In Ukraine, the Liberal World Order Is Being Redrawn

Tomer Persico
Tomer Persico
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A protest in support of Ukraine in Times Square, New York.
A protest in support of Ukraine in Times Square, New York.Credit: Kena Betancur / AFP
Tomer Persico
Tomer Persico

The war joined the crisis of liberalism just in time. Western countries, whose satisfaction slid them into Baroque intricacies of morality and decadent consumerism, suddenly stand – again – before the threat of an armed dictator. Former President Donald Trump’s admiration for President Vladimir Putin, and the groveling sympathies of Trumpists like Tucker Carlson and Steve Bannon, now seems clearly deranged. So do the observations about the “extremists on both sides” of leftist groups like the Israeli Communist Party. Violence sharpens one’s values, for good and for bad.

Putin isn’t offering an ideology different from that of the West. He isn’t offering any ideology at all. He is neither a fascist nor a Bolshevik.  The victory of liberalism does not permit him to formulate a distinct worldview. This is not “post-modernism,” but rather hyper-modernism, which manifests itself in rampant capitalism and extreme individualism. At its height, the 20th century proposed convictions in which individuals had to see themselves as inevitably part of a collective, whether ethno-national or class based. This is now inconceivable. The individual is the distilled essence.

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In this sense, if there’s a return to an earlier historical period, it is to the days of World War I, not World War II. Putin offers his people national pride, nationalistic emotion, and nothing more. The empowerment of individuals, not their coercion. A continuation of egocentrism in other ways. Putin doesn’t even promise economic improvement, because it is clear that Russia, whose economy is fragile, will collapse financially under Western sanctions.

A lone protester stands with a sign condemning Vladimir Putin across the street from UN headquarters in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, U.S., this week.Credit: CARLO ALLEGRI/ REUTERS

On the other hand, it is the West that will have to make sacrifices. If so far the democratic world has not interfered in autocracies’ internal affairs and has continued to maintain trade relations with them, now we are on our way to a different world. Russia’s aggression is compelling the West to restrict economic ties with it. Apparently, in the throes of side choosing, other autocracies, like Turkey or Hungary, prefer the West. Their interests are economic, of course, but the sharp division between economics and worldview is precisely that which is challenged here.   

As an economic system, capitalism has been long victorious. But if until now, tyrannies like China or Russia have managed to take the economic part of liberalism while rejecting the other parts – individual liberty, equality before the law – the invasion of Ukraine ruined things for them, as well as for Europe and the United States. They all enjoyed (economically) the previous arrangement. The system – ignoring the oppression of populations while conducting robust trade – worked, and the stock exchange rose. Were the democratic bloc and its adherents to stand up clearly against Russia and its adherents, the system would break down.

The meaning of a bi-polar world is a world where globalization – which reached its heights before the COVID pandemic, allowing the passage of goods, people and capital in a manner unprecedented both in speed and extent – is taking a significant blow. Trade will continue, of course, but the global network will split into spheres of influence: perhaps Russia-China against the United States and Europe, or perhaps smaller blocs. The severity of the global shock will depend on the West’s willingness to sacrifice, as Russia and China will be happy to go on as usual. 

People gather for a 'Stand With Ukraine' rally in Times Square this week, in New York City.Credit: Alexi J. Rosenfeld - AFP

It currently  seems that the West is willing to sacrifice quite a bit, undoubtedly out of the sudden realization of the tangible Russian threat. But increasing pressure from the business sector, and just as importantly from democratic governments that fear a recession, can be expected to appear and push for sanctions to be lifted as as early as possible, and certainly not for them to be deepened. Much depends on the extent of the Russian occupation’s brutality in Ukraine, but the dilemma faced by Western democracies will quickly become clear.

This dilemma will be a mirror image of the autocratic bloc’s. That is: Will a situation once again be acceptable in which only one part of liberalism – capitalism – is shared by all players, or is there perhaps no choice but to demand (with various levels of resoluteness and efficacy) the addition of that minuscule matter of human rights. Will democracies, like autocracies, seek to allow money to keep flowing, even when some of it is used to oppress various populations? Or perhaps the military threat concealed behind that oppression will demand the rearranging of values that will force the West to adopt commercial restraint.

We can also describe it this way: A protocol is being presently written for dealing economically with aggressive, anti-democratic states. If it succeeds, if the West shows willingness to suffer economically to deter aggression, in the future there will be those who seek to apply those same emergency measures of economic disengagement against other anti-democratic countries. The package of liberalism that a country adopts will have to be more complete. Such a development would present a powerful challenge to Israel, which has been mired for 55 years in military rule over millions of people. But the significance is broader: It will redraw the liberal world order.

Dr. Tomer Persico is the Academic Director at Kolot and a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute

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