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The Democratic Duty
The case for democratic solidarity—and against spheres of influence.
Today we are proud to publish an essay by Michael Walzer, one of America’s preeminent political theorists and the author of classic books including Spheres of Justice and Just and Unjust Wars.
Walzer, a democratic socialist who has throughout his career earned that self-description by speaking up against the undemocratic communist regimes that enjoyed so much power in the 20th century, asks a question that is at the same time philosophical and highly contemporary: What duty of solidarity do democrats owe to each other? The answer he gives provides a sophisticated case for why Americans should continue to stand by Ukraine.
I hope you enjoy this important “long read.”
Why are we supporting Ukraine? A friend challenged me to answer that question, with a heavy emphasis on the “we.” Why should liberal democrats support American military aid for Ukraine? Why exactly?
Leave aside the reasons that (some) left-wing opponents of military aid insist upon: they claim that the United States wants to weaken Russia, enhance American hegemony, test its weapon systems, provide an excuse to increase the military budget. I assume that there are people in Washington who really do have reasons like those, but they don’t drive the American engagement—and certainly not “our” engagement. They also don’t explain the depth of support for the Ukrainians among the political public here in the United States and in Europe, too, or the anger that so many people feel toward those who would abandon Ukraine or impose a settlement akin to the Munich agreement that handed parts of Czechoslovakia to Germany in 1938.
The reasons most commonly given are legal and moral: to defeat aggression and defend Ukrainian sovereignty and its very new democracy. These two reasons are really one, since Russian aggression threatens both sovereignty and democracy—the creation of a satellite regime in Ukraine on the old Soviet model, or the transformation of Ukraine into a Russian province on the older Tzarist model. Certainly, liberal democrats want a world in which Ukrainians are free to shape their own political life. So we are committed to “the liberal world order”—this is a good commitment, gold standard, but still too abstract to explain our passion.
Consider now a different, more important, argument against supporting Ukraine: it belongs in the Russian “sphere of influence.” This is the position of people who call themselves “realists,” who blame the 2022 invasion on NATO expansion into what should have been the Russian sphere. I want to argue that spheres of influence are a bad idea, even in “the real world”—and this will lead me into a larger argument that the right reason for liberal democrats to support Ukraine, my reason and my friend’s, is democratic solidarity.
The realists hate “moralizing,” but nonetheless insist that their argument for spheres of influence rests on the importance of international peace—which certainly is a moral argument, though a hard one given the price that most realists are ready to pay. Their central proposition is that great powers, for the sake of peace, should be allowed to maintain spheres of influence, often amounting to political control, beyond their borders. World order is best achieved through the recognition of this kind of greatness—which leads to a division of the world among the great powers. The Yalta agreement at the end of World War Two is the best example of a division of this kind—supported, back then and perhaps still, by leftist admirers or memorialists of the Soviet Union (which received much of Eastern Europe as its sphere).
The Yalta agreement was indeed realistic; it was a recognition of necessity: the Red Army occupied half of Europe, and there was no way short of renewed warfare to force a Soviet withdrawal. Still, the agreement, however necessary, provides a vivid example of the price that realism requires. The people of Eastern Europe paid that price in the form of the brutality, corruption, and incompetence of the authoritarian regimes that the Soviets created in their sphere. But how else can a sphere of influence be maintained except by authoritarian rule? Consider the American sphere in Central America, which also features brutal, corrupt, and incompetent authoritarianism. Since the citizens of nations subject to great power “influence” will always be eager to determine their own fate, realists have to oppose self-determination, which means they have to oppose democracy, and so democrats have to be ready to oppose realism.
I grant that the Yalta agreement (though more importantly the nuclear stalemate that followed) made for the coldness of the “cold war”—hence for a kind of global stability. But there were hot wars on the periphery of the Soviet sphere and repeated rebellion and harsh repression within. When a democratic (or almost-democratic) Russia emerged from the Soviet Union, its first leaders withdrew from their sphere of influence, abandoned their satellites, and allowed the formation of independent states. The invasion of Ukraine, three decades later, is an irredentist effort to reverse that democratizing process and reclaim a Russian sphere.
As if anticipating irredentism, the newly liberated countries of Eastern Europe sought protection against any Russian return, and rushed to join NATO. Contrary to the claims of (some) leftists and (most) realists, NATO’s expansion was not, or not only, an imperial or great power project. It was more a matter of pull from the East than push from the West. Nor does NATO comprise in any usual sense an American sphere of influence: as evidence of this, consider the difference between political life within the Warsaw Pact countries and NATO. As the recent addition of Finland and the application of Sweden suggests, NATO is a voluntary alliance of genuinely independent states.
Forcing Ukraine back into a Russian sphere, against the democratic will of its people, would not make for a sustainable peace—for all the reasons, this time, that made the Munich agreement a realist failure. Putin is no Stalin, but his plans for Ukraine are almost as brutal as Stalin’s were during the famine years of the 1930s, and I wonder if today’s defenders of great power spheres would be able to watch him abolish Ukrainian democracy, murder its leaders and defenders, and forcibly turn Ukrainians into coerced, reluctant, and sullen Russians—and do nothing. Ukraine’s neighbors would look, fearfully, for help from NATO. I can’t imagine this as a world order that anyone would willingly promote. The real world argues against it.
Certainly, no-one committed to democratic politics could support a settlement of that kind. Small-“d” democrats cannot live with Russian, American, or Chinese spheres of influence since these political formations do not allow for democratic decision-making. They are marked, everywhere, by authoritarianism and oppression, and sooner or later, their subjects will rise in rebellion. And the rebels will look for support from democrats around the world. They have a claim on us, which I will try to explain.
Influence is, of course, a normal part of political life. Every political party, every social movement, and every state aims to be influential. There is a brief passage from the young Marx that explains how we should think about influence. Assume, he says, a world of “human relations” in which “love can only be exchanged for love, trust for trust…. If you wish to enjoy art you must be an artistically cultivated person; if you wish to influence other people you must be a person who really has a stimulating and encouraging effect upon others.” This argument applies not only to individuals but also to political parties, social movements, and sovereign states. If the United States wants to be influential in Central America, then it must be stimulating and encouraging—that is, materially helpful and ideologically persuasive. Coercion, manipulation, and subversion are ruled out. This applies to Russia, too.
A world order marked by the “human relations” that Marx defended would indeed be liberal, unlike the world we live in. More importantly, it would be democratic: an international society of self-determining nations that recognize each other’s right to self-determination—a world without tyranny, the world of our desire. Democratic government, reiterated state by state across the globe, offers a path to stability and peace more reliable in the real world than great power spheres of influence. It also offers to people everywhere the valued experience of citizenship: equality before the law, political engagement, free expression, mutual aid, and the pride that comes with all of these.
Historically, people who already enjoy democratic citizenship have often been ready to help other people living under authoritarian regimes and fighting for democracy. Many Americans in the early days of the republic, for example, were eager to support Latin American revolutionaries, and after the 1848 revolutions in Europe, Jacksonian democrats argued for diplomatic and material aid to the ‘48ers. When the exiled Hungarian leader, Lajos Kossuth, visited the United States in 1851, he was welcomed by secretary of state Daniel Webster and greeted by enthusiastic crowds everywhere he went. The Democratic Review, a Jacksonian magazine published in New York, carried articles describing how Americans might volunteer to fight in Europe “on the side of liberty” when and if the defeated revolutionaries managed to renew the struggle. The same magazine argued for an increase in the naval budget, so that the United States could provide military help if struggling democrats abroad ever needed it.
Readers will have no difficulty thinking of more recent examples of democratic solidarity: liberal and left democrats across Europe and the United States demanding support for republican Spain in the 1930s, opposing the Munich agreement, defending the Lend-Lease Act that supplied Great Britain during World War Two, encouraging dissidents in Eastern Europe during the years of Soviet domination, opposing South African racism, establishing an “emergency committee” to help Kurdish democrats in Syria, welcoming men and women fleeing oppressive regimes and publicizing their stories.
People engaged in helping democrats abroad insist that they have an obligation to help. What kind of an obligation is that? Think of the moral obligation of materially advantaged men and women to help those in need—and especially those in desperate need. Democratic obligations are best understood by analogy: authoritarian rule produces a desperate need for democracy—and politically advantaged men and women, who already enjoy the benefits of democratic rule, ought to help. I mean “help” in every possible way, not only by trying to shape the foreign policy of our democratic states—I will come back to that—but also by independent organizing and personal engagement. Our political parties and labor unions should be in touch with parties and unions in countries where democracy is at risk or absent, offering material and ideological stimulation and encouragement—aiming to be influential. This was the political program of socialist internationalists long ago. Right now, given the threat posed by authoritarian demagogues around the world, that program needs to be recovered—turned into a democratic internationalism.
Help can also be personal. If you or I travel to one of the countries where oppressed men and women are fighting for democracy, or if we are invited to lecture or teach, or if we volunteer to help in a hospital or school, we should talk about democratic values whenever we can; we should meet and hold hands with the local democrats, especially the ones who are in trouble with the authorities. “All Americans,” the Democratic Review proclaimed, “should be republican propagandists.” Western scholars who taught in underground universities in countries like Hungary and Czechoslovakia in the 1960s and ‘70s were doing their democratic duty. So are men and women from the West who go to Ukraine today, volunteers who work in hospitals, or assist displaced families, or join the fighting.
Listen to: “Michael Walzer on Liberalism and its Critics.”
State action on behalf of democracy is harder to describe. I don’t mean to defend forcible regime change—except after a large-scale war, like World War Two, when the Western allies rightly mandated the creation of democratic governments in West Germany and Japan. In more usual times, John Stuart Mill’s argument against military intervention is still persuasive: democracy has to be a local creation. Nonetheless, states can do a lot to promote democracy beyond their borders by exercising the kind of influence that Marx described: coming to the aid of struggling democrats politically, morally, and materially. This is democratic solidarity. Imagine a friend fighting against some local injustice who asks for help, knowing that you share the democratic values that drive her engagement. Now imagine a friend who is herself the victim of a tyrannical government and asks for help. Democrats abroad are friends of that kind. Help is due.
If a democratic state is the victim of aggression—if democracy itself is under armed attack—we need to seek a harder-edged influence in the form of military support: money, supplies, training, and within the limits of prudence, forceful engagement. This is the kind of support that France, Britain, and the United States refused to give to the Spanish republic when Franco’s army invaded—a negative example that makes a positive point. Help was due. Actually, neutrality in 1936 was stupid geo-politics, a failure to recognize what international law required, and a moral crime. For those of us who grew up on the stories and songs of the Spanish Civil War, it is the crime that lingers in our mind.
The Soviet Union did intervene in Spain, pursuing its own geo-political interests, exploiting the idealism of the young men and women who joined the International Brigades—and showing no commitment to Spanish democracy. Stalin hoped to create a satellite state as did the other anti-democratic intervening powers: Italy and Germany.
Ukraine is the Spain of our time, posing a similar challenge to democratic states and individuals. It is an old nation and a new state, independent for only three decades, with a nationalist history that certainly did not point toward democracy. It was transformed by a popular uprising in 2014 against a corrupt and pro-Russian government. And then came an election in which the nationalists and the admirers of Russian authoritarianism were decisively defeated, and Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a man who represented the two Ukrainian minorities—Russian speakers and Jews—was elected president. It was a triumph for democracy and self-determination, which Putin’s invasion aimed to reverse. The invasion has produced instead a popular determination to resist, which certainly is nationalist in its emotional quality, but also democratic—because the state that Ukrainians are defending is the democratic state that they created.
But what if the war is stalemated? There are people today who have no commitment to spheres of influence, no love for authoritarianism, who worry about a war fought with terrible human costs and no resolution. Might it not be better for the United States government to begin negotiations with Russia—or, better, to press Ukraine to agree to such negotiations? After all, the United States does have “influence” with Kyiv—muscle that it is time to flex. The most frequently mentioned goal is a cease-fire, Korean-style, which would leave Russia in control of significant pieces of Ukrainian territory but without any acknowledgement that its control was legitimate. In return for the lost territory, Ukraine would get some sort of security guarantee from the United States (but probably not NATO membership).
This is a plausible argument, but I think that it is wrong—and certainly premature. It is still morally necessary, so democrats everywhere should insist, that the key decisions about how to fight and how long to fight remain Ukrainian decisions. Even massive military aid does not entitle the United States to make life and death decisions for the embattled Ukrainians. What democratic solidarity requires right now is that we respect, and require our country to respect, the autonomy, the freedom, the collective will of the Ukrainian people. I can imagine a desperate time when that obligation might lapse, but that’s not where we are today.
There are, however, decisions that belong to the United States and NATO, and right now, I think, both parties are getting those decisions right or mostly right, balancing military supply and prudence. But that’s a judgment that needs to be reconsidered every week and is, in any case, not within the competence of democracy-loving political theorists. Our job is to assess the value of what the allies are doing and to explain why they ought to be doing it. Democratic states, men and women committed to democracy, my friend and I—all of us stand with Ukraine because its people have collectively and individually decided, in the face of a brutal attack, that their country and its democracy are worth fighting for. And that means that their Ukraine is ours, too, part of the democratic international.
Michael Walzer is a professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. His latest book is The Struggle for a Decent Politics: On “Liberal” as an Adjective.
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