Residents of Odesa sing the national anthem after building a barricade for a checkpoint
Residents sing the national anthem after building a barricade in Odesa on March 25. Ukraine’s fitful but determined move towards becoming a western society has stood it in good stead in the war © Oleksandr Gimanov/AFP/Getty Images

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The liberal-democratic market economies, which Russian president Vladimir Putin has prompted us to think of as “the west” again, suffered a deep crisis of confidence in the decade and a half after the 2008 financial crash. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24 all but swept away any western timidity, self-doubt and division that could have been expected. Putin certainly expected it, as Timothy Snyder explains very well in a conversation with the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent.

While the west’s response needs to be much more forceful still — a full embargo on Russian energy exports is imperative, as is more ambitious military support for Ukraine — there is no denying the west has surprised even itself by its resolve.

Two recent speeches suggest how the war brings out the west’s unappreciated strengths. At Chatham House in London, Wally Adeyemo, US deputy Treasury secretary, said: “Russia’s brutal and unprovoked attack on Ukraine is — at its most fundamental level — a rejection of the principles that undergird the postwar system we collectively built”, a system based on “rules, norms, and values that underpin the international economy and the decades of growth and poverty reduction”.

It is not just that we want to protect this system of common rules. Adeyemo’s key insight is that it is because we have built a system of common rules that we are equipped to inflict severe damage on Russia’s economy. He said:

“Our ability to so swiftly curtail the Kremlin’s ability to fund its priorities and degrade its ability to project power is a direct result of our cooperation and collective investment in the international economic system.”

The other speech was by Jeremy Fleming, UK intelligence chief, who asserted that Putin’s advisers are not telling him the truth, a point also made by US intelligence officials. US secretary of state Antony Blinken commented that: “One of the Achilles heels of autocracies is that you don’t have people in those systems who speak truth to power or who have the ability to speak truth to power.”

These speeches highlight something that I think we have too often forgotten. Many features of liberal democracy may seem to put us at a disadvantage in direct conflicts with autocracies such as Putin’s: our openness makes us easy to read, democratic decision-making sacrifices decisiveness and the rule of law limits the room for action. In fact, however, these seeming weaknesses are sources of tremendous strength. What the speeches I referred to illustrate is how it is precisely liberal democracy’s self-imposed requirements — its binding systems of rules, its openness, its need to accommodate the vast majority of its members — that make it resilient.

We can see at least three examples of this in the war in Ukraine, both through Russia’s deficiencies and the west’s successes. First, Adeyemo’s point about economic power: it is because of the tremendous economic value of a rules-based order that exclusion from it is such a powerful weapon.

Second, open societies have an informational advantage. They may be unable to keep much secret — but for that very reason they are less likely to deceive themselves. When the truth is freely expressed, there is no way a democratic leader who actually wants to be informed can be kept in the dark by his or her coterie. Nor will ordinary people be as betrayed as the Russian conscripts Putin had denied were ever sent to Ukraine.

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And third, the sense that everyone plays by the same rules — the plain meaning of a “rules-based order” or the “rule of law” — engenders trust, collaboration and popular support. A largely truthful public sphere is a key reason why western countries have overcome differences in interests around sanctions, for example, and that their publics are quite clear about who to blame for high energy prices.

These normally discreet charms of liberal democracy are on bright display in Ukraine itself. The country’s fitful but determined move towards becoming a western society has stood it in good stead in the war. It buttresses President Volodymyr Zelensky’s legitimacy and leadership, and it helps the extraordinary unity of communication shown by Ukrainian representatives at all levels. Well-placed Ukrainian contacts have told me that earlier decentralisation reforms, which boosted local accountability and room for manoeuvre as relevant knowledge on the ground, now contribute to military effectiveness.

It is worth reading the full transcripts of recent interviews Zelensky has given (one to The Economist and one to independent Russian journalists). They show that the Ukrainian president is fully aware that the fight is not just over territory or even freedom, but over what sort of society Ukraine is going to be. Fighting — militarily — for the west and for liberal democracy is of a piece with Ukrainians’ pre-existing efforts to establish a less corrupt, more rules-based economy and integrate with the EU. In Snyder’s words, there is such a thing as being a “resolute pluralist”, and Zelensky is one.

There are two important forward-looking lessons to draw.

One is about the value of liberal democracy. The old Francis Fukuyama thesis that nothing will ultimately prove more attractive to people than liberal democracy, then, is still alive and kicking. Matthew Yglesias has a good discussion on how those two big competing 1990s ideas — Fukuyama’s “end of history” and Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilisations” — hold up today’s geopolitics.

Yglesias suggests that the real faultline of conflict turns out to be “good government versus bad government”, where Zelensky is precisely “trying to give people . . . the basic ingredients of the end of history: good government, autonomy, and prosperity through integration with the richer parts of the world”. That is good as far as it goes, though there is still an ideological competition. Not, as Yglesias suggests, against political Islam, but against the temptation to think that liberal democracies are bound to underperform systems with strong and unconstrained leaders, managed information, and nativist and socially conservative propaganda — in a word, fascism. That is not a new fight so it does not invalidate Fukuyama’s end of history argument — though it shows how anti-democratic forces will keep trying to delay history’s end.

The other lesson is about Ukraine itself. Molly McKew asks us to lift our eyes to the horizon and try to imagine what a Ukrainian victory could mean:

“Ukraine is trying to buy us all a different future. Trying to force us to see there can be one — if Putin is defeated here, and if we all accomplish this together. If they can get us to have sufficient imagination in time . . . It is not Russia but Putinism that must be defeated. The Ukrainian gamble has given us the possibility to be able to bring this about . . . Ukraine’s survival, if it is a victory for us all, will sustain this newly revitalized Europe and carry it forward [to a] future where Europe doesn’t end in a hard eastern border, where Russians don’t feel isolated and misjudged by their European cousins. Where Ukraine is not the bloodlands of the conquest of empires, but the brilliant new engine of a better future for us all.”

Nothing less than this is at stake. The Ukrainians are putting their lives on the line for such a future. The west, and the EU in particular, has everything to gain from joining their struggle.

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