Western liberalism still skates on thin ice
The biggest boost to self-doubting liberal democracies was Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. His February 24 assault reminded Westerners that there was something worth fighting for. However, such uplifting moments don’t happen often. As Europe and the United States head for likely recessions this winter, another populist resurgence looks possible. Although Putin’s influence is waning – even among far-right European voters – Russia is missing no opportunity to stoke Western divisions.
It is pure coincidence that Italy’s first far-right post-war Prime Minister, Giorgia Meloni, takes office almost exactly a century after Benito Mussolini, the creator of fascism, marched on Rome. Meloni’s triumph came shortly after the Swedish Democrats, a right-wing nationalist grouping, became the second-largest party with a fifth of the vote. In the United States, Joe Biden’s Democrats are in better shape than before. But they are still likely to lose the House of Representatives in November. It would deliver Biden to investigative hell as Republicans seek revenge for Donald Trump’s double impeachments. Two years of hostile Washington paralysis combined with a recession could lead to anything.
By no sensible reading, the West’s democratic crisis is past its peak. The debate over whether to define today’s right as fascist, or “post-fascist,” eats up a lot of airtime. The semantics is a red herring. What these parties share is a revulsion for liberal democracy. Trump’s Republicans made no secret of their joy at Meloni’s victory. Italy’s new leader, along with the equally cheery Viktor Orbán of Hungary, is a recent star of the Conservative Political Action Conference, the most influential gathering of the American right. Steve Bannon, the most assiduous cultivator of transatlantic ties on the American right, befriended Meloni years ago, when few had heard of his Brothers of Italy party. “You put a reasonable face on right-wing populism, you get elected,” Bannon told him. She followed his advice.
Although Putin thrives on the divisions of the West, his difficulties are largely self-made. The American left’s belief that Putin was key to Trump’s election in 2016 is overblown. It follows that a Russian defeat in Ukraine would not end the problems of the West. But Ukraine’s fate does not work the other way as well. A Russian victory would send a chilling message about the ability of autocrats to stifle democracies on the West’s doorstep. Since the partial or total defeat of Russia now seems more likely, Putin’s best hope lies in undermining the resolve of the West.
Russia’s main chance will come this winter. Its deadliest weapon is rising energy prices which spur inflation, which would mean faster monetary tightening on both sides of the Atlantic and deeper recessions. Neither Putin nor Europe can affect the cold of this winter. Energy rationing in Europe would make every voter meaner. Even higher gasoline prices can trigger a populist backlash, as Frenchman Emmanuel Macron discovered with the yellow vest protests in 2018. Putin could also expand the war laterally to other parts of Europe not NATO members, such as Moldova, and through cyberattacks against critical European countries. infrastructure, including energy networks. The ultimate fear is that Putin will use nuclear weapons. It is more likely that he will opt for these other types of climbing.
Will the west hold the line? Whatever happens in November, Biden will still be in charge of American foreign policy. He has earned less credit than he deserves for supporting Western unity and supplying the bulk of military hardware to Ukraine. Besides wishing Putin gone, Biden has been unusually disciplined in his comments about the war. He is as calm in his rhetoric as Putin was passionate in his. Among the main Western allies, only Italy now seems hesitant, although this is due more to the pro-Putin leanings of Silvio Berlusconi and Matteo Salvini – the other two coalition partners – than to Meloni herself.
If Russia’s partial mobilization and the West’s economic slowdown failed to weaken Ukraine, Putin would be left with a silver bullet: Trump’s return to power in 2024. It’s more likely today than a few months ago, mostly because of the attention Trump is getting from painting himself as a victim of blood feud. His chances of winning a Republican primary look solid. He votes higher than the other Republican names combined. Most Democrats, on the other hand, want to ditch Biden.
For an autocrat like Putin, who has staked everything on reckless war, supporting the self-harm of Western democracy has two advantages over nuclear. First, it’s not suicidal. Second, the return of Trump, who described Putin’s decision to move troops to Donbass in late February as a “brilliant” move, would upend everyone’s assumptions. As the West ponders what could go wrong, it shouldn’t forget to look in the obvious places.