Brace ourselves!

Ernst John Kaars Sijpesteijn

The EU is finally learning how to deal with power. It is now not about how to preserve a global order, but how to manoeuvre chaos. Since the end of World War II Western liberal democracies have been dreaming of unstoppable progress and have focused on a model of responsible internationalism. The ending of the Cold War in 1990 was a triumph for human rights, the end of division, and the conquest over a totalitarian system. The invasion of Ukraine has changed that.

Russia and China view liberalism as obsolete and claim that liberal democracies are failing. The multilateral, rules-based order is said to be a Western dominated order. From the seventies we have seen a transformation towards more and more societies that embraced freedom and democracy. In 2004 the EU single market expanded with eight former Warsaw Pact countries. China became a member of the WTO in 2001, reaping the benefits of a more or less free globalized market.

Putin aims to justify a completely unjustifiable war. He rejects the idea of freedom that the West claims to be at the center of its civilization. Strong centralized autocratic government is on the move, toward a greater territorial Russia. The EU is confronted with this threat, strongly asserting that it still stands for freedom, democracy and the rule of law. Unfortunately even within the EU there are some ethnonationalists who choose to spit in the face of these values. The EU and NATO, however, have been able to display strong unity faced with this war waged on human rights and European democracy. It is justifiable to say that Ukraine is fighting our war.

China is a more difficult competitor than Russia. It’s bigger, it has a modern economy that can deal with modern technology better than what Russia has been able to. China’s narrative leaves Europe and the West, including its universal values, at the sidelines. China is also more cautious, war is not in its interest, but it will move when it is ready.

Russia’s attack on international norms could ultimately strengthen the liberal world order. Putin has had a revisionist agenda for over two decades. In his speech of 30 September 2022, after the annexation of 18 percent of Ukraine’s territory, Putin claimed: “The end of Western domination is irreversible, it will no longer be the same as it was.” The invasion of Ukraine, however, has reminded us of the brutal human cost of the rejection of liberal values. A combination of moral clarity and existential peril moves Europe toward more concerted action.

We will need to continue to confront this war on values. Ukraine is buying time for us. Putin gives NATO a new lease of life and the EU speaks the language of power with its new Strategic Compass adopted in March 2022. We have the most prosperous and peaceful EU ever, yet it is not able to defend itself by itself. We will need to work with partners from outside Europe and beyond transatlantic ties to break the myth that this is a fight of the West versus the rest.

Will liberal democracy in the end prove to be the ultimate form of governance as it was hoped for by political scientist Francis Fukuyama in the nineties? Will there be a future rules-based order with renewed and more effective multilateralism? There is a strong call for European leadership. The EU has often become better through crises. The Union needs to work on its own resilience and build the resilience of Russia’s neighbors. It has offered Moldova and Ukraine candidate EU membership.

There is a fierce urgency for Ukraine to be successful. The fact that Ukraine wants to be part of a better system is one of the reasons that Russia chose to invade the country. It represents the conflict of the values of democracy versus the addiction of power. The rule of law and its principles are fragile and are not to be taken for granted. The values of human dignity need to prevail over the politics of fear.

We will have to reinvent our ability to imagine a better world. There is still hope for the international rule of law, even though the current global system seems dysfunctional to its core. We still need a rules-based order, as is represented by the United Nations system, that is not only functional but has a moral foundation and offers an ethical perspective with hope for a better world. We need to continue the struggle for progress and responsible internationalism. We need a new era of cooperation and solidarity to tackle the multitude of crises looming ahead. In the words of historian Simon Schama, we will need a global citizenship that is not a zero-sum game.

Ernst John Kaars Sijpesteijn
Editor in chief