Today's stories illuminate the increasingly dangerous international struggle between democracy and authoritarianism.
On the world stage, that struggle is most visible these days in the invasion of democratic Ukraine by the authoritarian president of Russia, Vladimir Putin. Putin apparently believed his invasion would be a cakewalk, but we are now in day 51 of Putin's brutal attack, and while Ukraine is badly battered, it is holding strong.
Yesterday, Ukrainian Neptune missiles sank Russia's flagship cruiser Moskva in the Black Sea. The humiliation of losing a flagship to Ukraine prompted Russian state propaganda first to claim that the ship sank from an accident and then to insist that their real enemy in the war was the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), an organization Russian leaders consider significant enough to struggle with, unlike "weak" Ukraine.
A study out today from political scientists Ryan Grauer and Dominic Tierney reveals why democracies have an advantage over authoritarians in war. The sharing of power across officials in the legislature, judiciary, and executive branches means there is more open debate, reducing the chance of unpopular wars and, by extension, bad decisions. Observers of Russia, for example, blame the loss of the Moskva, as well as the miscalculation of Ukraine's ability to fight, on a refusal to take accounts of Ukraine's abilities seriously.
Grauer and Tierney also note that the ability of people in a democracy to protest means leaders cannot fight unpopular wars and stay in power, and that democratic countries do not tend to go to war with other democracies. Grauer and Tierney argue that the need to gain public support for wars makes it hard for democratic leaders to fight other democracies toward which their people might have good feelings, or that can put up strong resistance.
That speaks to the ability of democracies to work together, and Grauer and Tierney's study helps to explain why Russia's war of choice against a democratic neighbor has strengthened the alliances of those countries committed to national self-determination. Finland and Sweden, which have not previously expressed an interest in joining NATO, are now so seriously considering it that today a Russian spokesperson warned that if they did so, Russia would move nuclear weapons closer to Europe. Finnish former prime minister Alexander Stubb said his country was already "well prepared" for any Russian actions.
Yesterday, in a speech at the Atlantic Council, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen noted the multilateral cooperation that has enabled countries across the world to isolate Russia economically. Countries have joined together, she said, not to advance any one country's foreign policy objectives, but "in support of our principles—our opposition to aggression, to widespread violence against civilians, and in alignment with our commitment to a rules-based global order that protects peace and prosperity."
"Going forward," the treasury secretary said, "it will be increasingly difficult to separate economic issues from broader considerations of national interest, including national security." She warned China that it runs the risk of being shut out of this system if it refuses to stand against Russia's invasion.
Yellen promised that countries would work together to address the food shortages the war would bring to developing nations, and called for allied nations to expand their economic alliances for the twenty-first century.
She called for limiting supply chains to "countries we know we can count on" and for developing trade and data exchanges with those same countries in such a way as to protect American workers. She called for building on last year's global minimum tax deal to enable governments to tax corporations without encouraging them to move to cheaper countries, for more financial flexibility to combat financial crises, and for more investment in the developing world. She urged a global transition to cleaner energy and the strengthening of our global health systems to combat future pandemics.
"Some may say that now is not the right time to think big," Yellen said, but she noted that Treasury officials began crafting proposals for a new postwar international financial structure in 1941, even before the U.S. entered World War II. In 1944, with the war still raging, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said: "It is fitting that even while the war for liberation is at its peak, [we] should gather to take counsel with one another respecting the shape of the future which we are to win." Just like then, Yellen said, "we ought not wait for a new normal. We should begin to shape a better future today."
Democracies are at risk from authoritarianism today in large part because centralizing power in a few wealthy people permits those people to continue to pocket disproportionate shares of the national wealth.
A study released yesterday by ProPublica of leaked tax documents from the Internal Revenue Service revealed how our current laws permit the very wealthy to sidestep taxes and amass greater and greater wealth. According to Forbes, the wealth of the richest 25 Americans rose more than $400 billion from 2014 to 2018, giving them a combined wealth of $1.1 trillion. It would take the wealth of 14.3 million ordinary American wage earners to get to that number. During those years, those 25 richest Americans paid $13.6 billion in taxes, a true tax rate of 3.4%.
Those with virtually unlimited money can buy the tools to spread propaganda in favor of their position. That concern is behind the fight over "free speech" that right-wing leaders have launched against social media platforms that have excluded their lies and calls for violence.
It is also behind the outcry today over the proposal of billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk, allegedly the richest man in the world, to buy Twitter for a cash offer of $43 billion in a hostile takeover of the popular platform. (According to ProPublica, Musk paid no income tax in 2018.) Musk says he wants to own the platform himself to make it more "broadly inclusive," because he believes that inclusion is "extremely important to the future of civilization…. I don't care about the economics at all."
Musk's call for "free speech" is perceived to be a sign that he would reopen the platform to former president Donald Trump and others currently banned from it because of their lies about the January 6 insurrection. Right-wing politicians lauded the potential purchase, while journalists, who use the platform intensively to keep track of breaking stories, mulled whether they could stay if it becomes a haven for the right wing.
That right wing appears to be dominating the United States these days as the Republican Party has traded power for defense of democracy. Yesterday, CNN reported that a new book about the last days of the Trump presidency says that then–Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) indulged Trump's attempt to overturn the election in order to get Trump's help in the Georgia runoff election for the Senate so that the Republicans could stay in power there.
The Big Lie that Trump had really won the election has now become a litmus test for party members, as he is tightening his grip on the Republican Party. Today, in a clear indication that party leaders intend to hold the door open for a 2024 presidential run for Trump or someone like him, the Republican National Committee voted unanimously to withdraw from debates sponsored by the nonpartisan, nonprofit Commission on Presidential Debates. Trump repeatedly insisted the 2020 presidential debates, even the one hosted by Fox News Channel journalist Chris Wallace, were biased against him.
Trump hates debates not least because his knowledge of political topics is weak; in an interview on Fox News Channel personality Sean Hannity's show last night, Trump appeared not to understand the difference between NATO—a defensive alliance of 30 member states including the Baltic states and the U.S.—and the European Union, a political and economic union of 27 member states primarily located in Europe. In a discussion about NATO, he claimed to have asked then-German chancellor Angela Merkel: "How many Chevrolets are you selling this month in Munich or Berlin?"
He added: "she looked at me and [said,] 'Well, probably none.'"
In the same interview, Trump refused to condemn Putin and appeared to blame NATO for the invasion.
Ryan Grauer and Dominic Tierney, "The Democratic Embargo: Regime Type and Proxy War," April 14, 2022, in European Journal of International Relations.