By Matthew Kupfer
Five years ago, few could have believed that, in 2019, Britain would be trying to leave the European Union and showman Donald Trump would be president of the United States.
Today, however, the situation is clear: The West is in crisis.
Euroscepticism is growing. Authoritarianism is rising in EU countries like Poland and Hungary. Western nations appear increasingly unable to take action to solve serious global crises like the civil war in Syria or Russian aggression against Ukraine and the West.
Meanwhile, Ukraine wants to dive headfirst into this churning cauldron of instability and join the Western community.
From her perch in the opinion pages of the Washington Post, Anne Applebaum has been one of the clearest voices on the challenges facing the United States and Europe. Most recently, she has written that the West has lost faith in its values — something with serious repercussions for Syria, where the U.S. and Europe have largely thrown up their hands.
But she believes that Ukraine should continue its path west in spite of these challenges.
“Western countries have not been involved in real wars, they haven’t experienced genuine dictatorship in 50-60 years. Their political systems haven’t had to confront that kind of challenge. People have forgotten,” she told the Kyiv Post on Sept. 14 on the sidelines of the Yalta European Strategy (YES) Conference in Kyiv.
Meanwhile, in places like Ukraine, “people are much more conscious of the need to write the rules and adhere to the rule of law,” she says.
Changing world, changing values
Surveys charting support for democracy in the West show that, since the 1940s, support for democracy has fallen among citizens of the United States and European countries, Applebaum says.
An increasing number of political elites are turning their backs on democratic values. For the first time in modern history, the White House is run by a person with no interest in the world order or the values on which it is supposed to be built.
There are many reasons for these changes, according to Applebaum.
In particular, she places part of the blame on the information revolution, which has drastically changed the way people receive and process political information in the last decade — both for better and for worse.
As the media has diversified and new sources of information have appeared, people increasingly cannot even agree about the facts or main arguments. This has been very bad for democracy, which has failed to adjust to the change, Applebaum says.
As technology develops, government seems more distant from the realities of the 21st century.
“(When) you can press a button on your phone and someone will deliver a book to your house the next day or a meal in a half hour, the processes and bureaucracy of democracy seem very slow and outdated,” she told the Kyiv Post.
People begin to wonder why it takes so long to form a government in parliament or why the state needs so much time to make decisions.
Meanwhile, authoritarian powers are growing in influence, most noticeably China. Beijing’s argument that its non-democratic system can make decisions more efficiently and offer a quicker path to development “has an influence and echo, particularly in the developing world, but also increasingly in Europe as well,” Applebaum says.
Another problem in the West is that people take their democratic system for granted. They don’t believe that it could change or deteriorate, she adds.
Stronger values elsewhere
However, the values that have long underpinned Western democracies are not universally on the decline. In Ukraine, protesters overthrew a pro-Kremlin president in the name of European integration, democracy, and fighting entrenched corruption in 2014.
This year, the people of Hong Kong have been protesting against an extradition law and, more broadly, for democracy and political autonomy from China.
So what’s wrong with the West? In particular, Applebaum says it is a struggle to get Western countries to wake up to the reality that Russia is trying to undermine them.
She has worked on several projects examining Russian disinformation in Germany. But it is difficult to convince German politicians that disinformation is a major factor in their country’s politics, Applebaum says. She believes that the far-right Alternative for Germany party — a significant faction in the German Bundestag — would not exist without Russian funding and information campaigns.
“It would be very useful for Germans, French, and Americans to see that, even though they don’t want it and wish it weren’t the case, they are once again in a kind of ideological struggle with Russia,” Applebaum says. “There are two visions of how the world should be organized… and they need to be thinking about how to push back. They so far resist doing that.”
What should Ukraine do?
Despite Westerners’ growing alienation from the foundational values of their political systems, Ukraine should not turn back from its pro-Western path. There is no real alternative, Applebaum says.
However, with an increasingly divided and unstable West, Ukraine must tread cautiously. This is particularly true in dealings with U.S. President Donald Trump.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky may soon visit Washington to meet with the American leader. But Trump is extremely volatile and not a reliable partner for anyone, Applebaum says. He has little admiration for the kind of transition Ukraine is going through.
Applebaum says she was impressed by statements Ukraine’s prime minister, Oleksiy Honcharuk, made on the morning of Sept. 14 at the YES conference. Honcharuk’s message was that the Ukraine is open for business, wants to build a climate of trust, and aims to create a country people don’t want to leave.
This is a message he could easily take to the Netherlands, Switzerland, France or Germany, she believes.
“Ukraine needs to present itself to Western countries not as a problem, but as a solution,” Applebaum says. “Don’t go and say, ‘Please, please help us.’ Say, ‘We’re offering opportunity.’”