We’re in the middle of one of the most remarkable news cycles of my lifetime. The once-feared Russian military is reeling from repeated battlefield defeats at the hands of an upstart Ukrainian military, and it is now staring at the possibility of outright defeat and total expulsion from Ukrainian territory. I’m not predicting outright Russian defeat (yet), but the unthinkable isn’t just thinkable; it might even be probable.
It turns out there’s life left in liberal democracy after all. Contrary to the allegations of the hard right, liberal societies are not “soft,” and authoritarian nations are not “strong.” Authoritarianism is brittle, and brittle societies—and the armies they create—break more easily.
There’s abundant scholarship examining why democracies tend to win wars against autocracies, and the complicated analysis often boils down to a simple-sounding formula. The combination of democratic accountability, economic vitality, and the individual liberty protected by free societies yields armies that reflect their nations—more technically advanced, more creative, and with command structures that reward success and punish failure.
None of this is to say that Western armies do any of this seamlessly. I served in the U.S. Army and deployed to Iraq during the 2007 surge, and I know firsthand that our army isn’t perfect. It can be frustratingly bureaucratic, and sometimes promotes and protects mediocrity. But I also know that it’s fundamentally an institution full of courageous, honorable soldiers, and it’s the most fearsome and powerful instrument of land warfare in the world.
But for this newsletter, I’m less interested in the power of liberal democracies than I am in the consistent way that dictators (and liberal democracies’ domestic critics) consistently underestimate that power. From the Kaiser to Hitler to Soviet leaders throughout much of the Cold War, dictators have made the same mistake. Liberal democracies, they say, are weak; they themselves are strong. Yet liberal democracy endures.
Our luxury and liberty are deceptive. Vitality creates luxury, and then luxury hides vitality. To illustrate this principle, let’s examine an archetypal picture of Western decadence: a fine restaurant in a leafy suburb serving expensive wines and locally sourced food to a wealthy array of doctors, lawyers, and software engineers who spend their meal talking about pickleball and politics.
Not exactly the picture of a society prepared for the hell of war, is it?