At some point in the last 30 years, the “free world” concept fell out of favor.
Maybe it seemed outdated when the Cold War ended. Or an afterthought in an era when economic development, not political freedom, has become the main measure of human progress. Or too complacent in an American culture increasingly obsessed with its own sins, current and original. Or it is no longer appropriate for countries where democratic norms and liberal principles are being eroded from within – from Hungary to India and the United States.
But we must urgently return the concept to its former place, both in terms of its explanatory power and its moral power.
The prospect of a Russian invasion of Ukraine is seen by many of Vladimir Putin’s apologists as a case of restoring Russia’s historic sphere of influence, or as a predictable rebuff to NATO’s eastward expansion, just another episode in the game of grand politics. .
By this logic, the Kremlin’s goals are limited and its demands can be negotiated. It’s an enticing logic that diplomacy can work: give Putin what he wants—say, Ukraine won’t join NATO or withdraw NATO troops from former Warsaw Pact countries—and he’ll be satisfied.
But this logic ignores two factors: Putin’s personal political needs and his far-reaching ideological goals. Putin is neither a tsar nor a real president in the sense that he rules according to established rules that both legitimize and restrict him. He is a dictator accused of corruption and criminal behavior who has no guarantee of a safe escape from power and must invent ways to extend his reign for life.
Stirring up periodic external crises to mobilize domestic support and grab the world’s attention is the time-honored way dictators do it. So, however the Ukrainian drama is resolved, there will be other crises created by Putin. By reassuring him now, he will cheer him up for the future.
The second factor follows from the first. The ultimate way to strengthen a dictatorship is to discredit democracy, present it as divided, tired, and corrupt. There are many ways to do this, and Putin uses many of them, from supporting extremist parties and politicians to sponsoring Russian bots and trolls to spread conspiracy theories on social media.
The most effective method is a straightforward power play that exposes the gap between the West’s high-flown rhetoric about democracy, human rights and international law and its unheroic calculations about commercial gain, military spending, energy dependency and strategic risk. An attack on Ukraine will cost Putin, but they will be more than compensated if he can instill in the West a deep sense of his own weakness. The bully’s success ultimately depends on the psychological surrender of his victim.
The best short-term response to Putin’s threats is one that the Biden administration is finally beginning to consider: the permanent deployment of large numbers of US troops to NATO frontline states, from Estonia to Romania. Arms deliveries to Kiev, which are currently measured in pounds rather than tons, should become full-scale air shipments. NATO troops should not and should not fight for Ukraine. But the least we owe the Ukrainians is to give them the reserve of deterrence that arms give them. before they are captured together with a real chance to fight for themselves.
The long-term response is to restore the concept of the free world.
What is meant by this term? This is not just a list of states that happen to be liberal democracies, some of which are linked by treaty alliances like NATO or regional trading blocs like the European Union.
The free world is the broader notion that the world’s democracies are bound by common and fundamental commitments to human freedom and dignity; that these obligations transcend politics and national boundaries; and that no free man can be indifferent to the fate of any other free man, because the enemy of any democracy is ultimately the enemy of all others. This was the main lesson of the 1930s, when democracies thought they could win peace for themselves at the expense of the freedom of others, only to learn the hard way that such a deal was impossible.
The concept of the free world is imperfect—so often its component states are imperfect. He may be prone to overconfidence (as in Afghanistan), to strategic inconsistency (as was the case for several years in the Balkans), or to sharp division (as was the case during the Iraq war).
But it would be foolish to think that the loss of Ukraine will mean nothing for the future of freedom anywhere else, including in the United States. Success in ventures is usually admired, and Putin has never had a shortage of admirers in the West, including some former—and possibly future—US presidents.
Putin appears to believe that dividing and humiliating the West over Ukraine will reduce NATO and its partners to a collection of states, each fearful and pliant. That’s a good bet and it won’t be easy to stop him. But a free world that understands that the alternative to keeping together is to keep apart can at least begin to confront the threat it poses.