Even clumsy communicators occasionally say something worth hearing. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, for example. He's of late been accused of muddling his messages in support of Ukraine and much else. But if you pay attention, he's actually trying to achieve something huge: a global — rather than "Western" — alliance of democracies against autocracies such as Russia and China.
By accepting that mission, he's in effect taken the baton from US President Joe Biden, who hosted a rather underwhelming "summit for democracy" in December. That was before Russia's unprovoked attack on Ukraine, when rallying the freedom-loving nations didn't seem quite as urgent. Nor did it help that the US, long the world's beacon of liberty, is itself struggling to preserve democracy at home.
Democracy in Germany — which the country learned largely from the Americans after World War II — looks reassuringly sturdy, by contrast. Moreover, Scholz happens to be holding a large bullhorn right now. This year, his government is presiding over the Group of Seven (G7), a forum of the world's wealthiest liberal democracies. Besides Germany, it includes the US, Canada, France, Italy, Japan and the UK They'll meet on June 26-28 in Elmau, a castle at the foot of the Bavarian Alps.
But Scholz is also inviting several other democracies to Elmau. These include India — whose prime minister, Nahendra Modi, Scholz hosted this week — as well as Indonesia, South Africa and Senegal. He's also hinted that he'll try to nudge Indonesia, which holds the rotating presidency of the G20, to keep Russia away from that forum's summit in Bali this November.
India, Indonesia, Senegal and South Africa have at least two things in common. First, they are non-Western democracies. Second, three of them (India, Senegal and South Africa) abstained from a vote at the United Nations in March to condemn Russia's attack on Ukraine, and all four from a vote in April to suspend Russia from the UN's Human Rights Council.
Their ballots at the UN suggest that, like some other Asian, African and South American democracies, these countries don't yet regard Russia's war on Ukraine as the world's — and by extension, their own — problem. And yet it is: What Russian President Vladimir Putin is brutalizing is the right of Ukrainians to be free and democratic. By putting might over right, he's waging war against liberty. To defeat him, all democracies should stand together. The family photo can't just be a picture of a bunch of white guys and one Asian.
In a TV interview this week, Scholz tried (words never come easily to him) to explain his thinking. "If we reduce 'the West,' the people to whom we're allied, to those who were already democratic at the beginning of the previous century, then we're aiming too low," he said. Pressed for clarification, he added that "in defending democracy, we'd make a big mistake if we viewed it as a Western way of life. It has to do with our view of human nature, of humanity."
Scholz thereby waded headlong into a controversy that's almost as old as democracy itself. Is it based on Western values, or universal ones? Uncountable PhD theses over the years, not to mention the stump speeches of wannabe tyrants, have argued the former. Liberal democracy, in these narratives, just isn't suitable to certain cultures — tribal, Islamic or Confucian ones, say.
In the 1990s, for example, Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of Singapore, propagated the theory that liberal democracy conflicts with "Asian values." That nebulous label implied some allegedly superior cultural cocktail favoring community, hierarchy, consensus and harmony over unfettered self-expression and individualism.
Such pop-sociology is, of course, manna from heaven for neo-Confucian emperors everywhere, including Chinese President Xi Jinping, who'd rather not be bothered by the feedback from the people they rule. Simultaneously, it's shown to be hogwash by such vibrant — and still very Confucian — democracies as Taiwan, South Korea or Japan. Each has followed its own path to democracy and practices its own culturally distinct flavor of it.
Other attempts to disavow democracy as Western and thus alien and unsuitable are just as inane. Putin's, for example. Even while he was still pretending to be democratic (by allowing the ritual of elections), he also painted Western liberalism as inherently decadent and soft — in effect, as a gateway drug to godlessness and homosexuality. The worst part is that his admirers in the West, such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, parroted this bilge.
What is true is that, in the old democracies, it took centuries to establish the institutions that underpin liberty. These range from the separation of powers to the rule of law and civic traditions of free speech, among others. Historically, it's fair to say, liberalism has usually preceded democracy.
But the two can also be adopted at the same time, as any number of successful democracies prove — from Taiwan to Germany, which both embraced liberty late, but then with gusto. Moreover, democracy does not inherently conflict, as its enemies claim, with tradition, religion, or communitarian values.
Instead, democracy is the collective goal of a society to guarantee as much freedom and dignity as possible to its citizens, to encourage and welcome their participation in public life, and to check and balance power wherever it accumulates. Nowhere is it ever perfect or complete; everywhere it is worth improving.
Nothing about this is Western. But everything about it negates the worldview of a brutal despot like Putin. This is why Scholz is right to try to broaden the world's resistance to the dark side. It's also why India, Indonesia, South Africa, Senegal and all other democracies should rethink their national interests, and rise to the call of freedom by joining the struggle against Putin.
Andreas Kluth is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. He was previously editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist. He's the author of "Hannibal and Me." @andreaskluth
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Bloomberg, and is published by special syndication arrangement.