It must feel to many Canadians these days like the fate of the world rests in the hands of just two men, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Mr. Putin’s invented war in Ukraine is killing thousands of civilians and soldiers who are standing up to his unprovoked aggression. His constant threats about resorting to nuclear weapons are keeping everyone else awake at night.
In China, Mr. Xi – a tyrant and ultranationalist who is openly hostile to the West and has Taiwan in his sights – stage-managed the Communist Party into giving him a third term last weekend. In the process, he warned of “dangerous storms” ahead in his country’s international affairs.
You have to wonder whether different leaders would be taking their countries down different paths: if someone else in the Kremlin would be less hungry for war with Ukraine; if a different Chinese Communist Party leader might adopt a more open, less hostile stand.
Instead, two holdouts from the losing Communist side of the Cold War era have upended Francis Fukuyama’s famous assertion that the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 marked the “end of history.”
In the decades since, it had been hoped that the collapse of the Soviet Union meant liberal democracy would spread across the world via the portal of free trade and globalization, and dictatorships would fall into the dustbin of history.
But as Canada’s Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland pointed out in a speech in Washington on Oct. 11, autocracies have in fact been making a steady comeback for years. Mr. Putin’s invasion of a sovereign country and Mr. Xi’s reinforced grip on the CCP are punctuation marks on the unavoidable truth that, if history ended in 1989, it only ended for a while.
This is why this moment is so jarring. The comfortable Western belief that “all human societies were heading towards democracy and that growing rich together would make the world both more democratic and more peaceful,” as Ms. Freeland put it, has not proven true.
That this is happening at the same moment the world is struggling its way out the COVID-19 pandemic, only to find itself face-to-face with high inflation and the prospect of a recession, is demoralizing. It’s hard not to feel some degree of despair.
We shouldn’t let that happen.
Ms. Freeland’s speech garnered a lot of attention for her contention that liberal democratic countries ought to respond to the new (old) reality by becoming more reliant on each other for trade and the maintenance of critical supply chains, and lessen their dependency on openly hostile, unreliable regimes. She also acknowledged, though, that China, Russia and autocracies like them aren’t going anywhere; that they will forever be in our faces.
That in turn means that countries like Canada and the alliances they have formed, such as NATO, must make sure that Ukraine defeats Russia no matter how far Mr. Putin dares to take his war, lest the failure to do so emboldens him and others watching from the isolation of their own tyrannies.
Perhaps even more critically, it means that democracies like Canada – where free speech and regular, fair elections can produce divisive and polarized politics – must not fall prey to insane notions that our system and our beliefs are no better than those of China or Russia; that somehow, because of its well-reported failings and ongoing injustices, liberal democracy is not worth fighting for.
Ms. Freeland put it well in her speech: “Self-criticism is a feature of democracies, not a bug. But it is a pitiless mirror that can rattle our self-confidence when we measure ourselves against tyrants and their armour of oblivion. We should not doubt our own strength, moral, social, political, and indeed economic. We have achieved greater freedom and prosperity for more of our people than any civilization in human history.”
That is the truth; the simple, verifiable truth. Liberal democracy, as imperfect as it is, makes us safer, more free and more likely to prosper than its alternatives, thanks chiefly to its protection of individual rights and its defence of the rule of law.
Two men – two vestiges from another, unlamented era – would very much like it if you thought otherwise. Don’t do it. Don’t give into the despair.