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Project Syndicate: Putin’s brutal attack on Ukraine has helped revive the West, but the homegrown threats to liberal democracy fester under a veneer of solidarity

WASHINGTON (Project Syndicate)— The solidarity on display at the recent NATOU.S.-EU, and G-7 summits has revealed a rejuvenated West. While Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to wage war on Ukraine, the Atlantic democracies are responding with impressive—and somewhat unexpected—unity as they arm Ukraine, reinforce NATO’s eastern flank, and sanction the Russian economy.

Instead of turning away migrants, European Union member states are opening their doors to millions of Ukrainian refugees. The U.S. Congress seems to have rediscovered the bipartisan comity that has long been missing in Washington.

Prolonged economic insecurity and yawning inequality have depopulated the political center.

The political theorist Francis Fukuyama even foresees a “new birth of freedom” that will “get us out of our funk about the declining state of global democracy,” adding hopefully that “the spirit of 1989 will live on, thanks to a bunch of brave Ukrainians.”

A cold war is no cure for dysfunction

Not so fast. The political ills plaguing the Atlantic democracies may be out of the headlines, but they have not gone away. While Russia’s invasion is certainly a wake-up call for the West, the prospect of a new cold war will not by itself cure the United States and Europe of illiberalism and political dysfunction.

In fact, the war in Ukraine will likely have economic spillover effects that foster political blowback. Accordingly, both America and Europe need to keep focusing on getting their own houses in order even while ensuring that the tragedy in Ukraine receives the resources and attention it deserves.

In Cold War America, the political discipline engendered by the Soviet threat did help mute partisan conflict over foreign policy. Similarly, the prospect today of a new era of militarized rivalry with Russia is reviving bipartisan centrism on matters of statecraft.

Although the neo-isolationist wing of the Republican Party in Congress may be relatively quiet for now, it enjoys strong support among the party base and is likely to reassert itself as Western-led sanctions against Russia hurt U.S. consumers.

The left wing of the Democratic Party is no longer clamoring for cuts to the defense budget and a fast and deep pullback from fossil fuels. Both the hawkish and the neo-isolationist wings of the Republican Party have toned down their criticism of President Joe Biden and generally rallied behind his response to the Russian invasion.

Bipartisanship rooted in shared prosperity

But this return to bipartisanship is likely to be short-lived.

The bipartisanship of the Cold War era rested not just on the Soviet threat, but also on the ideological centrism sustained by widely shared prosperity within America. Yet prolonged economic insecurity and yawning inequality have since depopulated the political center, and ideological moderation has given way to bitter polarization.

This erosion of the political center explains the rapid evaporation of the surge in bipartisanship that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. And it explains why, just before the war in Ukraine captured the country’s attention, public intellectuals in the U. S were debating the prospects for civil war. According to a poll conducted late last year, 64% of Americans fear that U. S democracy is “in crisis and at risk of failing.”

The highest U.S. inflation rate in 40 years is currently heightening the risk of a return to the illiberal politics of grievance. The rising cost of energy and food is one of the main reasons why Biden’s approval ratings have remained low despite his strong handling of the war in Ukraine.

As the November midterm elections near, scant Republican support for Biden will translate into renewed partisan rivalry. And although the neo-isolationist wing of the Republican Party in Congress may be relatively quiet for now, it enjoys strong support among the party base and is likely to reassert itself as Western-led sanctions against Russia hurt U.S. consumers.

Given the potential for illiberal populism to make a comeback in the U.S., the Biden administration urgently needs to continue advancing its domestic agenda. Investing in infrastructure, education, technology, health care, and other domestic programs offers the best way to alleviate the electorate’s discontent and revive the country’s ailing political center. The budget that Biden proposed this week is a step in the right direction.

Europe’s home front

Europe, too, should keep a close eye on its home front as it focuses on its response to Ukraine war. While Europe’s political center has remained stronger than America’s, and the EU has shown impressive unity in the face of Russian aggression, strains to European cohesion lurk just beneath the surface.

Europe’s magnanimous welcome to Ukrainian refugees may trigger domestic backlashes as costs mount and the prospect of permanent resettlement looms. Weaning the EU off Russian fossil fuels will require considerable investment and could lead to even higher energy prices, potentially hampering Europe’s economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

And while Poland and Hungary are now front line states that deserve allied support, both are still ruled by illiberal governments that threaten core European values; they should not be let off the hook.

Europeans, like Americans, need to continue working hard on domestic renewal. Economic restructuring and investment, reform of immigration policy and border control, and more pooling of sovereignty on foreign and defense policy can all help consolidate the EU’s solidarity and democratic legitimacy.

Putin’s brutal attack on Ukraine has helped revive the West. But the homegrown threats to liberal democracy that were front and center before the war still require urgent attention, even amid the strenuous effort to defeat Russia’s attempt to subjugate its neighbor.

It would be tragically ironic if the West succeeds in turning Putin’s gamble in Ukraine into a resounding defeat, only to see liberal democracies then succumb to the enemy within.

This commentary was published with permission of Project SyndicateWestern Unity Starts at Home

Charles A. Kupchan, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, is professor of international affairs at Georgetown University and the author of “Isolationism: A History of America’s Efforts to Shield Itself from the World” (Oxford University Press, 2020).

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