February 21. 2024. 6:19

The Daily

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This is not a war between democracy and autocracy


By presenting the war in Ukraine as an ideological clash between “democracy and autocracy”, US President Joe Biden and his officials are driving themselves into a blind corner, writes Piotr Maciej Kaczyński.

The way the American leaders perceive the war in Ukraine is a very dangerous game because the reality of the conflict is not in line with their rhetoric. In fact, the American and Russian narratives hardly differ, and that’s terrifying.

The last example of the American narrative came a few days ago when the US ambassador in Warsaw, Mark Brzezinski, said in an interview that the war is “a clash of dictatorship and authoritarianism”.

Ambassador Brzezinski basically echoed President Joe Biden’s words on war.

Last March the US leader spoke in Warsaw about “the great battle for freedom: a battle between democracy and autocracy, between liberty and repression, between a rules-based order and one governed by brute force”.

A year later we see that one important and obvious adjective is missing in those statements of the US administration. They should be talking about Russian authoritarianism, Russian autocracy, Russian repression, and the Russian order based on brute force.

The coming first year of the war is an opportunity to revise the current perspectives. President Biden is next week scheduled to return to Warsaw. Will he make a revision to the US narrative on the war?

America’s No. 1 war is the Cold War with China

The narrative that the war in Ukraine is being waged between democracies and authoritarianism is dangerous. Such an American narrative is an invitation for undemocratic China to cordially engage with the Russians.

This in turn is convenient for the Americans, who have been running a trade war with the Chinese for a while. American diplomacy has long engaged in persuading its allies to take anti-Chinese measures.

The Americans are cordially inviting, or threatening, should there be a need.

In the political freezer of Brussels is, among others, the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment, which was fiercely opposed by the US government even before 24 February 2022.

Beijing just lifted its pandemic restrictions and is back to normality. China is open for business and tourism.

There should be new opportunities to deepen economic relations between Europe and China, and not weaken them, as Washington would like. There should be new room for difficult discussions on the human rights situation.

Those are the topics already discussed in Beijing during short visits in recent months by Olaf Scholz and Charles Michel. Emmanuel Macron is scheduled to visit Beijing in April.

Yet, the American policy of marginalising the Chinese, which increasingly looks like Cold War 2.0, is risky for Europe.

“European diplomats are deeply cautious,” a Swedish diplomat told me a few days ago.

EU-China relations concern every aspect of EU economic life. For the European Union, China is both a challenge, a threat, and a partner without which it is impossible to solve any of the problems of the modern world, from climate change to the war in Ukraine.

Not every democracy is on the side of Ukraine

Recently, it could be seen how weak the American narrative about the war of “democracy against autocracy” in Ukraine is. There is no unity of all democratic states.

Mr Scholz learned this the hard way during his recent failed visit to Brazil. He came to promote the EU’s trade agreement with South America and to encourage non-European countries to become more involved on Ukraine’s side.

Meanwhile, Scholz was stunned by the host, newly elected democratic Brazilian president Lula da Silva, who defeated the autocrat Jair Bolsonaro in an election in December.

Bolsonaro fled the country and is currently living in Florida. Lula had to face riots similar to that of 6 January 2021 in DC.

The ignorant president Lula claimed that “the reason for the war between Russia and Ukraine also needs to be clearer” and that in this war, “no one wants to back down a millimetre”.

He called for a joint peace initiative of neutral countries, i.e. Brazil, India, China, and Indonesia. In short, Lula slapped the entire West, both the German Chancellor placed next to him and President Biden’s narrative on the war between democracy and autocracy.

During Lula’s recently completed trip to DC, the two senior citizens conveniently avoided the topics of the Russian war in Ukraine.

In fact, the vast majority of the so-called “Global South”, regardless of whether their system of government is democratic or authoritarian, considers this war to be the “Western democracy against the Russian autocracy”.

Such a statement is dangerously close to the statement coming from Moscow that this is a war between the West and Russia.

It is surprising, but a year after the war we need to repeat the obvious: This is a war between Russia and Ukraine.

By presenting the conflict as an ideological clash between “democracy and autocracy”, Biden and his officials are driving themselves into a blind corner. Do Americans really believe in their simplistic message?

Not every autocracy is on Putin’s side

There is another loophole in the American narrative.

There are authoritarian states who side with Ukraine in this war. The most prominent of them is Turkey, which joined the group of countries supplying Ukraine with weapons a few months ago.

Apparently, the American diplomats are also more effective in the Middle East than the EU and German diplomats in South America.

When it comes to the countries of the Persian Gulf and Egypt, a year ago most of them had rather a pro-Russian inclination. Today, most of them are either neutral or are introducing their own sanctions against Russia. For example, Egypt froze payments with Russian bank cards, which makes it difficult for Russian tourists to stay in the Red Sea resorts.

China’s role is also ambiguous. Even if the Americans would like to place China in the same category as Russia, the Chinese do not supply Russians with weapons, unlike Iran or North Korea. Beijing is credited for effectively pressuring Moscow.

The Russians stopped threatening to launch a nuclear attack after Chinese pressure. Speculatively, it is also likely that last year’s 24 February attack was delayed to miss the Beijing Winter Olympics.

It’s time to change the American line

Lula da Silva is wrong when he relativises responsibility for the war. So is Biden when he speaks of a principled war between democracy and autocracy.

A year later, it is clear that the quickest way to end this war is to actively involve China in resolving the conflict. We also know that this is not the preferred scenario in Washington, engaged in a Cold War 2.0.