Russia's information space.  Mr. Putin's invasion will accelerate this process.  When Russians shell residential buildings and destroy the central square in Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine, every shot diminishes the number of those who have sympathy with Russia.  People who have felt they belonged in the Russian cultural space ten years ago, feel a strong Ukrainian identity now.  They might speak Russian or go to the Russia-linked Ukrainian Orthodox Church.  But they are Ukrainians.  Russia has lost the battle for their hearts and minds."

This transformation of Ukrainian identity is also the victory of European liberal modernity, and particularly the victory of the liberal humanism of the Enlightenment over the illiberal authoritarianism of the counter-Enlightenment (as promoted by people like Dugin and Bannon).  Yermolendo observes:

"It is the extension of European values to the east.  It is the story of the strength of the European idea--which today's Europe sometimes shies away from.  It is the story of European humanism, rooted in Ancient Greek philosophy, through Roman republicanism, to Italian city-republics, the ideas of the Enlightenment and of anti-Nazi resistance.  Through their resistance to Mr. Putin's empire, Ukrainians are showing that this humanist tradition has the strength, energy, and courage to defend itself."

In the summer of 1989, The National Interest published Francis Fukuyama's essay "The End of History?"  This came just a few months before the fall of the Berlin Wall and two years before the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.  Fukuyama argued that humanity has reached "not just . . . the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: That is, the end-point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government."

When Ukrainians defeat Putin, as they surely will, Fukuyama might want to write a new essay entitled "The End of History--Again?"

As he argued in his original essay, this is not the end of the history of political conflict and war, but it is the end of the intellectual history of the debate over the best social and political order.  Because now most human beings recognize that liberal democracy is the best regime for securing human happiness, because it secures the human freedom that is the precondition for human happiness.

Another way of seeing this is to look at the empirical evidence for the correlation of freedom and happiness as presented in the Human Freedom Index, and to see how Ukraine is striving to move closer to those countries at the top of this index (countries like Switzerland and Estonia) and away from those countries at the bottom (countries like Russia and China).  I will write about that in my next post.

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