A new book on how the west should respond to threats to democracy, from within and without, by author and citizenship educator Joe Hayman. Read the book's introduction below
500 days after the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, debate continues over President Biden's decision to send cluster bombs to Ukraine, a decision welcomed by President Zelenskyy as "timely and much needed package". As US Treasury Secretary Janet Yelland visits Beijing, President Xi visits troops on the Eastern Theatre Command, which faces Taiwan, telling them that they need to step up their combat readiness. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte submits his resignation after the coalition government he leads collapses in a row over immigration and asylum. Scientists estimate that the first week of July has been the hottest week on record across the planet.
On the western bank of the river Narva, a group of Estonian men cast their rods into the water in search of fish. Across the river, perhaps 25 metres away, a group of Russian men on the eastern bank did the same. From time to time, the groups shouted a few words across the river to one another; otherwise the only sound was the call of the birds which swooped and ducked as they flew from one side of the river to the other.
Behind the Russian men on the eastern bank of the river was the Ivangorod Fortress, a huge 15th century castle built during the reign of Ivan III to secure Moscow's access to the Baltic Sea. On the western bank of the river, a few hundred yards from where the Estonian men were fishing, a group of children played by a leisure centre outside which the flags of Estonia, the EU and Ukraine flew side by side.
The fishing groups looking across the river at one another were citizens of countries on opposite sides of the war in Ukraine. Russia, under the leadership of President Vladamir Putin, had invaded Ukraine and launched airstrikes and bombing raids against the parts of the country it had failed to occupy; Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas had in response called for Putin to be tried for war crimes at the Hague. Under her leadership, Estonia, an EU and NATO member and stalwart ally of Ukraine, was putting 1% of its GDP towards the war effort against Russia.
While the Russian invasion of Ukraine was an immediate concern, an even bigger challenge to liberal, democratic values loomed. While I was in Narva, Chinese forces were preparing for exercises in the Taiwan Straight in response to Taiwan's President's engagement with the US Congress. Crackdowns on democratic movements in Hong Kong and mainland China continued, while a million Uyghur prisoners remained in concentration camps, an assault not just on the people, but their culture - a genocide. And despite it all, China's global influence was growing all the time.
The regimes of Russia and China seemed to me to pose the biggest threats to democracy, freedom and the rules-based order that I had seen in my lifetime. These regimes not only had power over huge nations - and would take any measures to quash democratic movements which threatened that power - but also seemed intent on expansion beyond their own borders. And yet the responses from countries like my own, Britain, and others in the western world seemed weak in response to the scale of the threat. The west seemed to me inward-looking, short-termist and caught in malaise and decline just as the threat to democracy across the world was increasing. Indeed, I worried that the most powerful nations in the west were the most divided, indolent and self-absorbed- and that while the nations like Estonia bordering autocracies understood the nature of the threat and had the stomach for the fight against it, the countries which were further from the front line did not. I wondered what, if anything, could awaken western nations from their stupor before it was too late.
Estonia, on the western world's eastern flank and literally overlooked by a symbol of Russian empirical power, seemed a perfect place to begin to answer that question. This small nation, which had lived under occupation within the lifetimes of the men fishing by the river, had become a bastion of freedom, democracy and liberal values and was now a leading member of the coalition defending not just Ukraine but democracy, freedom and sovereignty. Estonia exhibited a courage and a moral clarity about such values which I admired, and which came in stark contrast to the debate in the UK where some would have found the very idea of 'fighting for western values' problematic, an echo of a colonial mindset which had caused huge damage in the age of empire - and more recently.
But problematic or not, there was an unavoidable truth that democracy was under threat, and not just from autocratic regimes in Russia and China. Across the world, democracy was in recession, and even in established, powerful democracies like the United States, threats abounded. Indeed, the threats it seemed to me came as much from within the western world as without, with economic woes and divisions over identity, immigration, culture and values exploited by those on the political extremes. Deeply flawed as democracy was, I feared the alternatives so much more, and I felt places like Estonia had a clearer view than most of why democracy was worth fighting for. While in the country, I wanted to explore what would prompt it to put so much of its wealth into a war which was not its own, directly at least. I wanted to know what the rest of the west could learn from Estonia because I believed that that the west's stomach - its willingness to sacrifice and to accept pain in defence of a larger goal - would define the fight for democracy in the 21st century.
From the Baltics, I traveled through Eastern and Central Europe, into the Balkans and then west to Italy, Germany, Holland, Belgium, France and the UK before crossing the US, travelling overland from New York to San Francisco. In total, I visited 16 nations, all of them NATO members. Along the way, I would learn more about the country I was visiting, and undertake research prompted by what I saw and heard. My aim was to look at the individual and national psyches which would ultimately define the west's response to the challenges it faced - seeking out amidst the political malaise and internal strife the courage, moral clarity, the willingness to accept sacrifice and the stomach for the fight which I believed democrats across the world needed if their values were to prevail.
West is the story of my journey.