Is victory in Ukraine a vindication of liberalism?
Or is nationalism the great winner?
‘Last week, at a bar counter, I cycled through three small pours of white wine to find the right pairing for a mackerel and dill starter. I left in some pique at having failed to nail it. Don’t blame Occidentalists for questioning the mettle of a society of such risible comfort. We who live here don’t understand it either, which is why the decadence thesis haunts us with its intuitive plausibility.’
It’s because of passages like this that Janan Ganesh is one of my favourite writers. It’s not just because of his beautiful prose, but also his lack of pretence. While most columnists claim to be more earthy and shy away from being ‘the elite’, the Financial Times writer is an unapologetic metrolib who believes the life of the supposedly atomised globo-citizen is more fulfilled and meaningful, and honestly says so. And he’s often convincing.
Ganesh believes in liberalism, and most recently argued that the superiority of western liberalism helps explain Russia’s failure in Ukraine. The West is not as decadent as its enemies believe, a point that Noah Smith also made in a recent substack. Describing the liberal v illiberal visions of the world, Smith wrote that ‘a lot of it is simply about conquerors vs. defenders. There’s a clear difference between the vision of a world where “the strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must”, and the vision of a world where every country is free to determine its own destiny.’ To be liberal in terms of geopolitics means ‘upholding the idea that we now call “Westphalian sovereignty” (even though its connection to the actual Peace of Westphalia is tenuous).’
I’m delighted that Ukraine has done so well and, like many, I’ve been moved by the courage and sacrifice of the Ukrainians, a country many expected to crumble. But I would question whether the war has shown the strength of ‘liberalism’, as such.
Facing the question of whether we are in fact too decadent to fight, western Europeans haven’t really been tested; the winter hasn’t even begun. The West has been fairly resolute in its opposition to Russian aggression, but all the serious work has been done by Ukrainians and, if they are fighting to be part of the West, they might not have a vision of it that matches many English-speaking writers. It is not liberalism being vindicated, but nationalism.
When Volodymyr Zelensky gave his powerful ‘without you’ speech, was that an ode to liberalism or the idea of Ukrainians as a people apart?
When Ukrainians pay tribute to Winston Churchill, declaring that ‘We shall fight everywhere — on heaps of debris, on the banks of the Kalmius and Dnipro, and we shall never ever surrender’, are they stating their loyalty to abstract principles or seeing themselves as an embattled people facing a hostile neighbour?
When victorious Ukrainian soldiers sing together their national hymn, are they united in their love of western values, or for their desire to fight for Ukraine, their homeland?
Before the invasion Ukraine was riddled with corruption, indeed the most corrupt country in Europe, placed 122nd globally on Transparency International’s index. High corruption levels tend to indicate low levels of patriotism, and an absence of civil society one expects from post-communist states; Ukraine is for historical reasons deeply split between east and west, while many of its citizens have an ambiguous sense of nationality, the division between Russian and Ukrainian not always being clear.
Yet Ukraine has surprised the world with its desire to fight, a desire clearly fuelled by nationalism.