How Democratic Principles Are Uniting the West

How Democratic Principles Are Uniting the West

The West is molding a nimble foreign policy tailored to its particular long-term interests in a more democratic world.


In response to Russian president Vladimir Putin’s September 21 address mobilizing military reservists to fight in Ukraine, neighboring Eastern European countries have refused to grant asylum to fleeing Russians. Although Europe is starting to feel the effects of the energy crisis prompted by a shift away from Russian oil and gas, its leaders are overcoming internal fractures to sustain the moral and military fight against Moscow. This embrace of a principled foreign policy is shaping Western strategy in an increasingly dichotomous era pitting democracy against authoritarianism. Similarly, as Western leaders maintain their pressure on Russia, they are emphasizing their commitments to Taiwan’s security.

Lithuania, which is sandwiched between Russia to the east and Kaliningrad to the west, has vociferously supported Ukraine since the start of the conflict. Its unfavorable geographic position has not stopped it from becoming an outspoken critic of the Kremlin thanks to the protection offered by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The alliance’s mutual defense mechanism designed to deter aggression has worked so far, enabling Lithuania to dedicate a significant amount of resources to Ukraine’s security.


However, Lithuania is setting its sights beyond the ongoing war in Ukraine. Recognizing that collective defense has preserved its sovereignty, Vilnius wants to afford a version of the same luxury to other countries living in the shadow of expansive powers. Therefore, since last November, Lithuania has upgraded diplomatic ties with Taiwan by opening a new representative office. Taipei has responded with reciprocal efforts, leading both to face strong Chinese condemnation.

Lithuania has not budged though since it aims to follow a principles-driven foreign policy articulated by many European leaders. Rasa Juknevičienė, a Lithuanian representative in the European Parliament, told Voice of America that Lithuania and Taiwan are “like-minded partners that share the same democracy, rule of law and human rights values.”

In December 2021, at the start of her term as Germany’s foreign minister and co-leader of the Green Party, Annalena Baerbock told an interviewer that “long-term successful economic cooperation involves reaching [an] understanding on common values and standards.”

In other words, consistently remaining economically and commercially intertwined with an adversary that espouses conflicting values can lead to problematic consequences. This is the reasoning that has guided Berlin’s policy of cutting all ties with Russia, a significant change compared to its reaction to the annexation of Crimea. Germany will no longer turn a blind eye to Russia’s activities to keep the gas flowing and the country’s leadership seems prepared to absorb the forthcoming costs.

This was not obvious a few months ago. In February and March, German citizens were the ones applying immense pressure on the Bundestag to execute a complete decoupling from Russia. Such intense support has waned over the past few months, especially in the east, while German politicians have inversely become more vocal. German chancellor Olaf Scholz, who rejected calls to wholly ban Russian imports in the months following the invasion, has now assumed a different tone. Confident that Germany will “probably get through this winter,” Scholz is unafraid to argue that every square inch of occupied land must be returned to Ukraine. Germany is also bolstering its presence in the Indo-Pacific by sending warships to the region and conducting joint exercises with Australia.

Another European country with fewer defense capabilities than Germany but a similar desire to extend solidarity to Taiwan is the Czech Republic. “Czech foreign policy is based on the principles of universality and the indivisibility of human rights,” the country’s Strategic Concept states. The document strongly emphasizes the potential for democratic alliances to pursue these objectives. In that spirit, a Czech delegation recently landed in Taiwan to promote cooperation and push for the island’s participation in key international organizations.

This comes at a time of incredibly high energy prices and living costs. In July 2022, the Czech Republic’s year-to-year inflation rate as an increase in the consumer price index hit a record 17.5 percent. About 70,000 people gathered in Prague’s Wenceslas Square to protest the government’s approach to the crisis and multinational associations like NATO and the European Union (EU). Czech senator Jiri Drahos, the leader of the delegation, has not let the popular outcry influence his mission of reinforcing what he called the “democratic world.”

Europe’s principled turn to Taiwan dates back to the 2007 Lisbon Treaty, which named democracy, rule of law, and human rights as principles that the Union “seeks to advance in the wider world.” A 2021 poll conducted in twelve EU countries found that the majority of respondents saw the EU as a “beacon for democracy and human rights” rather than a great power on the geopolitical chessboard.

Prioritizing values must not be confused with thoughtless idealism. Baerbock made this point clear during the aforementioned interview. “Values and interests are not opposites,” she said. Countries that adhere to democratic norms and cherish human rights are less likely to undertake unpredictable incursions that entail displacement and destabilization.

Nevertheless, a deluge of consequences awaits states that categorically restrict themselves to alliances based on compatible values. It often comes down to strategic resources. Europe’s detachment from Russia leaves few alternatives with comparable oil and gas that also check the principles box. This will force Europe to cooperate with regimes that have engaged in unpalatable behavior, such as Saudi Arabia and Iraq.

The point at which it becomes unacceptable to work with a foreign government is ambiguous and in a globalized economy, businesses will be tempted to trade with specific profitable sectors. China’s abuse of its Uyghur population, arbitrary arrests in Iraq, and systematic persecution in Venezuela have clearly not stopped Europe from importing resources from these three countries.

Doesn’t this undermine the very idea of a principled foreign policy? Perhaps the various Western delegations that have landed in Taiwan under the guise of democratic solidarity are only interested in the island because of its semiconductors. Realist critiques rightly make the point that international relations are not solely guided by principles. Democracies, for example, participated in colonialism to bolster their economic power despite the flagrant contradiction this posed to the principles enumerated in their founding documents.

There are more extreme versions of the realist argument. “Washington is preparing [for] a war in one or two decades,” writes one French columnist. This offensive line of thinking posits that time is on the United States’ side as China continues to build up its military might. Since statesmen ultimately make their calculations based on hard power calculations and the United States is still capable of resisting Chinese forces, it is in the West’s interests to rally around Taiwan to fight Beijing as soon as possible.

The other side of the realist spectrum contends that it is in Washington’s interest to completely withdraw from the Indo-Pacific and focus on domestic fractures and its regional relationships in the spirit of the Monroe Doctrine. “As the undisputed hegemon in the Western Hemisphere, the United States remains largely secure from foreign aggression even in a world where Taiwan is coerced into unification with China,” one writer argued in the Realist Review.

In spite of their differences, these thinkers converge on the idea that morality is counterproductive when making national security decisions.

This tradition is visible in the discourse of certain European leaders, most notably French president Emmanuel Macron. “We must not give in to any form of false morality which would leave us powerless,” Macron said this month as he defended his efforts to strike a “negotiated peace” with Russia before the invasion of Ukraine.

Macron is certainly correct but what he failed to understand before the war in Ukraine is that dialogue does not translate into durable alliances. Reconciling fundamental differences in principles to achieve long-term cooperation is an extremely difficult endeavor. “The European continent will never be stable or secure if we do not pacify or clarify our relations with Russia,” Macron declared in 2019, concluding that the best path would be “to offer, at some point, a strategic option to [Russia].”

The Trump administration tried this approach to no avail. “I talked about [Putin] not invading Ukraine. I said, ‘Don’t do it’... we had discussions about that,” President Trump said during a Fox Business interview in May. All it took was a change in administration for Putin to walk back on his promises, though. “Western elites … continue to aggressively force their will and pseudo-values on other countries and nations,” Putin claimed during his September 21 address. Western principles of territorial sovereignty, the rule of law, and human rights are antithetical to Russia’s doctrine. On September 5, Putin signed a decree on a humanitarian policy that detailed how Russian “traditional values” are being attacked by “neo-liberal governments.”

The EU also accommodated Russia without receiving anything in return. Until the start of this year, it remained tied to a power that explicitly rejected the Lisbon Treaty’s provisions. Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine was a violent reminder for European politicians that Putin’s regime is not ready to give up the recourse of military action for the EU’s liberal democratic values. Going a step further, many European countries are bringing Taiwan into the fold, recognizing its gradual adoption of familiar Western values.