Early Lessons for Democracies

This quick take is part of our Crisis Crossroads series which highlights timely analysis by CSIS scholars on the evolving situation in Ukraine and its security, economic, energy, and humanitarian effects.

It will be important to look back at what could have been done differently over the years, months, and days leading up to the horror that is unfolding in Ukraine. But there are early lessons from what has been done effectively in response to the buildup and invasion. For years, Putin has waged an assault on the West via cyber and information operations with the intent of demonstrating that liberal democracies are weak, chaotic, and corrupt. Now, Putin has done the unthinkable by invading the sovereign state of Ukraine, and in so doing has tested the foundational strength of democracies around the world. So far, this has only reinforced the power of democracy and the importance of the United States’ interactions in the world, in ways that are important to capture.

This horrific crisis presents a teachable moment: an opportunity to reflect on shared democratic values and the importance of a rules-based world order. While the term “rules-based order” may not resonate with the public, they understand that it’s not right for Russia to simply decide to take over its neighboring country. This international norm is consistent with the fundamental value in democracies of fidelity to the rule of law. Sustaining this value helps to mobilize support for tough action. And the relatively swift and universal actions by countries all over the world to punish Russia are tangible evidence of the value of sustaining these norms internationally. 

The unified response is also a testament to the work that is done every day to sustain relationships with allies and like-minded partners around the world. A key strength of democracies is that they have true allies, as opposed to the client states that authoritarian leaders like Putin acquire through coercion.

Another advantage for democracies that has been on clear display these last few weeks is that they are better equipped to fight in the light. Transparency is both a prerequisite and a huge comparative strength for democracies. Robust democracy demands transparency and a free flow of information. In contrast, autocracies depend upon restricting the flow of information and keeping secrets from the population. By shining a light in the dark corners of disinformation and corruption of the Kremlin, the United States and its allies have been playing to their strength as democracies and their adversary’s weakness as an authoritarian regime.

These are important lessons that can already be learned from this ongoing tragedy. Democracy is not inevitable or invincible, but it is strong if supported by an informed and engaged citizenry that understands and believes in its shared values.

Suzanne Spaulding is senior adviser for homeland security and director of the Defending Democratic Institutions project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Suzanne Spaulding
Senior Adviser, Homeland Security, International Security Program