In February 2022, it’s easy to make parallels with 1938. However, interesting and even striking as these are, that is not really the point.
Honoured in the breach. The weakness of liberal democracy
The point is that the Liberal West has been weak this century, at best complacent and at worst corruptible and has largely failed to live up to its vaunted principles and ideals for far too long (if ever) and has been found out.
It has lived high on the fat of other lands while largely failing to respect them. It has failed to support democracy where it tries to flourish. It has taken money from flawed and corrupt regimes, it has been weak, and the likes of Putin have destabilised it, especially the UK and US.
And now the West has to make a stand, or if not, must fail and at best decline into insignificance, with many people and countries then likely to suffer the fate of Ukraine.
The UK leads the (wrong) way
Nowhere have the values of the Liberal order declined as much as the UK. The dirty money in the city. The dirty money in politics (even some Labour politicians are tainted, like Mandelson and Blair). The chipping away at civil liberties, democracy and the profoundly illiberal hostile environment.
Yes, Prime Minister Johnson is very much a Chamberlain rather than a Churchill, a Chamberlain with pockets stuffed full of Roubles and who has stood ever ready in recent years (like other Brexit backers and not a few of his parliamentary colleagues) for a few roubles more into the Conservative party. It’s an easy way to fund politics (and get invited to parties).
While cutting defence and security spending and failing to see the looming threat on Europe’s border.
Universal values must be fully applied, if they mean anything.
Clearly this is a time when the west needs to rediscover its liberalism and strength but also to acknowledge its past failures to treat its values as universal, applicable to all (far too many despots propped up and nurtured, not to mention terrorists, in the name of realpolitik. Far too many workers underpaid and factories liable to collapse on them in the name of trade and keeping cheap goods flowing to underpaid and insecure workers). There have been too many compromises. With Putin, with China, and with too many others. Such action along with compromised politics laid the roots of many of today’s crises.
So whether Ukraine suffers the fate of the 300 Spartans is important, but much more so is whether the so-called Liberal Democracies unite like the Greek city-states.
No more new normals
There has already been talk of normalisation if Russia wins. Not because it is desirable but because there is little we can do, with former British ambassador to Moscow Sir Tony Brenton saying “that’s the way the world works” (on the World at One, 24/2/2022, starting at 22’30 in). But there should be no appeasement, no normalisation until Russia changes and gives up its ill-gotten gains. China should also be punished for its repression in Xinjiang and in no way should it be allowed to see Ukraine as a precedent for invading Taiwan.
There are hard questions to ask and answer then for Liberal democracies:
What do we stand for? With who? And with what goals in a world facing crises not just of populism, nationalism, imperialism, and dictatorship but also of climate change.
What do we want for the future? Do we want good governance, freedom, workers’ rights, environmental protection, freedom of thought and belief, self-determination, individual rights to privacy and control over personal data? Can we act both externally and internally, because some of the threats are internal (see Facebook-Cambridge Analytica) and involve alliances between Russia and the alt.right. Who link also to climate change deniers, including many linked to Brexit and Trump. It’s a web of links that weaken liberal democracies and enable Russia and others.
So if we must defend our values we must also look to defend them against both sides. And we must reaffirm what they mean and support all who want them. Ukraine has turned to democracy and has chosen to align with Europe. There are others too. And we must never be asked to downgrade our expectations of environmental protections or workers’ rights to compete with those with fewer as people like Rees-Mogg suggests, but instead work to make the same protections and rights available to all people, anywhere, who want them (a critical difference between the EU and more purely commercial agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership).
Taking a stand
The West needs to find its way to muscular liberalism. Not to boss the world but to showcase its values and support those who want to share them, from Ukraine to Taiwan to Hong Kong to Burkina Faso (so we should not be pulling out of Mali and leaving it up to Russian mercenaries to fight terrorism).
There will be a price to pay in standing up to Russia and others and their western vassals such as Johnson’s vote leave party and Trump’s Republicans, but it is not just the fate of Ukraine but also that of the world’s climate and environment that depends on it.
Paying the price
It means divesting from fossil fuels and spending more on climate and supporting democratic transitions and international institutions.
But if we could afford 5% of GDP to compensate slave owners in 1834 we can certainly do so in 2022, especially as the financial crash in 2008 and the Covid pandemic have shown how easy it is for the West to create money that as Richard Murphy has shown does not have to be repaid.
But a bigger challenge is to reverse attacks on migration and refugees and crude appeals to nationalism.
Five percent of a rich country’s GDP could fix many problems and support many emerging democracies – many of which could rival the less liberal world when it comes to making stuff, and helping fix problems like climate change.
So our actions need to speak, which means welcoming refugees and working to solve the root causes of migration: climate change, conflict, lack of democracy, repression. Instead of getting tougher and restricting our own civil liberties we must lead by example. As Germany has done, to it’s benefit.
Muscular liberalism means doubling down on liberal instincts and not watering them down. It doesn’t mean guns, though they may be needed. It means setting an example and supporting others.
Liberalism needs to be meek in acknowledging past failings but strong in refusing to take the easy route with tyrants, be it cosying to oligarchs or sourcing cheap but tainted goods.
Of course it will be tough. Living up to our ideals means giving back Russian donations, stopping their purchases of UK companies and property, and giving the Chagos Islands back to their own people.
It also means getting tough on the enemies within. Not just the foreign and foreign born oligarchs funding the corruption of our politics and business, but those who profess to be British and yet are even today disseminating disinformation – take a bow, Farage and Banks – or have done in the past. Take a bow, Johnson.
In WW2 many of my forbears were rounded up, interned and deported for no other crime than being born in Italy, even as their cousins, my father included, were working in British factories building bombs.
MP Layla Moran has read out in Parliament, under privilege, a list of 35 Russians to start with.
Oh, and there is one parallel to make with Munich. That weak, vacillating and appeasing PM did not last long. He was Chamberlain, not Churchill. That weak PM helped cause much death, destruction and heartache, and we must fear the same will happen again. Like our current one.
All for a few roubles more.
A list of ways to support Ukraine and its people can be found here.