The last decade or so has been fairly bleak for those who believe in liberalism and democracy. To name just a few issues we have seen:
- China change course from a liberalising country to a more authoritarian country
- Russia start invading other countries
- The rise of the Islamic State
- A rise of authoritarian leaders in countries like The Philippines and Brazil
- Increasing attacks on free speech from cancel culture and associated identity politics
- The first US President in history refusing to concede he lost an election
- Increasing boldness from authoritarian countries such as Saudi Arabia where their leaders assassinate dissident citizens overseas with few repercussions
- More and more countries self-censoring themselves to avoid angering China
- More countries retreating to protectionism
But the global response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine has given me hope. Liberal democratic countries have shown that there is a point at which they will act.
The initial response to the Russian invasion was tepid, but due to a combination of social media footage, a slow Russian advance and heroic resistance from Ukraine, hundreds of millions of people have demanded that their governments do what they can to persuade Russia to end the invasion. And the response has been unprecedented – freezing of central bank assets, sanctions, expulsion from SWIFT, travel bans etc etc.
The only way you stop a bully is to stand up to them, and the age of appeasement may finally be at an end. The liberal democratic countries have always had huge power, should they choose to use it.
But it hasn’t just been the response from countries. Russia is out of football, Formula One, Skiing World Cup and the Paralympics. They are out of Eurovision, and are cut off from new films. Their cultural icons are being banned from venues. The giant tech countries are limiting access. Russian propaganda channels are being banned or dropped.
This stuff is important too, as it turns Russians against the war and Putin. It is not guaranteed to succeed, but it is going to act as a cautionary tale to other authoritarian countries. Even China may now be a bit more cautious about military action in the future against Taiwan.
The invasion is a tragedy for Ukraine. Thousands of them are dead and this is just the beginning. Almost a million are refugees. It would be better if Russia never invaded. But the silver lining is the response. It has been unprecedented, and it does give hope.
The longer Ukraine can hold out, the more likely it is the sanctions will force Russia to negotiate an end to the invasion. They were counting on sanctions they could withstand for years, but they have ended up with sanctions that could cripple them in months or even weeks.