LONDON – Twenty years ago, while standing in line at a Harvard cafeteria, I overheard one student say to another, “It is the moral equivalent of the Holocaust!” What could that be, I wondered. The Rwandan genocide? Cambodia’s killing fields? South American juntas causing opponents to “disappear” by throwing them into the ocean from helicopters? Eventually, the answer came: Eating meat was the moral equivalent of the Holocaust, and Harvard bureaucrats the guilty party for not providing sufficient vegetarian and vegan meal options.
I found myself recalling that moment as I watched videos of Russian shells falling on Ukrainian apartment blocks, schools, and maternity wards. President Vladimir Putin’s deliberate flattening of cities in an attempt to break Ukraine’s heroic resistance is surely a war crime, though not yet on the scale of genocide. I would like to think that those university students I overheard, and their successors today, would recognize the moral chasm between Putin’s heinous actions and the petty sin of enjoying a burger with fries.
In recent years many young citizens of rich democracies have been in a funk over the virtues of democracy and liberalism. Rather than fighting for survival, they have been skirmishing over pronouns. Rather than fearing that something they said on a bus could cause armed men to drag them out of bed in the middle of the night, they have worried that misspeaking in the classroom could earn them social-media opprobrium.
But Putin’s atrocities now seem suddenly to have put everything into perspective. Yes, many Western countries have a colonial past and a racist present. And, yes, rising income inequality in some of them has hollowed out the middle class and betrayed the promise of equal opportunity for all. But while democracies frequently come up short, they do not terrorize their own people, or send tanks to subjugate democratic neighbors.
Moreover, life in liberal democracies – which today exist not only in the old West but also in Eastern Europe and South America, as well as swaths of Africa and Asia – is less nasty, brutish, and short than ever. Liberalism has always been a “moral adventure,” in Adam Gopnik’s lovely phrase, because it aims – and, more often than not, succeeds – at making the world “less cruel” by “expanding the right to access a broader range of pleasures and possibilities for other people.”
To those of us who grew up under dictatorial regimes whose goons could drag you out of bed in the middle of the night, these truths have always seemed absurdly self-evident. Putin’s painful reminder of this – for anyone who needed reminding – is now reshaping global politics.
Former US President Donald Trump is not the only authoritarian populist embarrassed by his links to Putin. Shamefaced politicians can be found from Ankara to Zagreb. As the French far-right leader Marine Le Pen prepares to contest the first round of France’s presidential election on April 10 in an attempt to unseat incumbent Emmanuel Macron, her campaign operatives must be feverishly tracing – and are now trying to explain away – every last bit of fulsome praise their boss once directed at the Kremlin strongman.
While Chinese leaders may fantasize about a stalemate between Russia and the West that ends up weakening both, China is also a likely loser from the Ukraine conflict. Chinese leaders’ refusal to condemn Putin makes them look less credible by the day. Even more worryingly for Chinese policymakers, their country’s appeal as a development model is waning. Some African and Asian leaders, impressed by China’s capable state bureaucracy and growing wealth, may have been willing to look the other way when President Xi Jinping persecuted the country’s ethnic and religious minorities. But do they really want to be photographed next to Xi knowing he could invade Taiwan and turn himself into another Putin?
NATO, which Macron described in 2019 as “brain-dead,” suddenly looks energized and likely to acquire new members. The European Union, seldom successful at pursuing a unified foreign policy, now speaks with a single, clear voice, ably led by Germany’s new “traffic light” coalition. And US President Joe Biden is finally acting like the kind of global leader his lifetime of foreign-policy experience qualifies him to be. After the debacle in Afghanistan, it was unclear whether rich democracies had any moral backbone left. Their actions since Russia’s tanks rumbled into Ukraine show that they do.
But there is another, subtler process at work. Over the past decade, the world’s autocrats – and leaders of the charitably-labeled illiberal democracies – have amassed power by exploiting identity politics. Locals against immigrants, the cultural majority against racial or religious minorities, or the people against the elite – no cleavage was too repugnant if it could be manipulated for political gain.
Today, autocrats are about to be confronted by a different kind of identity politics. Start with Ukraine, once divided between its Russian-speaking east and Ukrainian-speaking west, but now increasingly united against Putin’s aggression. Only the supremely stone-hearted can fail to be moved by the sight of Ukrainian women berating armor-clad Russian soldiers, or of slightly hunched Ukrainian pensioners learning to march and fire a weapon. Superior morale is so far enabling the defending army to contain a larger Russian force endowed with far greater firepower.
A shared identity is also emerging among citizens of other democracies. Many German, Hungarian, and Polish families that until last month were complaining about immigration are now tidying up spare bedrooms to receive displaced Ukrainians. South Koreans and Japanese may still be separated by history, but they are members of the same coalition against barbarous aggression. In Latin America, leftist leaders who are not exactly fans of US foreign policy – new Chilean President Gabriel Boric is an example – have categorically denounced Putin’s war.
Divisive blood-and-soil identity politics will now be challenged by a noble – and increasingly global – strand of identity politics based on the liberal values of freedom, dignity, and respect for human rights. In 2019, Putin claimed that “the liberal idea” had “outlived its purpose” and “become obsolete,” because it “has come into conflict with the interests of the overwhelming majority of the population.” By invading Ukraine, he has begun to prove the opposite.
Andrés Velasco, a former presidential candidate and finance minister of Chile, is Dean of the School of Public Policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
Project Syndicate, 2022.