Saturday 26 February 2022

Russia, Ukraine and the future

“Who is ready to fight alongside us? I don’t see anyone … everyone is afraid” said President Zelensky this week. Earlier this week he warned European leaders on a conference call that they may not see him alive again.

We are witnessing a human tragedy and a new era in international relations develop simultaneously and the outcome will shape the world for decades to come. Part of that new era will be the increasingly uncomfortable convergence of trade-offs. Climate change emissions commitments versus reliance on pipelines for Russian fossil fuels. Avoiding alliances versus existential threats. Spending on military force versus domestic priorities on health or education. 

But part of it also will be the question of how the liberal democratic parts of our world project power through civilian, not military means. Early thinkers of what became the European Union wrote of “Civilian Power Europe”, a beguiling concept of the projection of power through non military means: regulatory, normative, market-based and other means of influence. François Duchêne’s 1972 article on this painted a picture of a new form of shaping human affairs, where the use of force was largely redundant.

As we watch Russia brutally crush a free democratic and sovereign Ukraine this seems a distant concept for what may be a darker era ahead, particularly from the vantage point of Eastern Europe or other free countries across the World dominated by larger hostile neighbours. Freedom isn’t free, sadly, and our collective commitment to standing up to force with force will need to be reinforced. This will also be an immensely painful era for Russia as it enters the status of global pariah. 

It could, however, also be an era in which democratic and free States renew and develop multilateral means of protecting and projecting the alternative. Successful, vibrant and free populations often make for messy governments but over the long term are how most people want to live. And in that lies power far greater than anything a weapons manufacturer is capable of producing. East Germans could see the towers and hear the music on the other side of the wall. Ultimately they tore that wall down with their own hands as strongmen impotently looked on. Our way of life in which we celebrate diversity, exercise freedom and hold leaders to account, choosing our own governments is something to protect – against populism and the attempts to undermine it by hostile states. But it’s also our best hope of leaving this era with the boundaries of democratic freedom expanding rather than contracting. 

It's on all of us in our own ways to work towards that.