On Inauguration Day 2021, the nation’s capital looked like it had just experienced a coup, not successfully survived one.
Streets were blocked off, barricades were up, and armed police and National Guard were everywhere. The inauguration itself took place in front of a deliberately minimal crowd, as if the authorities were somehow pulling off an inside job.
These precautions were eminently sensible, given the threat of right-wing violence. And the last thing the new administration wanted on its first day of office was to hold a very visible super-spreader event in the nation’s capital.
But it’s not a good look for American democracy when the peaceful handover of power has the appearance of a banana republic installing a tinpot dictator—or resembles the America of 1861, for that matter, when a huge security presence at Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration presaged the outbreak of civil war.
The brain turns the images it receives from the eyes upside down so that we can ultimately perceive the world right side up. Our brains must now perform the task when looking at the inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.
Washington, DC might have looked like a city besieged, but the inauguration was in fact the culmination of a vigorous and successful defense of democracy. Voters removed an autocrat from office by way of an election. The courts and state officials prevented his attempt to perpetrate electoral fraud. Those who broke into the Capitol on January 6 are belatedly being subjected to the rule of law. And the dictator wannabe left town after the smallest and least triumphant farewell parties imaginable.
Not only did a coup not happen on January 6 to keep Trump in power but a coup wasn’t necessary to remove Trump from power. Two cheers for democracy!
The Biden administration has promised to repair the political damage that Trump has caused. The proposals on the domestic side, such as undoing some of the Republican Party’s voter suppression efforts, are no-brainers from a progressive standpoint. But the foreign-policy recommendations around democracy promotion are not so contention-free. A promise to bring together a global Summit of Democracies, for instance, has met with considerable skepticism.
The events of January 6 have prompted many observers, in the United States and abroad, to declare an end to U.S. pretensions to democracy promotion. As Emma Ashford writes in Foreign Policy:
How can anyone expect—as Joe Biden’s campaign promised—to “restore responsible American leadership on the world stage” if Americans cannot even govern themselves at home? How can the United States spread democracy or act as an example for others if it barely has a functioning democracy at home? Washington’s foreign-policy elites remain committed to the preservation of a three-decade foreign policy aimed at reshaping the world in America’s image. They are far too blasé about what that image has become in 2020.
There is no question that American democracy has been tarnished – not only by the events of January 6 but by the entire four years of the Trump administration. As I wrote right after the 2020 election, “The democracy that Donald Trump dropped on the floor suffered a great deal from the experience. It’s going to take more than an election to put it right.”
Of course, U.S. democracy has always been a cracked vessel, from the limitations on the franchise that accompanied the country’s birth and the near-constant eruptions of mob violence to the deformations of executive power by practically every president.
So, when Roger Cohen writes in The New York Times that the “images of the overrun Capitol will be there, for those who want to use them, to make the point that America would be best advised to avoid giving lessons in the exercise of freedom,” the natural retort would be: there have always been such images.
From its inception, the United States has continually needed to put its own house in order. When it comes to democracy, America has always been a work in progress. Actually, over the last four years, it was a work in regress, but the point still holds. Democracy in America is not perfect.
But does that mean that America’s recent slide away from democracy has disqualified it from engaging in democracy promotion?
Exports and brands
Countries are always promoting something. The French want you to buy their wines. Russia hawks its oil and natural gas. South Korea lobbies on behalf of its boy bands, Saudi Arabia its Wahhabist version of Islam, India its Bollywood movies, Israel its security forces, and so on.
Democracy might seem like just another export. And, indeed, some American promoters treat their work as if it were an extension of the U.S. brand. They are promoting not democracy in general but American-style democracy. Consultants in Europe, for instance, have evangelized about increasing the role of private fundraising in elections, an American innovation that hitherto has not been so prominent on the continent. In other cases, the promotion of democracy has been just a cover for the projection of U.S. power and influence, as in Iraq after the 2003 invasion or Ukraine after the Maidan revolution of 2014.
In other words, “democracy promotion” either boils down to the promotion of the U.S. version of democracy or the promotion of U.S. interests, actual democracy be damned. Either way, the phrase and the program have acquired a poor reputation, particularly in their linkage to the political agenda of neo-conservatives throughout the Reagan years and again under George W. Bush in the 2000s.
As with the support of other exports like soybeans and soda pop, there’s a lot of money in democracy promotion. USAID, for instance, has a budget of a couple billion dollars for “democracy, human rights, and governance,” which includes Elections and Political Processes, the Human Rights Grants Program, the Global Labor Program, the Disability Rights and Inclusive Development Program, and so on. Various foundations and civil society organizations also put a lot of money into the global promotion of democracy and human rights.
All of this has been put at acute risk by what Trump and his followers have unleashed upon the United States, much as a sour batch of wine can send an entire wine industry down the drain.
“Repairing the substantial damage to U.S. image in the world and regaining credibility on democracy issues will be tough and take a long time, even under the best scenario,” observes Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based study group, told the Los Angeles Times. “The problem is not so much Trump himself, but rather his enablers and those who have remained silent and been complicit in his patently antidemocratic rhetoric and behavior.”
Promoting progressive values overseas
Progressives have long pressed the United States to support labor rights overseas. If another country is throwing labor leaders into jail merely for organizing strikes, the United States should protest. If corporations are employing slave labor or child workers, the United States should sanction them. If a country is abusing its migrant laborers, Washington should say something.
And the United States should do that even though its own record on labor rights is inconsistent at best. Sometimes U.S. failings are connected to a lack of enforcement of rules on the books. Sometimes the rules on the books are lousy. And sometimes, as was the case in particular during the Trump years, administrations have gone out of their way to depress wages, ignore or actively worsen miserable working conditions, and otherwise engage in a veritable war on labor.
But none of that means that progressives should urge the incoming Biden administration to keep quiet about labor rights abuses overseas until it compiles a perfect record at home. Foreign and domestic policy ideally should go hand in hand. In this way, the United States can demonstrate how to repair an imperfect labor record even as it urges other countries to do the same.
The same applies to other elements of the progressive agenda: access to reproductive health care, LGBTQ rights, environmental regulations. The United States has an imperfect record on every issue on the progressive agenda.
The way out of the apparent contradiction between what the United States says for export and what it does domestically is relatively simple. Don’t do as we say; do as the world says. Focus, in other words, on international standards. All countries, including the United States, should adhere to these standards on labor, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, environmental regulations, and the like.
So, does democracy fall into the same category as these other planks in the progressive platform?
To the extent that democracy consists of protections for human rights and political rights such as freedom of speech and a free media, progressives can comfortably insist that all countries, including the United States, adhere to international standards. Let’s call this embrace of the component parts of democracy the “Let a thousand trees bloom” approach, with each tree a different human right.
The challenge comes with the “Let’s plant a forest” approach. Democracy as a category can be tricky because of widely varying definitions of what the forest is exactly. Viktor Orbán insists that Hungary is a democracy, albeit an illiberal one, and so far the European Union reluctantly agrees. Brussels might grumble about certain Hungarian actions, but it hasn’t expelled the country from the EU. Plenty of Hungarian activists, however, argue that Orbán has undermined the country’s democratic institutions by compromising the independence of the judiciary and the freedom of the media, to name just two violations. So, does Hungary qualify to participate in Biden’s planned Summit of Democracies?
Although there might be an international consensus around certain aspects of democracy, as enshrined in various UN human rights conventions, there is no such agreement over democracy as a whole. Plenty of non-democratic countries have signed UN human rights agreements, for instance, but they would never presume to be invited to a Summit of Democracies.
It’s not so much that we can’t see the forest for the trees. Many progressives have reservations about the forest and prefer to focus on the trees.
One of those reservations concerns regime change. Neoconservatives, in particular, used “democracy promotion” as a cover for pursuing the collapse of governments they didn’t like. In the case of North Korea, for instance, they viewed U.S. pressure on Pyongyang as necessary to eliminate not simply the country’s nuclear weapons but its entire political system.
Ditto Iraq, Iran, Libya, Venezuela, and Cuba.
Such a version of democracy promotion should be off the table. It is up to the people of a country to determine their own political future. And they should be protected in their efforts to do so by international pressure to ensure that the country abides by global human rights standards.
Over the next four years, let’s by all means work to protect all of those fragile trees at home and abroad. But let’s also take some time to define what we mean by the forest. The trees, after all, are part of a larger ecosystem, and they can’t prosper if the overall environment deteriorates.
Once we have defined what we mean by democracy, American progressives should absolutely support its promotion—even as work to improve our own political ecosystem. After all, at some point in the future, we may need to call upon the international community to help us save our democracy as well.
This article has been republished with permission from Foreign Policy in Focus. It was originally published on January 20, 2021 and the wording has been updated for timeliness.
John Feffer is an author and director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. He has been an Open Society Foundation Fellow and a PanTech fellow in Korean Studies at Stanford University. He has also worked as an international affairs representative in Eastern Europe and East Asia for the American Friends Service Committee.
The Russian conquest of Avdiivka is unlikely to alter the war’s basic realities. Although delays in the delivery of aid to Ukraine have raised Russian hopes, no meaningful changes on the battlefield are near. The Russians cannot drive to Kyiv; the Ukrainians cannot eject the invaders.
The first phase of the war in Ukraine is drawing to a close. Both sides are coming closer to acknowledging what has been clear to the rest of the world for quite some time: the current stalemate is unlikely to be broken in any significant way. This round of the war is going to end more-or-less along the current front lines.
The actions taken in the next few years will determine whether or not there will be a round two.
The war’s end state is now clear, even if it may take a bit more time for the combatants to accept it. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s barbaric invasion has failed, but Ukraine cannot return to the status quo ante. The only questions that remain concern the shape of the peace to come, and how best to avoid a second act in this pointless tragedy.
Loud voices in the West are already suggestingthatthe best way to avoid round two is for NATO to expand again, and bring Ukraine into the alliance. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, on Kyiv's membership to the alliance, said over the weekend, "Ukraine is now closer to NATO than ever before...it is not a question of if, but of when."
He said Nato was helping Kyiv to make its forces “more and more interoperable” with the defence alliance and would open a joint training and analysis centre in Poland. “Ukraine will join Nato. It is not a question of if, but of when,” he insisted.
If this is the path the alliance follows, future fighting is almost assured. One side’s deterrent is often the other’s provocation.
NATO expansion was a necessary condition for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. It was not sufficient, since Putin has agency and made a catastrophically bad choice, but it was necessary. Those in the West who blame the United States for the war are as myopic as those who claim that Western policies had nothing to do with it. Putin remains a cold warrior at heart, and talked about NATO obsessively in the years leading up to the invasion.
Expanding NATO further would again provide the necessary conditions for tension and conflict. Russia will not stand by while Ukraine joins the enemy camp. A second invasion – perhaps before Ukraine formally joined the alliance, or perhaps afterwards – would be extremely likely. Those who suggest that deterrence would keep the Russians in check should listen to the rambling interview Putin just gave to Tucker Carlson. Ukraine simply matters more to the Russians than it does to us. Putin would calculate that no American president would be willing to sacrifice New York for Kyiv.
Another solution exists, one that might well assure Kyiv’s security without exacerbating Russian paranoia. Ukraine should be “Finlandized.”
During the Cold War, Finland was essentially a neutral country. It took no official positions on the pressing issues of the day, and was careful not to criticize the Soviet Union. Leaders in Helsinki made it clear to those in Moscow that they had no desire to join the West. They resisted pressure to join both NATO and the Warsaw Pact, and discouraged their citizens from openly criticizing either side. Finland avoided the Soviet embrace by making it clear that it would avoid the West as well.
“Finlandization” was a forced neutrality. The term was often used in a pejorative sense during the Cold War, as a warning about what could happen to the rest of Europe if the United States was not careful. What was often overlooked at the time was just how well Finlandization worked out for the people of Finland, who managed to stay free and outside of the various Cold War crises. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that today Finns consistently rank among the world’s happiest people.
Finlandization was a recognition of geopolitical reality, and it was the best choice for a small nation with the misfortune to lie next to a superpower. Switzerland followed a similar path during the 1930s. Like the Finns, the Swiss realized that their independence and very survival depended on avoiding any perception of flirtation with the enemies of their neighbor.
Ukraine will soon find itself in a similar situation, beside an aggressive and unpredictable great power. It should make the same choice, and the United States should help it do so.
A Finlandized Ukraine would not be allowed to join the West, but neither would it come under Russia’s thumb. It would be neutral, a buffer zone between NATO and Russia, an independent state that would allow hawkish Russians to imagine that it is still part of their country. The Ukrainian people would be neutral, and therefore safe.
If Washington were to lead an effort to emphasize the enduring neutrality of Ukraine, to Finlandize it, Russia’s paranoia could be reassured rather than provoked. Finlandizing Ukraine would be the best outcome for all involved, including for the Ukrainian people. The disappointment in being excluded from NATO would be tempered by the knowledge that it puts them on their best path to peace and stability. And it would be the best way to avoid Ukrainian War Two.
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A Ukrainian serviceman stands at his position in a trench at a front line on the border with Russia, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Sumy region, Ukraine January 20, 2024. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich
For a conflict discussed in starkly moralistic terms, the ways the Ukraine war is talked about by its most enthusiastic Western supporters can be remarkably cynical about the human carnage involved.
“Aiding Ukraine, giving the money to Ukraine is the cheapest possible way for the U.S. to enhance its security,” Zanny Minton Beddoes, editor-in-chief of the Economist, recently told the Daily Show’s Jon Stewart. “The fighting is being done by the Ukrainians, they’re the people who are being killed.”
This view is not unique to Beddoes. It’s been widely expressed by those most in favor of an open-ended, prolonged war and most against the kind of peace negotiations that would shorten it.
“Four months into this thing, I like the structural path we're on here. As long as we help Ukraine with the weapons they need and the economic support, they will fight to the last person,” said Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) early into the war, accidentally voicing what the war’s critics have often said about the war — that the U.S. will fight it “to the last Ukrainian.” Later, Graham called it the “best money we’ve ever spent.”
“It is a relatively modest amount that we are contributing without being asked to risk life and limb,” Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, told the Associated Press last year. “The Ukrainians are willing to fight the fight for us if the West will give them the provisions. It’s a pretty good deal.”
“I call that a bargain,” North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum has said about the war funding, pointing to the damage Ukrainian forces had inflicted on the Russian military.
“No Americans are getting killed in Ukraine. We’re rebuilding our industrial base. The Ukrainians are destroying the army of one of our biggest rivals. I have a hard time finding anything wrong with that,” U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) remarked.
Americans “should be satisfied that we’re getting our money’s worth on our Ukraine investment,” wrote Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), because “for less than 3 percent of our nation’s military budget, we’ve enabled Ukraine to degrade Russia’s military strength by half,” and “all without a single American service woman or man injured or lost.”
But politicians aren’t the only armchair warriors who look at the enormous death and destruction suffered by Ukraine by prolonging the war as akin to a brilliant business decision. Hawkish think tanks have made similar arguments.
“When viewed from a bang-per-buck perspective, U.S. and Western support for Ukraine is an incredibly cost-effective investment,” Timothy Garten Ashe wrote for the weapons maker-funded Center for European Policy Analysis. “Support for Ukraine remains a bargain for American national security,” wrote Hudson Institute Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Europe and Eurasia Peter Rough. “For about 5 percent of total U.S. defense spending over the past 20 months, Ukraine has badly degraded Russia, one of the United States’ top adversaries, without shedding a single drop of American blood.”
And major U.S. newspapers have likewise published similar perspectives. “We have a determined partner in Ukraine that is willing to bear the consequences of war so that we do not have to do so ourselves in the future,” former top George W. Bush officials Condoleezza Rice and Robert Gates celebrated in the pages of the Washington Post.
“For all the aid we’ve given Ukraine, we are the true beneficiaries in the relationship, and they the true benefactors,” wrote Bret Stephens at the New York Times, pointing to the fact that NATO is paying in only money, while “Ukrainians are counting their costs in lives and limbs lost.”
What’s distasteful about this is not just the flippant way it treats the unimaginable scale of loss of life, permanentdisability and emerging long-term crises being experienced by Ukrainians — as mere abacus beads to be moved around in a cost-benefit analysis centered on the United States and its NATO allies. It’s also the fact that, far from being “willing,” “determined” and ready to “fight to the last person,” many Ukrainians have demonstrated that they do not want to risk their lives in this war — a share of the population that is getting larger and more vocal the longer the war has gone on.
Since the start of the war, when many fleeing Ukrainian men were stopped at the border and ordered to return to potentially fight, thousands of Ukrainians have defied the government’s ban on men aged between 18 and 60 leaving the country — to the point of spending large sums of money and even risking their lives to get out.
Many hunkered down in their homes to dodge enlistment officers, while tens of thousands signed a petition opposing increasingly aggressive conscription practices. Early last year, Ukraine’s parliament upped the punishment for desertion, which soldiers have this year admitted is still a growing problem.
By November 2023, the BBC determined that a total of nearly 20,000 Ukrainian men had fled the country to avoid being drafted, while the State Border Service revealed a month later that more than 16,500 had been stopped from leaving. At one point, the country’s law enforcement uncovered a massive scheme across nearly a dozen regions that gave out falsified medical certificates declaring someone unfit for military service in return for as much as $10,000.
These plans have engendered massive opposition, with protests by soldiers’ families that have taken place around the country since last year calling for a cap on the length of military service continuing and intensifying; earlier this month. One hundred women blocked a road and mistakenly attacked another woman due to rumors of draft officials coming to take the village’s men away.
“I don’t see the 500,000 more people ready to die,” admitted a former Ukrainian government minister and current army captain last November.
It increasingly appears that many of those who are most enthusiastic to keep the war going and avoid a negotiated end aren’t, as we keep being told, the Ukrainians who are most likely to be killed or wounded in the fighting. Instead they are politicians and commentators far, far away from the front line in other countries who view its attendant death and destruction as akin to a board game — or, in their words, as a “good deal,” a “bargain,” and a satisfying “investment” for their own countries.
In other words, it looks increasingly like all too many other U.S.-led wars.
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Protestors confront police in Kyiv, Ukraine, as anti-government protests turn violent. (Lena Osokina/ Shutterstock)
The revolutionary violence that swept Kyiv’s Maidan Square on the night of February 21, 2014 unleashed the forces of Ukrainian nationalism and, ultimately, Russian revanchism, and resulted in, among other things, the first full-scale land war in Europe since 1945.
President Volodymyr Zelensky has called the Maidan the “first victory” in Ukraine’s fight for independence from Russia. Yet too often lost in the tributes to Ukraine’s ‘Revolution of Dignity’ are two simple, though ramifying, questions: What was the Maidan really about? And did things have to turn out this way?
Revisiting the events of that time may help us more fully understand how we arrived at this fateful moment in world affairs.
So, what precipitated the Maidan Revolution?
In November 2013, Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych rejected the terms of the European Union Association Agreement in favor of a $15 billion credit agreement offered by the Russian Federation. Many in the western part of Ukraine had supported the EU deal, as it would have, in their view, secured Ukraine’s future within Europe.
But, as the Europeans, Americans, Ukrainians and Russians knew full well, the association agreement with Brussels wasn’t merely a trade deal. Section 2.3 of the EU-Ukraine association agenda would have required the signatories to:
"...take measures to foster military cooperation and cooperation of technical character between the EU and Ukraine [and] encourage and facilitate direct cooperation on concrete activities, jointly identified by both sides, between relevant Ukrainian institutions and CFSP/CSDP agencies and bodies such as the European Defence Agency, the European Union Institute for Security Studies, the European Union Satellite Centre and the European Security and Defence College."
In other words, the trade deal also included the encouragement of military interoperability with forces viewed, rightly or wrongly, by the Russian government as a threat to Russian national security.
In addition, the EU association agenda required Ukraine to put up barriers to trade with Russia. An alternative proposal put forward by Romano Prodi (former Italian Prime Minister and EU Commission president) would have allowed Ukraine to trade with both Russia and the EU but was rejected by Brussels.
Yanukovych’s rejection of the EU agreement brought thousands of protesters to Kyiv’s Independence (Maidan) Square. Yet policy disagreements over issues of trade and national security can and are routinely adjudicated via democratic procedures, as they are in the U.S. and Europe. And such an adjudication was eminently possible, even as late as the morning of February 21, 2014, when a deal brokered by Russia and the EU was struck between Yanukovych and the Ukrainian opposition that included a revision of Ukraine's constitution, the creation of a unity government, and an early presidential election to be held 10 months later in December 2014.
But on the night of February 21, Yanukovych fled, and a new government was installed by voluntarist rather than democratic means. The immediate post-Maidan government included the far-right Svoboda Party, whose members, according to a contemporaneous Reuters report, held “five senior roles in Ukraine's new government including the post of deputy prime minister.”
Edmund Wilson once wrote that “it is all too easy to idealize a social upheaval which takes place in some other country than one’s own.” And that was a trap into which the Obama administration — along with almost the entirety of the American media, intelligentsia and think tank world — fell in the immediate aftermath of the Maidan.
It would be fair of critics of this view (and there are many) to ask: What were their alternatives to the Obama administration’s support for the Maidan and Kyiv’s post-revolutionary government?
Mr. Obama might have said “A deal was struck. Stick to it.” This would have required a degree of statesmanship unusual to any American president. But, as Eurasia Group president Ian Bremmer observed only a month later,
"...there was a deal that was cut with the European foreign ministers. That deal was abrogated and the Americans were very happy to jump on that immediately in ways that would have been completely unacceptable to anyone in the U.S. administration if we had been on the other side.”
And so, the U.S. lent its support to the post-Maidan government (and the Anti-Terrorist Operation, or ATO, launched in April 2014) against the largely, but of course far from entirely, indigenous uprising in the Donbas. Thus began the first phase of the war, which lasted until the evening of February 24, 2022 and cost 14,000 dead and 1.5 million refugees.
In addition to the ATO, Kyiv also pursued a policy of decommunization in the east (later cited by Putin as among his many grievances with post-Maidan Kyiv) and repeatedly refused to implement the Minsk Accords. As a former U.S. Ambassador to the USSR, Jack F. Matlock, noted in Responsible Statecraft, “The war might have been prevented — probably would have been prevented — if Ukraine had been willing to abide by the Minsk agreement, recognize the Donbas as an autonomous entity within Ukraine, avoid NATO military advisors, and pledge not to enter NATO."
The second phase of the war opened on the evening of February 24, 2022, as some 190,000 Russian troops invaded Ukraine. The costs to Ukraine have been staggering.
The World Economic Forum recently estimated that the cost of Ukrainian reconstruction will reach $1 trillion. Still more, “Approximately 20% of the country’s farmland has been wrecked and 30% of land either littered with landmines or unexploded ordnance.” Casualty estimates are known to be among the most closely held state secrets during wartime, but some, like former Ukraine prosecutor general Yuriy Lutsenko, have estimated Ukraine suffered a combined 500,000 dead and wounded in its war with Russia. Meanwhile, the population of Ukraine has plummeted from 45.5 million in 2013 to an estimated 37 million today.
Looking back, the warnings issued by a small minority in the winter of 2014, including, but not limited to: the present authors; Professor Stephen F. Cohen; The Quincy Institute’s Anatol Lieven; Ambassador Jack Matlock; Professor John J. Mearsheimer; and others were dismissed by the Obama administration, policymakers, the media and the most influential think tanks in Washington. Yet the effort to wrest Ukraine into the West’s orbit via revolutionary violence, despite the objections of fully a third of that country, has been nothing short of catastrophic.