Ukraine: Can a liberal, democratic empire an illiberal, antidemocratic one?


Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s foreign minister, has described the European Union as “the first ever attempt to build a liberal empire,” contrasting it with Putin’s attempt to restore Russia’s colonial empire by military conquest, notes Timothy Garton Ash, Professor of European Studies at the University of Oxford and Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

When he and I spoke in the heavily sandbagged Ukrainian Foreign Ministry in Kyiv in February, he explained that a liberal empire’s key characteristic is keeping together very different nations and ethnic groups “not by force but by the rule of law,” he writes for Foreign Affairs:

Seen from Kyiv, a liberal, democratic empire is needed to defeat an illiberal, antidemocratic one….. Whether Europe actually manages to create a liberal empire strong enough to defend the interests and values of Europeans will, as always in human history, depend on conjuncture, luck, collective will, and individual leadership.

Here, then, is the surprising prospect that the war in Ukraine reveals: the EU as a post-imperial empire, in strategic partnership with an American post-imperial empire, to prevent the comeback of a declining Russian empire and constrain a rising Chinese one, adds Garton Ash, author of the forthcoming book Homelands: A Personal History of Europe (Yale University Press, 2023).

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