About me.

Andrew M. Mwenda is the founding Managing Editor of The Independent, Uganda’s premier current affairs newsmagazine. One of Foreign Policy magazine 's top 100 Global Thinkers, TED Speaker and Foreign aid Critic

Saturday, September 23, 2023

The real threat to liberalism

President Vladmir Putin

Why democracy crusaders should worry less about Putin and more about its home front, the West

THE LAST WORD | Andrew M. Mwenda | Since Russia invaded Ukraine last year, the liberal democracies of the West have been on a “moral” crusade against President Vladmir Putin. According to them, Putin is a tyrant, a dictator, a despot, a murderer and corrupt. Meanwhile, Ukraine is a “liberal democracy” whose success threatens to set a bad example for Putin. Never mind that before this invasion, many Western media, including Time, did documentaries on Ukraine showing that the government in Kiev is controlled by neo-Nazis. Adolf Hitler must be smiling in his grave (if there is one) at this irony.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is constantly prefaced with the word “unprovoked”. Never mind that practically every U.S. leader, including the senile President Joe Biden when he was a senator, the current CIA director, William Burns, and former secretaries of defense, Robert McNamara, Robert Bates and William Perry, and former secretaries of state, Henry Kissinger, George Kenan etc. all predicted that NATO expansion would provoke a hostile Russian reaction. The leaders of Germany and France had predicted similarly.

The U.S. leaders, including Biden and his secretary of defense, Lloyd Austin, have publicly called for the assassination of Putin and the overthrow of his government, apparently in order to promote liberal democracy there. Never mind that wherever and whenever the West has attempted to spread liberal democracy to other countries – Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Somalia, Libya and Afghanistan etc. – they have sown seeds of state collapse and anarchy leading to spread of terrorism and mass murder.

Not to be outdone in this “moral” crusade, the International Criminal Court indicted Putin for war crimes. Never mind the same court has done nothing when U.S. leaders and their allies have launched an unprovoked invasion of some country using the same excuses like the “responsibility to protect” and to spread democracy. Indeed, Putin was reading from their script when he claimed to have invaded Ukraine to rid it of neo-Nazis. But whenever and wherever America and her puppets have bombed a country, massacred civilians and committed genocide, the ICC has done nothing. Clearly, ICC is an instrument in the West’s arsenal to dominate the world.

Yet all these blatant abuses of power and naked hypocrisy are not the reason behind this article. It is the near-total blockade of alternative views, the suffocation of open debate of these issues and the complicity of Western media that concerns me.

As a western trained African, I have a commitment to liberalism, which I think is a great and inspiring idea. Every issue of public concern needs to be openly debated in the hope that such debate can illuminate the complexity and multidimensional nature of any subject. This is not done for its own sake but as a means of trying to find the truths.

Yet on Ukraine, every view that does not present Kiev as a victim of “unprovoked” aggression and Putin as the devil incarnate, has been purged from media. Anyone who critiques the current narrative is often accused of being on Putin’s payroll.

Alphabet, the parent company of Google, even removed RT, the Russian sponsored television network, from YouTube. Recently, a retired U.S. Colonel, Scott Ritter, who has been consistent in arguing that the Ukrainians are being beaten by the Russians, had his YouTube account closed. There has been a blackout of all news and information critical of Kiev or positive on Putin on all Western media.

The West, which claims to be at war with Putin in defense of liberal ideals, is suppressing them at home. As I have argued repeatedly in this column, attempts to export liberal ideals abroad (or claims thereof) often tend to undermine them at home. For instance, sanctions against Russia have led to a catastrophic decline in living standards in Western countries, the first time since the end of the Second World War. This has led to the growth of extreme right wing political parties in Western Europe, which are hostile to liberal ideals. I will return to this in the conclusion of this column. For now, in Russia itself, Western sanctions are likely to strengthen Putin’s alleged authoritarian hand since he can now suppress dissent in the name of national defense. Talk of shooting oneself in the foot!

The Western democracy mujahedeen forgets that the cause of liberty is never secure. The greatest Western thinkers on this subject – Frederick Von Hayek, George Orwell, Karl Popper, to mention only but a few – had always warned about these threats to liberty. The liberal priesthood ignores the historic context that has allowed democracy to survive and thrive in the West. Consequently, they have elevated it from a political form specific to a particular time and place into a universal norm applicable everywhere and anytime regardless of circumstances. Yet all political systems are products of their time and circumstances and liberal democracy is no exception.

But as developments in the West are showing us now, the future of liberal democracy is neither certain nor guaranteed. The assumption that democracy in the West is permanent rests on the belief that the fundamental conditions that have sustained it will continue forever. Yet with current trends this assumption is false.

Democracy in the West has thrived since 1945 in large part because of the sustained economic growth that benefited large sections of Western society. Since 1980, growth has benefited the top 10%, leading to widening inequality. As Western living standards for most people continue to decline, and the sanctions on Russia are a big part of this, public faith in democracy is eroding as well. This is what happened in most of Europe during the inter-war years (1919-1939).

Many studies have shown the retreat of democracy in recent times. These trends were set in motion by the 2008 financial crisis, worsened during the COVID pandemic and have been accentuated by the Ukraine war. This year, the economic growth forecast for the EU is 0.8% and for the USA is 2.2% expected to fall to 0.8% in 2024. The Germany economy, the largest and most dynamic in Europe, is forecast to shrink by 0.4%, France will grow by 0.8%, Italy by 0.9% and UK by 0.6%. This economic trend is a much bigger threat to liberal democracy in the West than Putin. Western leaders need to appreciate Russian fears and find a way to engage Putin in order to put their economies back on track. I suggest that before throwing stones at the Russian president, the West looks in the mirror.


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