This was the year liberal democracy fought back

Just don’t call it an annus mirabilis. There has been too much suffering in Ukraine for that.

What is in good taste — and crucial to do — is to name the many ways in which the west has rallied this year. Autocrats are good at fitting individual setbacks for the US and its friends, such as the withdrawal from Afghanistan, into a story of inexorable decline. So when events go the other way, liberals should bang their own drum. The year has spoilt them for examples.

Emmanuel Macron became the first president of France to win re-election since 2002. He retired Marine Le Pen in the process. The most successful electoral politician in the west is a Molière-quoting centrist and former banker. Imagine being told that amid the populist pomp of 2016.

The UK began the year with Boris Johnson as prime minister and ends it with Rishi Sunak, which is a moral upgrade if nothing else. Even Liz Truss, in a short stint that was still too long, did some perverse good for the nation’s governing institutions. The Treasury, the central bank, the fiscal watchdog: each was undermined, each was vindicated, each now stands enhanced. No politician will challenge them for a while, which is a problem of its own. This was also the year that Brexit died, if not as a fact of life then as a project that inspires. Former enthusiasts disown it or blame its meagre returns on poor implementation.

Elsewhere in the world? Jair Bolsonaro washed out after one term as president of Brazil. Nato is getting wider, as Sweden and Finland attempt to join, and deeper, as the German defence budget goes up. As for the mightiest of all democracies, dare to hope. Congressional Republicans did not take the Kremlin line, or anything like it, on Ukraine. Midterm voters punished candidates who bore the stamp of Donald Trump. A second political life for the man himself is less probable now, if still plausible.

True, there were populist breakthroughs in Italy and Israel. Much of the rich world is souring on free trade, a sop to nativism that will go as well as it usually does. But an overall account of the year would show the autocrats and their friends to be in arrears: reputationally, not just electorally.

What the enemies of liberalism have lost in 2022 is more precious than a series of votes. It is the aura of competence. This time last year, Vladimir Putin was still grudgingly credited in parts of the west with a sort of primal cunning. Even the most contrarian finance bro hesitates to do that now. It was also common to hail the executive grip of the Chinese state as the US shambled its way to 1mn Covid-19 deaths. Or to gawp at its economic feats. On both scores, China watchers have grown less impressed.

More than the gas reserves, more than the “carrier-killer” missiles, what the authoritarian world believes it has over the west is effectiveness. The idea that autocracy works, that answering material human needs is more truly democratic than holding elections, is serious enough to deserve a counter. It has purchase in the “global south”, wherever that is, and in the west itself, where the firm smack of government polls alarmingly well. But it is a hostage to fortune. It can’t easily survive a botched conscript war or lockdown-induced economic malaise. Dictators can just about afford to look callous. They can’t afford to look inept.

If the attack on Ukraine was shocking, the way it went wrong was familiar to the point of banality. There was the absence of feedback and self-correction within the system (Truss, as damning as her rise was of British public life, was gone in 44 days). There was the refusal to credit that other nations are capable of nationalism. There was the Marxian belief that history has a set course in which liberalism is weeded out like a faulty gene. This is how strongmen have over-reached since at least the first half of the 20th century. Their real competence is hanging on to that spurious reputation for competence. Western credulity helps.

This column has dealt in the absolutes of “liberalism” and “autocracy”. But much of the world lies between the two models. Victory, if we can speak of such a thing, consists in luring these waverers. Some of this is about invoking “values”. Most of it is about being, or seeming, the strong horse. There was a time, before and during the pandemic, when that was the autocrats’ club. How sure it was of being the way of the future. Then came the most fortifying year for the west in a long time. There is little reason to be complacent, and even less to be magnanimous.

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