The Russian invasion of Ukraine seems to be yet another nail in the coffin of the international liberal order established after the Second World War to prevent a new large-scale conflict. Long gone is the triumphalism of the post-Cold War era, when Francis Fukuyama proclaimed “the end of history” and the victory of liberal democracy. In the three decades since, the resurgence of nationalism and populism have led to a situation of “democracy under siege,” as Freedom House titled its 2021 annual report. A siege that has now turned into outright war.
One thing that Fukuyama was not wrong about was the decline of ideology. Or rather, no ideology has emerged to replace communism as an alternative to Western liberalism. The regimes that challenge the latter are not ideologically united, to say the least. Their models range from China’s “communism with Chinese characteristics” to Iran’s Islamist theocracy to Putin’s exacerbated nationalism. What unites them is their contempt for human rights, considered a Western pretext to interfere in other countries, and support for the pre-eminence of national sovereignty in the face of the rise of global norms such as election monitoring, human rights sanctions regimes and the responsibility to protect doctrine.
You scratch my back…
In effect, the autocrats assist each other in a number of ways. Economically, they help circumvent international sanctions. China is one of Venezuela’s main creditors, while Russian companies have made huge investments in its decrepit oil industry. When Western countries punished Alexander Lukashenko following his bogus victory in the 2020 presidential election in Belarus, Russia opened its markets to Belarusian goods. China, which has its largest European industrial park a few kilometers from Minsk, has become the most important market for Iranian oil and the main destination for Russian exports.
Autocrats also collaborate on military and security matters. China and Russia have been conducting joint military exercises since 2005, and naval exercises with Iran since 2019. After the Syrian revolution, the Islamic Republic mobilized all its resources to guarantee the survival of Bashar al-Assad’s regime; Russia’s subsequent intervention tipped the balance in his favor. After massive anti-Lukashenko demonstrations that enjoyed widespread international support and coverage, Putin sent him advisers to train his security forces in the techniques used in Russia to intimidate the opposition. Now Belarus is backing the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Diplomacy is yet another area of autocrat cooperation. Belarus, Syria, North Korea and Eritrea all voted against the United Nations resolution condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine, while China, Iran and Cuba abstained; Venezuela was a no-show. But even autocrats we consider our friends, like the absolute monarchies of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), have been reluctant to criticize Russia and have refused to comply with Western requests for an increase in oil production to avoid a steep rise in prices. It was to be expected; in the past, they have supported China’s policies in Xinjiang and Hong Kong at the UN.
The complicity of Western democracies
The mention of Saudi Arabia and the UAE brings us to the topic of our responsibility for the current crisis, as a good example of incoherence and double standards. The West routinely ignores their persistent violations of human rights, from the persecution of dissidents to the abusive kafala system that exploits foreign workers from poor countries. Both the UK and the US have assisted their war in Yemen with training, intelligence and logistical support. Last December, French President Emmanuel Macron toured the Gulf region to sign a flurry of arms deals and became the first Western leader to publicly shake Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s hand after the gruesome assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Despite the rhetoric, economic interests often trump values, and many Western institutions and companies are happy to cater to the needs of the autocrats. The most important tax havens are no longer in Caribbean islands, they are in the US. The different states compete fiercely for corporate registrations and Delaware has become “the world’s biggest offshore haven,” according to Casey Michael, author of American Kleptocracy. How the US Created the World’s Greatest Money Laundering Scheme in History. But Great Britain, France, Germany, Canada... all appear in the Pandora Papers leaked last October as prominent destinations for dodgy money.
Western banks set up shell companies and trusts to launder money stolen from treasuries or from the exploitation of national resources. Western lawyers help with the paperwork and keep prosecutors at bay. Western consultants and public relations firms protect reputations. Western estate agents offer pieds-à-terre in Paris and New York and summer houses in Tuscany and the Costa del Sol. And Western luxury goods vendors make sure dictators and oligarchs and their progeny, wives and girlfriends can flaunt Rolex watches, Cartier jewellery, Louis Vuitton bags and Lamborghini sports cars. All for a hefty fee, of course.
The list of the West’s moral failings also includes its lack of regard for the international order it is supposed to defend. Its “global war on terror” justified military interventions that ruined the lives of millions of Afghans and Iraqis and involved illegal policies such as rendition and indefinite detention of suspected terrorists, while its use of mercenaries (sorry, private military contractors) in those conflicts legitimized the practice. Putin went on to set up the Wagner Group and deployed it in Ukraine’s Donbas region, in Syria, in Libya and now in the rest of Ukraine. This group has also been hired by Mali’s putschist government to replace the French-led coalition fighting Jihadis in the country.
The wake-up call we needed?
Putin got away with a lot: his repeated assassinations and assassination attempts of journalists and political opponents, even in Western countries; his aggression against Georgia in 2008; his annexation of Crimea in 2014 and his support for the Donbas separatists ever since; his use of troll farms and cyberwar to subvert democratic countries… We reacted with half-hearted sanctions and the expulsion of a few Russian spies while continuing to invest in projects that perpetuated our dependence on Russian energy and to extend the red carpet to the oligarchs that finance the Kremlin’s adventurism, allowing them to use their ill-gotten gains to distort our housing markets and buy political influence. Why would the Russian autocrat think it would be different this time?
The ongoing conflict in Ukraine makes it more urgent than ever to try to prevent a return to an anarchic world order in which strong countries can just invade their weaker neighbors with impunity. And to attain that aim, the West needs to live up to the values that legitimize the liberal order. Western governments should base their policies on respect for human rights; they should cooperate to close down tax havens and implement money-laundering laws; and they should agree not to sell weapons to oppressive regimes, so the situation stops resembling a zero-sum-game in which one’s scruples are someone else’s profits. Only then will our speeches in defense of democracy and the rule of law have credibility in the eyes of the world.