‘Liberal democracy’ around the world is facing a do-or-die moment: journalist/historian

‘Liberal democracy’ around the world is facing a do-or-die moment: journalist/historian

The Atlantic’s Anne Applebaum is great at writing “big picture” essays and think pieces that tie one subject or event in the news into a broader theme. And in an article published on March 31, the 57-year-old journalist, author and historian links Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to the broader attack on democracy that is occurring everywhere from Latin America to the Middle East.

Applebaum, author of the 2020 book “Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism,” recalls that after the fall of communism in Eastern Europe in the early 1990s, the “liberal world order relied on the mantra of ‘Never again’” just as it did after the end of World War 2 in 1945.

Applebaum writes, “Never again would there be genocide. Never again would large nations erase smaller nations from the map. Never again would we be taken in by dictators who used the language of mass murder. At least in Europe, we would know how to react when we heard it. But while we were happily living under the illusion that ‘Never again’ meant something real, the leaders of Russia — owners of the world’s largest nuclear arsenal — were reconstructing an army and a propaganda machine designed to facilitate mass murder, as well as a mafia state controlled by a tiny number of men and bearing no resemblance to western capitalism.”

Now, in 2022, Applebaum adds, Russia is carrying out a “brutal invasion of Ukraine” in which President Vladimir Putin’s military has targeted “civilians, hospitals and schools” — and “never again” is being “exposed as an empty slogan.”

“There is no natural liberal world order, and there are no rules without someone to enforce them,” Applebaum warns. “Unless democracies defend themselves together, the forces of autocracy will destroy them.”

More than once in her Atlantic essay, Applebaum stresses that the “liberal world order” isn’t something that occurs naturally — democracies have to promote it. And if the United States and its democratic allies don’t make a concerted and aggressive effort to promote democracy, she writes, authoritarians will continue to make advances.


“Take democracy seriously,” Applebaum advises. “Teach it, debate it, improve it, defend it. Maybe there is no natural liberal world order, but there are liberal societies — open and free countries that offer a better chance for people to live useful lives than closed dictatorships do. They are hardly perfect; our own has deep flaws, profound divisions, terrible historical scars…. Perhaps, in the aftermath of this crisis, we can learn something from the Ukrainians.”

Applebaum continues, “For decades now, we’ve been fighting a culture war between liberal values on the one hand and muscular forms of patriotism on the other. The Ukrainians are showing us a way to have both. As soon as the attacks began, they overcame their many political divisions — which are no less bitter than ours — and they picked up weapons to fight for their sovereignty and their democracy. They demonstrated that it is possible to be a patriot and a believer in an open society, that a democracy can be stronger and fiercer than its opponents. Precisely because there is no liberal world order, no norms and no rules, we must fight ferociously for the values and the hopes of liberalism if we want our open societies to continue to exist.”

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