When I first visited Kyiv in March of 2014, a few weeks after the “Revolution of Dignity,” there was a certain dreariness in the air. The Maidan, with its encampments and smell of burnt tires, felt febrile; the downtown looked overwhelmingly grey and dilapidated after decades of communism and 20 years of missed opportunities following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
On my most recent trip in June this year, together with American Purpose editor-in-chief Jeff Gedmin and our friend and fellow-contributor Iulia Joja, Kyiv looked like a different city. Some of it was just midsummer pleasantness: While the city remained half-empty and fortified because of the war, the restaurants and cafés housed by the Stalinist architecture would not look out of place in Islington or Brooklyn. And, notwithstanding the hardship and tragedy of recent months, Ukrainians came across as serene, without any of the gloom associated in Western popular imagination with post-Soviet Eastern Europe. Ignore the Cyrillic and you can easily imagine yourself in Warsaw or Prague. Not Bucharest though: Iulia noted that Kyiv is much cleaner, war or no war.
My read is simple: Ukraine has become a part of the West.
Is that a surprise? In the winter of 2014, Ukrainians spent weeks in the freezing cold to ensure that their government would follow through on their association agreement with the European Union. For years, Ukrainians bled in the trenches to keep Russian expansion in the Donbas at bay. This year, against the odds, they have in important respects defeated what some consider the second largest military in the world.
After a decade in which, more often than not, countries have been peeling off Western alliances, including in pursuit of deeper relations with China, Ukraine’s embrace of the West should be treated as a gift from heaven. Turkey and Hungary, while formally in NATO, have become fifth columns rather than constructive stakeholders. A plethora of other countries, from Brazil to Indonesia, are hedging their bets in global confrontations between the West and our adversaries.
Despite its successive enlargements, the relative weight of the European Union in the global economy has fallen from its peak of around 25 percent of the world’s real economic output in the early 1990s to less than 15 percent now. The U.S. share of real global output has followed a downward path from its peak in the late 1990s. By 2050, some forecasts suggest, China will command roughly the same share of world output as the EU and the U.S. combined.
Insert a nation of 40 million, in a critically important region of Europe, which has been doing almost everything right–while also fighting off and practically crippling the military of one of our key adversaries. Why is Ukraine’s accession to the EU, and its place in Western alliances, treated as a matter for further discussion and not as the clear-cut, uncontroversial blessing that it is?
The argument is not simply that Ukraine can, under the right conditions, materially strengthen our alliances–militarily, politically, economically. Perhaps more important, Ukrainians are more unapologetically Western in their embrace of Western-style economic and political institutions than we are.
Most Westerners pay lip service to localism, federalism, and the devolution of power. For Ukrainians, these ideas are alive. Several interlocutors explained to our group in Kyiv that the kind of bottom-up resistance to Russian occupation in places like Kherson is linked to reforms devolving powers to mayors and municipalities. Unthinkable in the Russian context, Ukrainian mayors actually run cities and control economic resources–while being democratically accountable–and Ukrainians love it. The idea that their local mayor would be removed and replaced by a Russian-sponsored satrap was simply outrageous to ordinary Ukrainians who took to the streets at great personal risk.
Not only would it be hard to imagine similar levels of enthusiasm about, say, Muriel Bowser (not to speak of Bill de Blasio!), but the United States, and to a lesser extent some European countries, have embarked on a vicious cycle of delegitimizing their political institutions.
To some on the left, such institutions are tainted by the painful legacies of slavery, racism, colonialism, or misogyny, with liberal democratic ‘norms’ only masking the ruthless relationships of power that keep women, minorities, and other vulnerable groups down. On the right, the mantra seems to be one of the “failure of liberalism,” regurgitated by figures from Patrick Deneen to Yoram Hazony. Meanwhile, that once-venerable institution of American conservatism, the Philadelphia Society, will hold a session later this year on the “fate of conservatism in an age of Illegitimacy,” featuring speakers including Michael Anton of Flight 93 fame.
On both of the extremes that currently muddy the waters of public life in the Western world, there is little appreciation of the counterfactuals. True, liberal democracy, religious and social toleration, and market relations are in many ways unsatisfying. In some cases, they may be overdue for reform. Our fundamental moral intuition rarely resonates with the messiness and unwieldy nature of a pluralistic society based on incompletely shared rules.
Yet, liberal democracy’s arrangements are greatly superior to any alternative that has been tried. As for the ideas of social order that have not been tried, at least not in recent past, as the post-liberals like to insist, not many rise above the level of the puerile. The United States is a nation with a small and not terribly energized Catholic minority. Yet Catholic integralists somehow expect that giving the state the power to re-order society “toward the highest good,” to use their favorite turn of phrase, will place them–and not the woke, or the atheists, or the “RINOs”–in the driver’s seat.
Ukraine, for one, has seen the alternatives to liberal democracy. From Soviet communism, through the kleptocracy of the Yanukovych years, to the brutality of Putin’s regime and of the mafia-run “people’s republics” in Ukraine’s East, none of them looks particularly appealing.
And therein lies the main promise of Ukraine’s accession to the EU and Western geopolitical structures: a forceful reminder of the value of the institutions and informal norms that we take for granted and even dismiss as trivial. Ukrainians understand well that freedom, national self-determination, and democratic, constitutional government are worth fighting and even dying for. Quite a few Americans and Europeans are in dire need of being reminded of that lesson.
Dalibor Roháč is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a contributing editor of American Purpose. Twitter: @DaliborRohac
Photo: Office of the President of Ukraine (source)
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