War in the Ukraine: What are our values worth to us?

Martin von Broock, Andreas Suchanek

Russia attacks the Ukraine. The decision is announced during a meeting of the UN Security Council. This is unprecedented. And shows: The Russian attack is not only directed against the people of the Ukraine. It is also directed against the rules of the global community. The ruthlessness of Russia's actions challenges our Western values. In response, we have to prove what they are worth to us.

The diplomatic efforts of recent weeks have been immense. Nevertheless, they failed. The decisive factors were not only the substantive differences. Quite obviously, there are also different views on how to deal with each other.

We have experienced this ourselves at the WCGE: Some time ago, we supported the diplomatic training of the Foreign Office. The prospective ambassadors from 18 countries agreed that the most important basis of diplomacy is respect. When asked how to promote respect, almost all of them answered: "through cooperation based on trust. Only the diplomat sent from Moscow said, "If you want to gain respect in Russia, you first have to show toughness."

Some see precisely the lack of toughness as the central failure of Western states in recent years. Russia's intervention in Georgia to its annexation of Crimea, cyberattacks or overt intelligence operations against regime critics in other European countries: Russia has step by step tested the commitment - or toughness - of the West. And Russia faced little headwind in the process. From this perspective, the invasion of Ukraine is simply another stage of escalation. With unimaginable suffering for the people on the ground.

Beyond the discussion of past failures, the central question for the West now is: How should we respond? In the face of aggression, some are now calling for us to finally take a “pragmatic” instead of a “moral” approach to foreign politics. In doing so, they are echoing the criticism of a values-based foreign policy. After all, Russia is confronting us with the uncomfortable truth that it resolutely gives priority to its interests over our ideas of respect and cooperation.

This can hardly be denied. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to abandon our values in favor of a hard-line policy of interests. This is precisely what would play into Russia's hands. However, the war in Ukraine is also a stress test for the values of democracy. Our reaction to it may deter future border violations. Or motivate them.

What matters now:

Our chance: return to unity

In response to Russia's attack, the international community is moving together again. In many national parliaments, too, the aggression is leading to united responses. It is Russia's attack on our shared values and principles that is suddenly uniting us more strongly again in Germany, in Europe and beyond. We know by experience: The global community needs cooperation, especially in view of the global challenges. And this cooperation requires shared ideas of dignity, freedom and the rule of law in order to resolve our conflicts of interest peacefully and constructively. Therein lies our strength. And because we share those values, we can respond to Russia (and China, too) with our allies in unity, despite diverse interests. That is why autocracies are struggling hard to break our unity by challenging our values. And that is why they seek their allies in populist presidents and parties.

Our challenge: decisiveness in action

But it is not enough to merely emphasize our common values. “The peace dividend has been used up”, as historian Herfried Münkler soberly analyzes. We must show Russia and all other autocracies that our values are actually worth something to us. This immediately presupposes a willingness to impose tough economic sanctions. Even if they are associated with disadvantages for us. If we do not expect this minimum level of toughness from ourselves, we cannot expect any respect from autocracies. Above all, we must change our perspective from short-term competitiveness to long-term protection of interests, like Russia (and China) do. In concrete terms: If we relativize the principle of territorial integrity today because of our energy needs, this could cost us access to urgently needed microchips tomorrow. Considering Taiwan - which after all is responsible for 60% of chip production - China will be watching very closely how resolutely the West acts in the current conflict. And how it prepares for future crises. A new start in transatlantic alliance policy and a new beginning for a European security and foreign policy are the prerequisites for this.

Our obligation: maintaining respect

Whatever comes:  A minimum of respect for Russia is a prerequisite for staying in dialogue with Russia. And this will remain important. After all, complete isolation would destroy any chance of resolving the conflict. Within Russia, the sovereignty of interpretation would be left entirely to Russian propaganda. Moderate voices and critics in the country would be left to their own fate. And without the progressive forces in the country, no progress can be expected for the country. Together with tough sanctions, we must therefore keep channels of communication open and maintain our willingness to engage in dialogue. Established relationships in business, science and culture can make valuable contributions to solve the conflict. Furthermore, they are our only access to data and facts beyond official disinformation campaigns.

With a united, determined and respectful response, the West must provide unanimous signals on three levels: First and foremost, we must reassure ourselves within the democratic community about the value of freedom. Beyond, we must accept the costs for its preservation. In doing so, we should not lose sight of this: It is also the fear of the attraction of liberal ideas (see elections in Belarus) that drives autocracies in their actions. Whether our understanding of toughness will persuade Russia to correct its course remains open. However, without a course correction on our part, not only Russia could be motivated to take further steps toward escalation. Continuing the dialogue is therefore essential. But most important: People in the Ukraine are sacrificing their lives at this moment for their desire and our (!) values of freedom and democracy. We owe them at least the clear signal that these values are also worth something to us.