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By Ross Douthat
Last fall, eight months into the new world disorder created by Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the University of Cambridge’s Bennett Institute for Public Policy produced a long report on trends in global public opinion before and after the outbreak of the war.
Not surprisingly, the data showed that the conflict had shifted public sentiment in developed democracies in East Asia and Europe, as well as the United States, uniting their citizens against both Russia and China and shifting mass opinion in a more pro-American direction.
But outside this democratic bloc, the trends were very different. For a decade before the Ukraine war, public opinion across “a vast span of countries stretching from continental Eurasia to the north and west of Africa,” in the report’s words, had become more favorable to Russia even as Western public opinion became more hostile. Similarly, people in Europe, the Anglosphere and Pacific Rim democracies like Japan and South Korea all turned against China even before Covid-19, but China was regarded much more favorably across the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa and Central Asia.
Putin’s war in Ukraine shifted these trends only at the margins. Russia did become less popular in 2022, but overall, developing-world public opinion after the invasion was still slightly warmer to Russia than to the United States, and (for the first time) warmer to China than to America, too. To the extent that the Ukraine conflict betokened a new geopolitical struggle between an American-led “maritime alliance of democracies,” as the report put it, and an alliance of authoritarian regimes anchored in Eurasia, the authoritarian alliance seemed to have surprisingly deep reservoirs of potential popular support.
This reading of the geopolitical landscape has found vindication in the months since. Outside the Anglosphere and Europe, the attempts to quarantine the Russian economy have found little sustained support, and the attempts at diplomatic isolation likewise.
Russian military forces are active across Africa. Moscow is finding willing energy buyers from South Asia to Latin America. Putin’s regime just convened a peace conference with Syria and Turkey and Iran, in the hopes of stabilizing its own position in Syria while sidelining the United States and its Kurdish allies. Leaked documents from U.S. intelligence indicate that President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt recently authorized secret arms sales to Russia, notwithstanding his country’s status as an American ally and aid recipient.
Overall, according to a recent Economist Intelligence survey, outside of the Western alliance there has been a slow bleeding of support from Ukraine: The number of countries condemning the Russian invasion fell slightly in the past year, and the number of neutral and Russia-supporting countries rose. And Russia’s growing non-isolation is matched by increasing diplomatic and economic influence for its ally China, which is playing a crucial role as peacemaker and power broker in the Middle East — with, again, official U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia as its partners.
It’s not clear that the Biden administration has a grand strategy calibrated to this reality. While the White House has resisted some hawkish calls for escalating brinkmanship with Moscow, it has tended to accept the hawkish portrait of a geopolitical landscape increasingly divided between democracy and autocracy, liberalism and authoritarianism. (Witness, for instance, Biden’s recently convened Summit for Democracy, which deliberately excluded two NATO allies, Hungary and Turkey, because they’re considered worrisome examples of democratic backsliding.)
As Walter Russell Mead noted in The Wall Street Journal, this framing clearly describes international reality to some degree. It also fits with Biden’s domestic political message, which conflates an “international fight for liberal democracy” with an “internal struggle against the populist G.O.P.”
But as Mead went on to argue, this crusade-for-democracy vision risks being strategically self-defeating. Abroad, you simply cannot build the alliances required to contain China or Russia if you can’t work with countries that don’t embrace Anglo-American liberalism or Eurocrat proceduralism. You need a way to deal constructively not just with monarchies and military rulers but also with the political models variously described as populism or illiberal democracy or soft authoritarianism, with leaders in the style of Narendra Modi of India and Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, if you don’t want the world to belong to the harder authoritarianism of Moscow or the techno-totalitarianism of Beijing.
Likewise at home, you cannot rally sustained bipartisan support for a pro-democracy grand strategy if you’re constantly linking this strategy to your conflict with your domestic political opponents. Or, for that matter, if you’re constantly linking it to values that are the province of only your own political coalition. A grand strategy that equates democracy simplistically with social liberalism or progressivism is never going to get sustained buy-in from Republicans, and it will always be hostage to the next election cycle.
This last point is crucial to understanding America’s global challenge as well. Some liberal hawks might like to believe that the challenge of illiberalism is primarily a challenge of regimes imposed on unwilling populations — that Middle Eastern, African and Central Asian elites are favorable to Russia and China because they want to imitate their ruthless mode of rule but that the inhabitants of these countries would be in the liberal camp if only the boot came off their neck.
The Bennett Institute report should cast doubt on that assumption. It doesn’t just show that non-Western mass opinion is favorable to China and Russia. It also offers evidence that a divergence in fundamental values, not just a difference in political leadership or perceived interests, is driving the split between developed democracies and the developing world.
Here the most striking chart appears deep in the report: It shows an index of socially liberal values (measuring secularism, individualism, progressive ideas about sex and drugs and personal freedom) worldwide across the past 30 years. What you see in the chart are high-income democracies becoming steadily more liberal since the fall of the Berlin Wall. But there is hardly any change in the values of the rest of the world, no sign that social liberalism is taking hold outside of countries where in 1990 it was powerful already.
This creates a challenge for anyone intent on organizing U.S. foreign policy around current progressive values. Maybe you can unite our closest allies, our liberal imperium’s rich and aging core, around that kind of ideological vision. But you run a real and growing risk of alienating everybody else.
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