To save democracy and defeat Putin, abandon “the West”

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Even clumsy communicators sometimes say something worth hearing. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, for example. He was recently accused of jamming his messages in favor of Ukraine and many other things. But if you pay attention, he’s actually trying to achieve something huge: a global – rather than “Western” – alliance of democracies against autocracies like Russia and China.

By accepting this mission, he effectively took over from US President Joe Biden, who hosted a rather disappointing “democracy summit” in December. This was before Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine, when the rallying of freedom-loving nations did not seem so urgent. Nor has it helped that the United States, long the global beacon of freedom, is itself struggling to preserve democracy at home.

Democracy in Germany – which the country largely learned from the Americans after the Second World War – on the other hand seems reassuringly solid. Plus, Scholz is holding a big megaphone right now. This year, his government chairs the Group of Seven (G7), a forum of the world’s wealthiest liberal democracies. Besides Germany, it includes the United States, Canada, France, Italy, Japan and the United Kingdom. They will meet from June 26 to 28 in Elmau, a castle at the foot of the Bavarian Alps.

But Scholz also invites several other democracies to Elmau. These include India – whose Prime Minister, Nahendra Modi, Scholz hosted this week – as well as Indonesia, South Africa and Senegal. He also hinted that he would try to pressure Indonesia, which holds the rotating G20 presidency, to steer Russia away from the forum’s Bali summit in November.

India, Indonesia, Senegal and South Africa have at least two things in common. First, they are non-Western democracies. Second, three of them (India, Senegal and South Africa) abstained in a vote at the United Nations in March to condemn Russia’s attack on Ukraine, and all four in an April vote to suspend Russia from the UN Human Rights Council.

Their votes at the UN suggest that, like some other Asian, African and South American democracies, these countries do not yet see Russia’s war on Ukraine as the global problem – and by extension, theirs. And yet, it is: what Russian President Vladimir Putin is brutalizing is the right of Ukrainians to be free and democratic. By putting force before right, he waged war on freedom. To defeat it, all democracies must unite. The family photo can’t just be a photo of a group of whites and an Asian.

In a television interview this week, Scholz attempted (words never come easily to him) to explain his thinking. “If we reduce ‘the West’, the peoples with whom we are allied, to those who were already democrats at the beginning of the previous century, then we are aiming too low,” he said. Pressed for clarification, he added that “in defending democracy, we would be making a big mistake if we considered it a Western way of life. It has to do with our view of human nature, of humanity.

Scholz thus plunged headlong into a controversy almost as old as democracy itself. Is it based on western or universal values? Countless doctoral dissertations over the years, not to mention the stump speeches of budding tyrants, have supported the former. Liberal democracy, in these narratives, simply does not fit some cultures – tribal, Islamic or Confucian, for example.

In the 1990s, for example, Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding father, propagated the theory that liberal democracy conflicts with “Asian values.” This nebulous label implied a supposedly superior cultural cocktail favoring community, hierarchy, consensus, and harmony over self-expression and unfettered individualism.

Such pop-sociology is, of course, manna from heaven for neo-Confucian emperors around the world, including Chinese President Xi Jinping, who prefer not to be bothered by the reactions of the people they rule. Simultaneously, such vibrant – and still very Confucian – democracies like Taiwan, South Korea or Japan show it as rubbish. Each has followed its own path to democracy and practiced its own culturally distinct flavor.

Other attempts to disavow democracy as Western and therefore foreign and unsuitable are equally inept. That of Putin, for example. Even though he still pretended to be a Democrat (by allowing the ritual of elections), he also portrayed Western liberalism as inherently decadent and soft – in fact, like a drug of access to ungodliness and greed. homosexuality. What’s worse is that his Western admirers, like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, repeated this wedge.

What is true is that, in the old democracies, it took centuries to put in place the institutions that found freedom. These range from the separation of powers to the rule of law and civic traditions of free speech, among others. Historically, it is fair to say that liberalism generally preceded democracy.

But both can also be embraced at the same time, as many successful democracies – from Taiwan to Germany – prove, both of which embraced freedom belatedly, but then enthusiastically. Moreover, democracy is not inherently in conflict, as its enemies claim, with tradition, religion or community values.

Instead, democracy is a society’s collective goal to secure as much freedom and dignity as possible for its citizens, to encourage and welcome their participation in public life, and to check and balance power where it accumulates. Nowhere is it ever perfect or complete; everywhere it is worth improving.

None of this is Western. But all of this negates the worldview of a brutal despot like Putin. That’s why Scholz is right to try to broaden global resistance to the dark side. This is also why India, Indonesia, South Africa, Senegal and all other democracies should rethink their national interests and answer the call for freedom by joining the fight against Putin.

More from this writer and others on Bloomberg Opinion:

Only one thing will help Ukraine now. Arms: Thérèse Raphaël

Vienna must end its long waltz with Putin: Andreas Kluth

Why NATO should welcome Finland and Sweden: the editors

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Andreas Kluth is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. He was previously editor of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for The Economist. He is the author of “Hannibal and I”.

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