Democracy and Decency
Whatever their Western apologists may claim, Russia and China are clearly trying to weaken liberal democracies by attacking the values that underpin them. Open societies – including the United States under a president who believes in alliances – must unite in defense of what they know is right.
LONDON – We have long been dangerously slow to recognize, let alone resist, the undermining of liberal democracies by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s post-KGB thugocracy and China’s more economically successful version of aggressive Leninism.
I saw the Russian side of the problem up close when I was the European Union’s commissioner for external affairs from 1999 to 2004. Too many European countries, led by Silvio Berlusconi’s Italy, thought that they could do business with Putin, and perhaps even turn him into a geostrategic ally. Meanwhile, Putin was presiding over a regime that sought to overturn the post-World War II international order and to fracture both the EU and the transatlantic alliance. Putin’s regime bullied neighbors, invaded other countries, and murdered its critics even on foreign soil.
Moreover, Putin and his cronies understood very clearly liberal capitalism’s weak spot: the greed of those who were usually already rich. Just consider how much of London – property, businesses, and members of the political elite – Russian money bought in the 1990s and the aughts of this century. And Russian cyberwarfare and money have recently distorted both American and British politics, the latter most egregiously during the 2016 Brexit referendum campaign.
Until recently, the Chinese threat was less widely noticed. But since the novel coronavirus began its deadly global rampage, President Xi Jinping has led a bruising campaign around Asia and the world to impose his regime’s interests on the rest of us. Asserting this plain truth does not amount to Sinophobia, as apologists for the ruling Communist Party of China want people to believe. The problem is the CPC itself, which currently has its most aggressive and hardline leaders since the Mao Zedong era.
Xi expressed his hostility to liberal values in the instructions he issued to party, government, and military officials back in 2013. His “Communiqué on the Current State of the Ideological Sphere” itemized everything, from press freedom to parliamentary democracy, that could undermine communist rule.
Unhappily for Hong Kong, the city exemplifies most of the values that Xi hates. Despite China’s promise to respect these values after it regained sovereignty over Hong Kong in 1997, Xi has now caged the territory with a rule of fear, maintained by what Winston Churchill called the “odious apparatus” of a police state. The great China scholar Perry Link has compared the CPC’s control mechanism to “the anaconda in the chandelier”: at any moment it can drop and throttle you, but you never know when this will happen.
Subscribe to Project Syndicate
Enjoy unlimited access to the ideas and opinions of the world's leading thinkers, including weekly long reads, book reviews, and interviews; The Year Ahead annual print magazine; the complete PS archive; and more – all for less than $2 a week.
The assault on Hong Kong’s autonomy and rule of law, embodied in the hastily adopted security legislation that China imposed on the territory at the end of June, is only one of Xi’s recent transgressions. In the last few months China has wielded its cosh from India to Australia, Canada to the South China Sea, and from Japan and Taiwan to Europe.
Of course, some who live in the world’s free societies – including the United Kingdom – claim that this isn’t happening, or that China is too important for us to stand up to it. The excuses for kowtowing come thick and fast. Because we can’t change China from the outside, why bother to denounce human-rights abuses like the regime’s eugenic barbarity toward Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang?
Other CPC apologists warn us not to poke the Chinese dragon at a time of worldwide economic distress, because we need its market. And what about Britain’s own behavior toward China in the nineteenth century, or the other nasty regimes that we still do business with today? In fact, some of these “useful idiots” often seem to define our national interest by how much we accept its subordination to China’s.
But what will happen to the values that form the core of our political and cultural identity if we do not stand up for them? And is the UK still strong enough, on its own, to do so?
Here, I cannot recommend strongly enough Anne Applebaum’s recent book Twilight of Democracy: The Failure of Politics and the Parting of Friends. Advancing her arguments with eloquence and personal testimony, Applebaum passionately decries the corrosion of liberal, open-society values in the last three decades. Her book is a practical reminder of what all democrats should have learned from reading Karl Popper’s magisterial The Open Society and Its Enemies, itself written in liberal democracy’s darkest hours during WWII.
By allowing Britain’s political identity to be subsumed in a narrow nostalgia for a nonexistent past – an inward-looking worldview nurtured by a ragbag of social media paranoias – many Brexit supporters have lost sight of the difference between right and wrong in world affairs. They have also cast aside our understanding that we need to work together with other liberal democracies to deal with bullies like China and Russia.
We must unite to defend the values that made the second half of the twentieth century so much better than its blood-soaked first half. Liberal societies – the United States under a president who believes in alliances, our EU allies, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and our Asian friends, including India, Japan, and South Korea – should be partners in defense of what we know is right.
In another extraordinary essay in The Atlantic criticizing senior US Republican Party politicians’ collaboration with a leader whom we know is wrong – President Donald Trump – Applebaum recalls the great Pole Władysław Bartoszewski. Imprisoned by both Nazis and Communists, Bartoszewski later served as foreign minister in two democratic Polish governments after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
What had guided Bartoszewski through his brave and honorable life? It was not, he said, some big, abstract idea. It was a simple credo accessible to everyone: “just try to be decent.”
That seems to me pretty good advice for all democrats. It may be especially useful to heed it in the turbulent times that lie ahead.