Opinion: What Putin and Xi don’t understand about ‘messy’ democracy

Last February, the West impressed the world with its resolute support for Ukraine in the face of brutal Russian aggression. From Washington to Warsaw, leaders from all political walks of life seemed to be singing in rare harmony.

Four months later, what is striking is how quickly divisions have resurfaced, both between and within countries.

Biden’s task next week will be to rekindle the spirit of February. If left to escalate, the emerging disagreements could undermine efforts to support Ukraine while fueling Russian President Vladimir Putin’s sense that time is on his side.

From Moscow, the West now seems distracted and divided. While voices from frontline Eastern European states like Poland and Estonia warn of the risks of placating Putin, some of their peers further west appear to be more worried that the Russian leader feels humiliated.
An adviser to German Chancellor Olaf Scholz recently shocked his own coalition partners by chastising journalists for focusing on Ukraine’s military needs, rather than exploring the “exciting” question of future relations with Russia. Scholz appeared in February to lead a revolution in German foreign policy, abandoning Ostpolitik to increase defense spending and arm Kyiv. Now even partisans wonder why so few heavy weapons were delivered.
In France, President Emmanuel Macron has been hampered by the loss of his parliamentary majority. Recent elections have seen a rise in both the left-wing alliance of Jean-Luc Mélenchon and the anti-immigrant right-wing of Marine le Pen. Both have in the past championed Putin’s armed annexation of Crimea. These days, both criticize the Russian invasion but oppose the embargo on the country’s oil and gas exports.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has strongly supported Kyiv. But his country, which is still digesting Brexit, has been rocked by scandals over Johnson’s failure to follow his own lockdown rules and alleged lies in parliament. Johnson has repeatedly denied that the rules were broken.
Meanwhile, Finland and Sweden’s bid to join NATO has been hijacked by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who seems determined to use the new Russian threat to secure concessions. Among other things, he wants the two Nordic countries to set aside human rights concerns and extradite Turkish opponents and journalists to Ankara.
For Biden himself, a few days out of Washington must seem like a welcome relief. With his dismal ratings, his party faces a midterm rout in November and he could find himself in a rematch with Donald Trump in 2024.

As inflation soars, Covid-19 mutates and economies teeter on the brink of recession, Western leaders have little inclination to defend the free world.

This image of divisions and disarray is all the more worrying in that Putin most certainly reads too much into it.

Like his friend Chinese President Xi Jinping, the Russian leader believed for years that the West was in decline, dysfunctional and self-centered. Domestic political struggles, electoral upheavals and quarrels between allies all strike these autocrats as signs of weakness.

According to them, strength lies in unity. Putin and Xi are working hard to make it at home. In Russia, the only visible divisions are between those who support the war and those who really support him. In China, censors are crushing any hint of dissent ahead of this fall’s party congress, in which Xi is expected to seek a historic third term potentially opening the door to many more.
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What these leaders fail to realize is that the strength of democracy lies in its ability to process disagreements rather than sweep them under the rug. Attempts to impose unity by decree create a fragile pretense of order. They also blind the leader to the true state of public opinion.

As messy as democracy and multilateral diplomacy can be, it is often necessary to voice differences in order to overcome them. Problem solving requires open sharing of information and evaluation of options. Fear of division leads autocrats to cling to failed approaches, as with Xi’s draconian lockdowns and Putin’s bullying of his neighbors, who now appear to have alienated even Kazakhstan’s usually low-key president.

To succeed, countries must forge unity rather than feign it. But this does not happen automatically. And that takes time. If the characteristic weakness of dictatorships is the tendency of leaders to lose touch with reality, the corresponding defect of democracies is that they take too long to wake up.

When they act, democracies can muster far more energy and innovation than their adversaries. But they often start so late that the costs have already reached disconcerting levels.

This is where leadership comes in. The main challenge for any statesman is to counter the failures of his system. A dictator who stays informed and critical is more likely to survive. A democratic leader who inspires his people – and his allies – to tackle looming problems swiftly deserves special historic recognition.

Biden showed determination in his quick response to Putin’s assault. By preparing sanctions and rallying the West early on, his team showed glimmers of greatness. Now, as the rifts reappear, he must do more – explain what is at stake, shape opinion at home and abroad and maintain the coalition to keep aid in Kyiv going.

The danger in the coming months is that, distracted and diverted, the West will not provide Ukraine with the weapons it needs quickly enough to defeat Russia.

If we succumb to “war fatigue”, we will pay a heavy price. Stopping an aggressor early on is always cheaper than waiting for them to rack up kills and resources. Putin openly compares himself to Peter the Great, with a mission to “return and strengthen” territories that once belonged to the Russian Empire.

We cannot let this happen. Our advantage in this contest is that we don’t have to fear divisions. In the end, they are our strength. But they must be overcome by competent and energetic leadership. This is what democracies – and their great statesmen – do. E pluribus unum.

About Timothy Ball

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