How much authoritarianism can a society take when they can have a measure of comparison with the free world? In Russia, citizens are reacting to Vladimir Putin’s military conscription by voicing their dissent or by queuing to exit the country. In Iran, the “guardians of morality” are shock testing their theocracy’s resilience against the resistance of brave women aspiring for freedom and dignity. Civil disobedience and resistance should prove the autocrats’ nemesis, but when they finally buckle is anybody’s guess. From the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit in Samarkand, however, an autocrats’ international rubbed shoulders with Putin in defiance of the “West.”
From the floor of the UN General Assembly, in an important and passionate speech, French President Emmanuel Macron addressed those refusing to condemn the barbarity of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Those countries that purport to imitate the struggle of the non-aligned of a previous era, Macron said, have misunderstood history, because “the cause of the non-aligned was a struggle for peace,” a cause for national sovereignty and for territorial integrity. In contrast, those who remain silent today “are furthering the cause of a new imperialism, a contemporary cynicism set on dismantling the international order without which peace is an impossibility.”
Avoiding the sort of Manichean language that paints conflicts as a war between democracies and autocracies, Macron reminded his listeners that the universality of the UN, which was founded on freedom, sovereignty and the pursuit of peace, serves no hegemony, no geopolitical oligarchy. He then pointed to the main enemy: the violation of the principles of territorial integrity, revisionism. The choice we have to make today, he said, is between war and peace. Russia has broken international law as well as our collective security, paving the way for wars of annexation. “Today’s era is not an era of war,” he said, using the words of the leader of (democratic) India – who had also attended the Samarkand summit.
Macron’s message was inclusive of the global South: “Modern imperialism is neither European nor Western. It takes the form of a territorial invasion backed by a globalized hybrid war that uses energy prices, food security, nuclear security, access to information and population movements as weapons of division and destruction.”
The danger today, Macron said, lies in a new partitioning of the world which aggravates tensions between the US and China; this would be a fatal mistake, because the consequences of a confrontation between the two superpowers would not be limited to a new cold war. The forces of disorder are exploiting current developments to multiply regional conflicts, to resume nuclear proliferation, to subvert collective security. “We must do everything possible to ensure that this new division does not come about, because the challenges we face are numerous and urgent, and require renewed cooperation.”
What challenges? Ecosystems are under threat: a third of Pakistan under water; deadly drought; the return of famine to Africa and Asia; terrorism; 55 civil wars raging on the planet today, 100 million people displaced. These are the global challenges, the upshot of profound failures on the part of our international system, which has failed to end inequality and division.
“This is not a time for rival blocs, but for a new contract between North and South on food, climate, biodiversity and education. It’s a time for building coalitions that can take concrete action to reconcile legitimate interests and the common good.”
Important as it is, I would add, the international alliance of democracies has been undermined by the abject failures of Western interventions in the Middle East and North Africa. In the eyes of “the Rest” today, Western self-righteousness smacks of colonialism and imperialism, and a sprinkling of moralistic hypocrisy on top. The sad reality is that liberal democracy is not winning in the world, and a worst-case scenario for the planet’s weakening democracies would be a bloc of autocracies aligned against them.
How then should democratic Europe deal with the majority of countries in Africa and Asia that are not democratic? Should it surrender them to the orbit of China, Russia and Turkey? Or should it seek to engage them in its own sphere of influence, thus facilitating their (gradual) liberalization? The way forward is not a new cold war division of the world, but a shared commitment to a credible, multilateral, international system of rules, institutions, incentives and obligations. This also happens to be the most pragmatically effective support citizens suffering under tyrants could receive.