In the time since Russia invaded Ukraine, a round of self-congratulation has erupted in the West. Moscow is threatening the liberal order, but in the eyes of leaders in Washington, Berlin, London, or Paris, the West has shown the world just how strong and unified it is. The scale of the sanctions package is unprecedented, they say; the idea of freedom has shown itself to be stronger than Vladimir Putin ever could have imagined; the collective spirit of the liberal order has been restored.
It is easy to get carried away in a wave of awe at what is happening in Ukraine, faced with the patriotic bravery of Ukrainians fighting for the right to be free, the Russian military’s apparent early struggles, and the West’s stronger-than-expected response. Germany has finally awakened; the European Union has risen to the occasion; the United States has rediscovered its moral and political leadership. This is a crisis that has reminded Europe how important America remains and how important Europe might yet become.
It is true that the free world has been galvanized, and the fundamental idea of the Western world—individual freedom under democratic law—is still more powerful and righteous than any of the alternatives. But amid all the backslapping, the West has yet to face up to the broader reality of this crisis. The Russian army’s shelling of Ukrainian cities does not mark the last desperate cries of an authoritarian world slowly being suffocated by the power of liberal democracy. This crisis is unlikely to signal the end of the challenge to Western supremacy at all, in fact, for this is a challenge that is of a scale and duration that Western leaders and populations have not yet faced up to.
Perhaps this crisis really has saved the West from its solipsistic pettiness and division. But the bigger picture is far more depressing, whether in the short term for Ukraine or in the long term for the Western order itself.
Many experts have pointed out that Putin might be able to win the war and take control of Ukraine, but he cannot hold on to it for long given the scale of public opposition to his attempted colonization. This is a war that is thus far going badly for Russia, and yet can get worse, perhaps even imperiling Putin’s regime itself. The Russian economy is also at risk of collapse under the weight of the assault that has been launched by the West.
Beyond these sober analyses, however, are more sweeping claims being made in Western capitals about the long-term implications of Putin’s decision and the inevitability of the West’s ultimate victory. In his State of the Union address, Joe Biden quoted approvingly from his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky’s speech to the European Parliament, in which Zelensky claimed “light will win over darkness.” Olaf Scholz, Germany’s chancellor, argued similarly. “The issue at the heart of this is whether power is allowed to prevail over the law,” Scholz told the Bundestag, “whether we permit Putin to turn back the clock to the 19th century and the age of the great powers.” He then added, “As democrats, as Europeans, we stand by [Ukrainians’] side—on the right side of history!”
Does light really always win over darkness, though? It can, certainly, and did on many occasions during the 20th century. But just because it triumphed in the Second World War and the Cold War does not mean it necessarily will again now or in the future, or, indeed, that this is a fair summary of history. Just because the Allies forced the unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan, and later saw the Soviet Union collapse, does not mean there is, as Scholz declared, a right side of history.
Even if Putin is “defeated, and seen to be defeated,” as Britain’s Boris Johnson said he must be, it still does not follow that light is destined to triumph in the decades ahead. A quick scan across the world suggests that even just since the turn of the 21st century, the picture is far less rosy than the rhetoric from Biden, Scholz, and others might suggest.
Click here to read more.