When Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy addressed a joint session of the US Congress just days before Christmas — his first trip abroad since Russia’s invasion 10 months ago — he described a triumph against the Kremlin in the “battle for the minds of the world.”
Mind the Gap Between the West and the Rest
As the war drags on into 2023, the question of how to broaden the coalition of nations supporting Ukraine is not just necessary, it’s urgent. Success would increase Russian diplomatic and economic isolation. It could limit this humanitarian disaster and, by avoiding even deeper divisions and escalation, may even avert others, including around Taiwan, which China still claims as its territory. US President Joe Biden and Western allies can do far more — starting with ceasing to frame the fight as an existential clash between democracies and autocracies.
Most obviously, the rhetorical flourish automatically and unhelpfully pushes China and others into Russia’s camp. Emerging nations aren’t sold, and resist the dichotomy. It makes it easier to argue, as Indonesia’s defense minister has, that “your enemy is not necessarily my enemy.”
It’s not even particularly accurate. Yes, Russian President Vladimir Putin is a dictator and Ukraine a democracy (admittedly, an imperfect one). But Kyiv is not under attack from Russian forces primarily over its political system, nor is it being supported by the West because of it. Putin seeks to subjugate, even annihilate, a neighbor, and threatens global stability. This is about sovereignty, territorial integrity and the rule of law. Those are far better, concrete, concepts to build on.
Zelenskiy’s appearance was intended as an impassioned appeal to US lawmakers, driving home the desperate need for continued financial and military help. Pushing out Russian forces will certainly require copious amounts of Western hardware, training and cash — but it will happen much faster if Moscow, already under pressure from wide-ranging economic sanctions, struggles to sell enough oil and gas at adequate prices, and if fewer powerful emerging nations attempt to sit on the fence, as India, Indonesia and others have.
We need more than Western liberal democracies if Putin is to be forced to call off what he started.
The trouble is that from the early hours of Feb. 24, Western leaders have repeatedly reached for the idea of a war of values. In a “good war” with a clear aggressor, David fighting Goliath, it’s easy to see why this image of democracy versus autocracy appeals. In the case of Biden, for whom this was a leitmotif even before the invasion, it serves to boost morale and to remind folks back home of domestic anti-democratic threats. Former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, with his elevated sense of historical importance, certainly warmed to the Churchillian theme.
In much of the rest of the world, however, it’s a harder sell, and it smacks of Western hypocrisy.
It’s not that democracy is thriving. As things stand, most of the world’s population lives under a tyrant of one shade or another. According to the V-Dem Institute in Sweden and its 2022 Democracy Report, the levels of democracy enjoyed by the average citizen in 2021 were at 1989 levels, implying three decades of progress since the end of the Cold War have been reversed. Worse, while this year has brought hope for those fighting for democracy, progress is limited. Iran’s rulers are still in charge, Putin has tightened his grip at home despite the debacle abroad, Chinese leader Xi Jinping isn’t about to be toppled even after the humbling start to his third term.
But Ukraine isn’t “Top Gun.” Calling this a struggle between democracy and autocracy is at best simplistic. Yes, the traditional West has united against Russia, but what about the rest? Does India count as a democracy, and if so which side is it on? What about Hungary? Or Singapore, which has imposed sanctions on Russia? Are there perfect democracies and perfect autocracies? It prioritizes form over function, much as does Biden’s “Summit for Democracy,” held in December 2021 and due again in March 2023.
This is also not about fighting autocracies, it’s one autocrat — just as the Cold War was about one regime — one man and his imperialist illusions.
A less divisive, less black-and-white approach won’t solve everything. Even a change of vocabulary won’t prompt Xi to drop Putin and embrace Biden, however irked he may be by the progress of the war at a time when domestic troubles have multiplied. But the “no-limits friendship” between Moscow and Beijing has been shown to have limits, and China can support an argument around territorial integrity, say — central to Beijing’s own foreign policy principles and domestic concerns — just as it will seek to avoid global economic crisis or a nuclear disaster.
The other problem is that the idea of a clash of democracies versus the rest is untenable, given the strategic balancing that will be required to defeat Putin — with Saudi Arabia, for one, or even US engagement with Venezuela. Liberal democracies, after all, amount to a paltry 34 countries, some 13% of the world’s population.
There’s plenty more that can be done to widen support, not least investing in more effective diplomatic engagement and economic ties across Africa and Asia. But it’s clear that ensuring Ukraine’s survival and protecting global stability requires pragmatism. Not mission creep.
More From Bloomberg Opinion:
• A Case for Cautious Pessimism in 2023: Adrian Wooldridge
• Winter Freeze? Ukraine War Is Going to Heat Up: Max Hastings
• The War on Russia’s Economy Is Working. Keep It Up: Editorial
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Clara Ferreira Marques is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and editorial board member covering foreign affairs and climate. Previously, she worked for Reuters in Hong Kong, Singapore, India, the U.K., Italy and Russia.
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