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The future of liberal democracy

A voter casting his vote. Is faith in democracy declining? PHOTO : INTERNET 

Why efforts to export liberal democracy abroad are likely to undermine it at home – in the West

THE LAST WORD | ANDREW M. MWENDA | On September 25th, Italy held an election, which was won by the center-right coalition led by Giorgia Melon’s Brothers of Italy, a radical right-wing political party with neo-fascist roots. This paved the way for Melon to become the first female prime minister of Italy on October 25th. It is the first time in post-World War Two Western Europe that a neo-fascist party has taken control of government. It is not going to be the last.

If an election were held in France today, I suspect Merine Le Pen of the far-right National Rally would defeat President Emmanuel Macron. And she would do this, not by moving to the center as she did in the last election early this year, but to the right. Across Europe, far-right ultranationalist parties are surging. In countries like Hungary and Poland, they hold power. There are many causes of this trend. The common thread among all of them is that they are not friendly to liberal democracy.

The Ukraine war will strengthen these far-right ultranationalist parties. This is because the sanctions imposed on Russia have accentuated the decline in living standards in the West, a process began by the 2008 financial crisis and worsened by COVID. This has led to spreading popular discontent. Far-right ultranationalist parties are exploiting this to strengthen themselves.

This article is a conversation between me and my liberal-democratic friends, an ideology that is the second largest religion in the world after Development. Christianity and Islam come third and fourth.

If you believe in Realism as a guiding philosophy of international relations (like I do) you would say Western efforts to integrate Ukraine into NATO provoked the Russian invasion of that country. But if you believe in Liberal Hegemony, you are likely to see the Russian invasion as unprovoked aggression and make a strong moral case against Moscow. Yet even for liberals, I believe there are practical reasons why sanctioning Russia is counterproductive.

For instance, my liberal friends argue that sanctioning Russia is meant to defend Western values like liberalism, human rights and democracy. But this leads the West to depend on Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran, UAE, Kuwait and Venezuela for oil, all of which are undemocratic; and in the case of Saudi Arabia and UAE are doing in Yemen what Russia is doing in Ukraine.

The war in Ukraine is turning out to be a long hard slog. Sanctioning Russia is therefore going to prolong economic difficulties inherited from the COVID pandemic such as poor economic performance, persistent inflation and will accelerate the decline in living standards. These developments will further strengthen far-right ultranationalist parties which, as already noted in this article, are not committed to liberal democracy. Therefore, an attempt to defend liberal democratic values abroad (which sanctioning Russia is meant to achieve) is already backfiring by undermining liberal democratic parties (and values) in Western Europe.

But there is an even bigger contradiction here: sanctioning Russia is going to enable President Vladmir Putin to entrench his hold on power by suppressing the opposition, civil society and the press. Criticism of government will be seen (or presented) as unpatriotic – those voicing it can be easily painted as fifth columnist of the West.

History shows that sanctions rarely undermine the grip of authoritarian governments. On the contrary, in countries such as Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Venezuela, Sudan, etc. sanctions have entrenched authoritarian rulers and helped them suppress the growth of a vibrant opposition, the press and civil society.

The first clue in the anti-Russian posture is that attempts by the West to isolate Moscow have actually led to the isolation of the West. Most of the countries around the globe, including the major economies of China, India, Indonesia, Brazil, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, etc. have continued to trade with Russia. This signals the beginning of the decline of the influence of the West, led by the USA, in global affairs.

I suspect this is in part because the effects of Russian sanctions are being faced in many countries some of which are not able to cope. This is especially so with countries whose food-supply-needs depend on wheat from Russia and Ukraine.

The problem that I see is that the most influential intellectuals of the West have elevated liberal democracy from a political ideology and practice specific to a particular time and place into a universal value. Yet there is no form of government that is, or can be, universal and eternal. All are products of their time and circumstances.

Liberal democracy as a form of government is very new that we are not sure if it can last as long as monarchy, aristocracy and theocracy have in human history. Indeed, democracies have only been hectic interludes in the history of human affairs.

Today’s liberal democracy became dominant after the Second World War. This process was occasioned by the ascendence of the USA as the most dominant global power. It was propped by the economic boom the USA and her client states in Western Europe, Canada, Oceania and Asia (South Korea, Taiwan and Japan) enjoyed. The 2008 financial crisis marked a major turning point. Precipitated by unrestrained free-market fundamentalism (neoliberalism), it led many people in the West to lose faith in governing elites and the institutions and ideologies they rely on to rule. The first expression of this frustration was Brexit, the second, the election of Donald Trump. Even before the Ukraine war, far-right ultranationalist parties were already making their mark in Europe.

As Western economies continue their relative economic decline, accompanied by rising extreme income and wealth inequality, public faith in democracy will also decline.

Sanctioning Russia is unlikely to topple Putin. However, I am inclined to believe that combined with Ukrainian nationalism, it will, eventually, make Russia suffer a severe reversal of fortune. Even if this leads to the fall of Putin, it is unlikely he will be replaced by a Western-minded liberal. On the contrary, it is most likely that an ultranationalist and highly militaristic coalition will emerge to replace him. Why?

If Putin falls in such a war of existence, those who will succeed him will legitimate themselves by appealing to the honor and greatness of Russia. They could decide to use nuclear weapons to rescue a hopeless military situation. That outcome would not produce winners, certainly not a victory for liberal democracy. Therefore, isolating Russia in “defense of western” values is very likely going to imperil those very values in the West. The solution is to use diplomacy; and recognising Russia’s interests in Ukraine is fundamental.



  1. Lovely Analysis @Andrew, Lovely.

  2. “If you believe in Realism as a guiding philosophy of international relations (like I do) you would say Western efforts to integrate Ukraine into NATO provoked the Russian invasion of that country.” Ukraine is not Russia. Ukraine is a sovereign state. Ukraine has a right to self-determine. Russia can’t handle this because a successful, democratic, wealthy Ukraine integrated into NATO’s defensive military alliance and reaping the economic benefits of membership of the European single market would make it clear to Russians just how lousy, incompetent and corrupt their own government is. It might even make Russians restless for democracy under the conditions of which Putin could never win, still less maintain power. So, for the sake of preserving Russian kleptocracy, the Russian leadership has decided that Ukrainians must die.

  3. Incidentally, it’s amazing how you decry imperialism as practised by Western nations but are entirely sympathetic to its Russian variant. Why is that? To apply your “realist” logic somewhat closer to home, General China was a terrorist provocateur who, along with those who took the blood oath, antagonised Britain into ruthlessly and justly putting down the Mau Mau rebellion so as to protect its vital interests in the Kenya Colony. Do you believe that? If not, why not? “Realism” here amounts to nothing more than the appeasement of authoritarians and dictators.

  4. “Across Europe, far-right ultranationalist parties are surging. In countries like Hungary and Poland, they hold power. There are many causes of this trend. The common thread among all of them is that they are not friendly to liberal democracy.” You know one country that is a steadfast opponent of Russia’s aggression and a chief contributor of military aid to Ukraine? That would be Poland. And why? Because Poles have lived under Russia’s heel and, unsurprisingly, prefer life outside of the Russosphere. This is what keeps Russian nationalists awake at night – the knowledge that, given a choice, their former vassal states would have nothing to do with Russia or its tinpot government. Even Putin doesn’t want anything to do with the Russian state he has created. Which is why he and his oligarch friends have taken pains to hide their stolen billions offshore (ironically, much of it, until the latest round of sanctions, in the hated West). The only reason that former Soviet satellite states, like much of the world, have to pay attention to a country with an economy barely the size of Spain‘s is because its leader is unstable enough to threaten nuclear Armageddon. But that seems like a problem of dysfunctional authoritarianism rather than of liberal democracy.

  5. Mwenda do you think that Ukrainians as both a people and as a country have any self interest in wanting to join the EU and NATO apart from seeking to spite Russia as you try to make every one believe? Why do you think many other countries formerly in the Warsaw Pact (that Soviet Union crafted sphere) rushed to join NATO and (or) the European Union as soon as they had the chance? Do you think those countries that made it to the NATO umbrella and also into the wider European Union are worse off than they were in the Soviet block? And if given a chance and a choice to live in Western Europe or Russia, would you choose Russia? The majority of Ukrainians prefer to live like western Europe but also understand that the only this can happen is if they have security guarantees against a Russia whose rulers and its elites who are convinced that Ukraine should not exist as a sovereign country. Just look and see how Russia is destroying all civic and cultural infrastructure – schools, hospitals, museums, the electric grid, the water system etc – all in the name of bringing to order a wayward brother. Andrew if you wielded and axe and try to dismember your brother or sister or your wife, or your child for any reason, that will no longer be a family affair! The village would have an obligation to stop this this regardless of ideology, your so-called ‘realism’ or lack-there-of.

  6. 1.Its too early to conclude that USA and Britain are living in the past glory.
    2.The rise of the Arab World and Asia is partly as a result of of their close business ties with USA and Europe to me the nation to watch is Turkey.
    3.The first world is still so confident of their Foreign policy, IQ and ICT;look at Qatar now ;Zaha Architecture which is a company owned by an Iraqi of British origin is behind most of the works in the stadiums build in Qatar; Foster and Partners a British company is also one the big boys involved in the design and construction of mega projects in the Arab world why have i given these examples its still so comfortable and relaxing to have business deals with the first world.
    4.Britain in African context has had 3 coups in a span of 5 years this only happens in West Africa like Togo Guinea Bissua,Mail ;Thersa May,Boris Johnson ,the one who only precised over the funeral of the queen and now an Indian PM in Britain.What does this mean Democracy and welfare of a state are intertwined provided people are traumatized economically states will need to devise means to make business deals.
    5.Russia is just lucky that she began a war when the world was just recovering from COVID thats why she feels good that the world felt her economic impact. no doubt she has shown us her little muscles that she is a oil ,fertilizer and wheat giant if that makes Putin feel nice thats ok;but in terms of warfare she was beaten by Ukarine as a result; Putin had to resort to trade wars to blackmail the world;The Ukraine war was never supposed to be about trade.The dimension Putin took was a complex one which threw a spanner in the wax.
    6.The Political,Social and economic landscape for most nations was done during WWII and the partition and scramble for colonies anything that comes after that is secondary is no easily understood.

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