Eastern Europe’s Lessons for Liberalism

In the years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the liberal democratic world has become complacent. Challenges from both the political Left and Right have brought infighting and disunity to adrift Western societies. However, this directionlessness was shattered by Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine again in early 2022. The Eastern European resistance to Russian aggression contains the origins of an ethos that can catalyze a reinvigoration of liberal democracies worldwide. 

The Excellence of Liberalism Plus Democracy

Liberalism is a political philosophy (not a specific position on the standard left-right spectrum) that is organized around principles of personal liberty to solve moral, economic, and political conflicts in the private sphere. [1] It asks, what conception of ‘the Good’ is worth paying attention to, and why? Liberalism’s radical answer is that, instead of choosing a ‘conception of the good,’ governments derive legitimacy in allowing people to (mostly) pursue their own discrete ‘goods’ in the private sphere. In this way, the principle of individual autonomy is intertwined with the liberal tradition. [2] This “lowers the aspirations of politics” by only asserting the lowest common denominator of ‘good’ in a liberal system: peaceful human coexistence and flourishing. [3] However, this freedom in the private sphere runs into limits in liberalism’s public morality.

Liberalism as a social philosophy cannot remain entirely agnostic in the public sphere. Finding the degree to which liberalism and democracy can “assert” values over people is difficult. For example, liberalism grants citizens freedom, and democracy manages this freedom by creating civic social rules and customs to manage ideological conflict peacefully. The brilliance of democracy and liberalism working together is that they are not imposed by the powers above; rather, these constructs imbue citizens with a self-evident moral conviction.

This conviction ideally exists in the commonalities we share as human beings, rather than tribal affiliations. This type of liberalism is embodied in the most courageous attempts at human governance, like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which asserts similar values. [4] However, not everyone is convinced of this “self-evident moral conviction” of universal rights and values.

The ‘Post-Liberal’ Phenomenon

Recently, it has become fashionable to critique liberalism. A movement of self-described ‘post-liberal’ or illiberal authors state that the liberal world has proven to be a postmodern dystopia full of unmoored citizens who lack common purpose, virtue, and commitment. This critique of liberalism from the right is not new or unique. Continuing in the mod- ern day, these anti-liberals argue that liberalism only serves as a ‘negative vision,’ meaning that liberalism is defended only as the ‘least bad’ of all the other systems while lacking a truly attractive feature, or ‘core’ relating to a tradition or common cause. This is the principal frustration of those like Sohrab Ahmari who wrote in First Things that the Right needs to “fight the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square reordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good.” [5] This assessment can be considered one of the most salient philosophical refutations of liberalism.

To anti-liberal critics, religion (or other absolutist social philosophies) collectivizes the human spirit around a shared ‘higher’ goal or final telos of human beings. As Pater Edmund Waldstein writes on the Catholic anti-liberal website The Josias, this new tradition, “rejecting the liberal separation of politics from concern with the end of human life, holds that political rule must order man to his final goal.” [6] Liberal societies, which lack this sense of “the Good,” suffer from weaknesses in motivating and inspiring both communities and individuals to live noble and virtuous lives. Even political philosophers who actively cheer political liberalism recognize these shortcomings. [7]

Francis Fukuyama is renowned for his 1992 book entitled The End of History and the Last Man, which is often cited for its defenses of universal liberalism. [8] However, there has been little emphasis placed on the latter part of the book title, ‘the Last Man,’ a term coined by Friedrich Nietzsche as the antithesis of Nietzsche’s Übermensch: a citizen who is bored, “chestless,” nihilistic, and complacent. This philosophy is a reformulation of the critiques leveled above by illiberal intellectuals. But, rather than throwing out liberalism entirely, a recognition of the present criticisms may inspire Westerners to double down on its pragmatic qualities and address its shortcomings. Contrary to the view of the “empty core” or the “last man,” it is possible to cultivate a society in which liberalism actively inspires. As Fukuyama recently wrote:

“Liberal democracy will not make a comeback unless people are willing to struggle on its behalf. The problem is that many who grow up living in peaceful, prosperous liberal democracies begin to take their form of government for granted … But reality has intervened. The Russian invasion of Ukraine constitutes a real dictatorship trying to crush a genuinely free society with rockets and tanks, and may serve to remind the current generation of what is at stake … They understand the true value of freedom, and are fighting a larger battle on our behalf, a battle that all of us need to join.” [9]

To argue for the virtues of a “liberal” political doctrine, one must thoroughly refute the strongest and most emotionally potent arguments about its supposed demise. Doing the work of creating and sustaining an alternative that adequately competes with other morally satisfying political philosophies is what this decade will require.

By weaving a pragmatic case grounded in empirical history, human biology, and political philosophy, one can begin to dispel some illiberal rhetoric while explicating universal conceptions of the “highest good” that force us to live with, as Winston Churchill recalled regarding democracy, “the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” [10]

Our Predisposition is Illiberal

During the last few minutes of the First World War, the already defeated German high command in 1918 urged one last futile attack citing the “fatherland” and “dying for your culture, faith, and family,” among other slogans. This was also Adolf Hitler’s plea less than 30 years later on the same soil. Human beings from virtually all eras and cultures have repeatedly riled themselves up in similar righteous fervor. There are many examples of this in the contemporary world: the clerical leadership of Iran slaughtering over 300 protesters who dared to violate their religious dress codes or Russian President Vladimir Putin waging a brutal war to reunify his fantastical divinely ordained Slavic empire. [11][12]

According to moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, human beings have a biological predisposition to form out-groups, which lead them to dehumanize, hate, and kill others. [13] For most of history, the power of the state was wielded in service of a particular comprehensive doctrine. [14] The capacity to form morally airtight communities enabled tribes to constantly innovate and outcompete one another, leading to the creation of great civilizations. This fierce intercivilizational competition, spurred by evolution and natural selection, continues to play out, and advocates of illiberal politics either explicitly or implicitly prefer the continuation of this process. [15] The contours of this competition over the ages would have violated our modern humanistic sensibilities. Humans often looked to a dogmatic faith-based tradition as the Highest Good; they waged brutal conflict; they saw people as collectives rather than individuals; and they were morally coercive. Throughout most of human history, societies constantly threatened violent discharge from the in-group.

How Liberalism Has Hacked Our Predisposition

What differentiates this unpleasant past from liberal systems is that modern politics has ‘hacked’ the deepest intuitions of out-group hostility by essentially turning off human beings’ “groupish” circuitry, orienting them toward individual rights and peaceful cooperation. [16] The cultural technology that makes Western civilization unique and superior (when being judged by the aforementioned criteria) is not what God its citizens pray to or what operas they listen to. Rather, it is the Westerner’s ability to chip away at his most foundational negative human traits to hack human nature and achieve pro-social ends through man-made institutions. Liberalism has managed to supercharge the ability of large-scale cooperation among diverse groups by founding new common moral ends in the public sphere while maintaining adequate personal liberties in the private sphere. This runs exactly opposite of the predicted collapse of sociality envisioned by the post-liberal academics.

As a case study, returning to the European theater, Germany and France have been fighting on and off since the dawn of their existences as nations — with, until quite recently, diametrically opposed cultures, values, civilizational aims, and religious sects. Peace on the European continent, though ultimately backed up by the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), has been established in large part by the various “liberal democratic” dogmas that were built among the war-torn societies. These liberal “dogmas” include: peace, prosperity, and dignity are the highest goods; human beings are best seen as individuals, not monolithic groups; and society is better without final judgments about competing comprehensive doctrines. It is no coincidence that the modern European Union, channeling the purest form of universal liberalism, successfully warded off a major conflict on the European continent for almost 75 years. 

While there needs to be some chest-thumping in this particular historical moment, liberalism’s story has not been uniformly positive. Comprehending the failures of liberalism is crucial to planning its future. Firstly, from the Left, liberalism’s universal rights and values have been imperfectly realized. More pertinently, from the Right, the tendency of modern liberal society to create unmoored, directionless, empty citizens is certainly a problem that needs to be addressed within the liberal frame.

Is there a worthwhile alternative to liberalism? Is having “values worth killing for” along ultimately arbitrary lines of human social grouping really that philosophically and emotionally admirable that it calls for the sundering of the thin fabric that mandates us to recognize our common humanity? The virtues of liberalism reverberate through the centuries.

Answers to Our Existential Questions Lie Eastward

One region in the world that seems to offer unique answers to these existential questions is Eastern Europe. To rediscover the appeal of liberal values and challenge its most potent naysayers, one must not look only at the annals of political philosophy and historiography, but to the reality that stands before the world.

Following the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, most assumed that the liberal world had an empty core and would capitulate to foreign aggression. [17] It did not. The Ukrainians, with the material help of the liberal West, are protecting not just their territory but their right to self-determination and inherent dignity. This fighting spirit was not divinely implanted. Crucially, this spirit, which moves people to fight towards liberalism, is also not defined by the perfectibility of the liberal world. The fight is partially defined by looking at the alternative ideologies left standing. Ukrainians have a clear memory of the Soviet Union. They remember the Holodomor, a man-made Soviet famine that starved millions to death in the 1930s. They remember what societies looked like without self-determination, dignity, and flourishing. They have a clear generational memory of Nazism and the countless wars and conflicts that raged in their narrow, inter-civilizational geographical corridor. [18]

Ukraine is not alone. Other Eastern European nations empathized with Ukraine following the genocidal atrocities committed by Russia in Bucha, Izium, and Mariupol in 2022. [19] Ukrainian flags adorn the cityscapes of the EU-bound post-Soviet corridor of Tallinn, Riga, Vilnius, and Warsaw. These societies have lived under all the brutalities of the Soviet system that seem so readily familiar to the ones we see today. The harsh reality of Soviet rule has been seared into the collective consciousness of these geographically proximate societies. They have suffered from illiberalism and have learned from those painful experiences. 

A “negative vision” (‘freedom from’) is clearly not a complete explanation of what animates the war effort. The flip side of the “negative vision” of freedom is a strong desire toward humanistic recognition as both a sovereign state and an individual. The phrase “Слава Україні!” (romanized: Sláva Ukrayíni!), which has been a slogan of the war effort, is further evidence of the fight toward the spirit of universal liberalism. Translated directly as “Glory to Ukraine,” this central example demonstrates that the fight is about achieving glory, or, recognition and dignity, for Ukraine and its people. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, echoing this sentiment, proclaimed that “even if there is no electricity, the light of our faith in ourselves will not be put out.” [20] They also have a tangible experience of looking towards the European Union — they observed from afar as it made life better for millions of people, including their post-Soviet neighbors. This fight toward possessing self-worth and dignity is just as much a part of the battle as it is about lifting Putin’s repressive and imperialist hand from Ukraine’s borders.

Instead of shrinking down after decades of so-called liberal indoctrination, and turning into the unmoored, lifeless citizens posited by post-liberal intellectuals, these Eastern European nations are rising up — willing to defend not just their nation’s identity, but liberal values. This is the hidden gem of liberalism that the West needs to relearn. It needs to be reminded of what individual dignity liberal citizens possess, and the dangers those citizens do not face. The reminder of what ‘the jungle’ looks like triggers the civic patriotism that fortifies the familiar warmth of peace, prosperity, and flourishing of liberal societies. [21] [22]

The most potent critique of this view is that the territorial defense mounted by Ukraine is merely a desire to survive, or a simple expression of cultural self-preservation. While nationalism is, in fact, stronger in Eastern Europe, the liberal spirit is also strong. The two influences are not mutually exclusive. This is underlined by Eastern Europe’s historical support of aspirational, and blatantly anti-nationalistic, liberal projects such as the European Union while also retaining a sense of national pride. This is precisely because Eastern Europe knows the virtues of institutionalized peace achieved through the domestication and balancing of identitarianism with liberal universalism. Far from having an empty core, liberalism is proving to be worth the struggle, beyond any narrow definition of nation or culture — and has an empirical historical record to show for it.

But Peace Is Boring

But the dialectic continues, says the illiberal academic. Perpetual peace fails to satisfy human beings. To many secular liberals, the idea that the dogma of the tribe would overtake peace and broad human flourishing seems incomprehensible. However, once one removes the liberal goggles, this view explains a lot of political tensions in the modern world. Peace is not just boring, but palpably unnerving. This manifests itself in the call to reignite the flame of “God, family, and the fatherland” among the citizenry, seen in recent rhetoric from Western anti-liberal adjacents, such as Viktor Orbán in Hungary and the “post-liberals” in the United States. To them, “perpetual peace” is irrational and unsatisfying. The ultimate “meaning in life” is not found in humanistic ends, as liberalism promises. Rather, meaning becomes irreducibly attached to the dogma that happens to be in fashion at any given time — religion, nation, or ideology.

But the problem is, all of these alternatives have already been tested. The watered-down illiberalism of today’s misguided academics begs for a reversal of modernity. But back to what, exactly? Contemporary Western liberal minds cannot wrap their heads around the brutality or the frequency with which national borders were changed through violence. This is the state of nature to which human beings will inevitably revert, given their biological predispositions.

There is nothing inevitable about liberal democracy or the ending of history. But, to carry on this struggle, liberals have to clearly articulate what they are fighting for.

There is no doubt that many academics, philosophers, activists, and politicians who will be convinced by this illiberal view want nothing to do with war or killing. However, they are tapping into something that is deeply human. They tap into the human brain’s most salient, emotional, irrational, primal pathways. Whether it is participation in the American culture war or vast geopolitical warfare, the conflict is always the same: it is impossible to form a consensus on big teleological questions, so people have to secure their own humanistic ends. Only liberal democracy has a track record of being able to house and manage this conflict. Rule of law, human rights, and democracy are better and worth fighting for.

2022 Was an Inflection Point (Hopefully)

Liberalism produces the greatest amount of aggregate peace and human flourishing of any system humans have devised, even if there are serious imperfections. Paradoxically, for the illiberals, precisely when liberalism is put under stress, the pressure reveals anything but an empty core. Looking at the events of 2022, the scars of human brutality seem to be reinvigorating those willing to struggle on liberalism’s behalf.

Liberals should capitalize on this movement in consciousness and reemphasize the value of peace, and channel supposedly “natural desires” to more benign ends. Liberalism should avoid creating the “last man” not through invigorating the most palpable and salient of siren calls that will surely create violence and human suffering, but by moderating the excesses of liberal societies while retaining the core spirit of dignity and human recognition above all other teleological ends. Liberals should spread these values, not through violent domination, but rather through the self-evident and contagious moral force of liberal values. To maintain peace, prosperity, and flourishing, whether people like it or not, is to build upon this far from perfect system called liberal democratic governance and all its innovations. On a sober examination of the world, this system seems empirically, ethically, and philosophically insurmountable.

Zak Schneider ’22 was a member of the AHS chapter at Boston University, where he earned a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science and International Relations.


[1] Shane D. Courtland et al., “Liberalism,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 22 February 2022, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/liberalism/.

[2] William Galston, “Whose Good, Anway?,” American Purpose Magazine, 21 January 2022, https://www.americanpurpose.com/articles/whose-good-anyway/. 

[3] Francis Fukuyama, Liberalism and its Discontents (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022). 

[4] United Nations General Assembly, “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)” (New York, NY: United Nations General Assembly, 1948).

[5] Sohrab Ahmari, “Against David French-ism,” First Things, 29 May 2019, https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2019/05/against-david-french-ism.

[6] Edmund Waldstein, “Integralism in 3 Sentences,” The Josias, 17 October 2016, https://thejosias.com/2016/10/17/integralism-in-three-sentences/?utm_source=substack&utm_medium=email.

[7] Fukuyama, Liberalism and Its Discontents.

[8] Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (Harlow, UK: Penguin Books, 1992). 

[9] Francis Fukuyama, “Still the End of History,” The Atlantic, 17 October 2022, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2022/10/francis-fukuyama-still-end-history/67176/.

[10] “The Worst Form of Government,” International Churchill Society, 25 February 2016, https://winstonchurchill.org/resources/quotes/the-worst-form-of-government/. 

[11] Emma Farge, “Iran Situation ‘Critical’ With More Than 300 Killed,” Reuters, 22 November 2022, https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/iran-situation-critical-with-more-than-300-killed-un-rights-chief-2022-11-22/.

[12] Fiona Hill and Angela Stent, “The World Putin Wants,” Foreign Affairs, 25 August 2022, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/russian-federation/world-putin-wants-fiona-hill-angela-stent. 

[13] Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York, NY: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2013).

[14]Paul Voice, Comprehensive Doctrine: Cambridge Rawls Lexicon, (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014), https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/abs/cambridge-rawls-lexicon/comprehensive-doctrine/6313D26CCFD8B7B957491039E73DD2A9.

[15] Joseph Henrich, The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021). 

[16] Jonathan Rauch, The Constitution of Knowledge, A Defense of Truth (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2021). 

[17] Naveed Jamali et al., “Exclusive: U.S. Expects Kyiv to Fall in Days as Ukraine Source Warns of Encirclement,” Newsweek, 24 February 2022, https://www.newsweek.com/us-expects-kyiv-fall-days-ukraine-source-warns-encirclement-1682326.

[18] Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2015). 

[19] Taras Kuzio, “Vladimir Putin’s Ukrainian Genocide is Proceeding in Plain View,” The Atlantic Council, 29 June 2022, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/ukrainealert/vladimir-putins-ukrainian-genocide-is-proceeding-in-plain-view/.

[20] Volodymyr Zelenskyy, “Address to Joint Session of Congress,” CNN, 21 December 2022.

[21] Robert Kagan, The Jungle Grows Back: America and Our Imperiled World (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2018). 

[22] Yousur Al-Hlou et al., “Caught on Camera, Traced by Phone: The Russian Military Unit That Killed Dozens in Bucha,” New York Times, 22 December 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/video/world/europe/100000008299178/ukraine-bucha-russia-massacre-video.html. 

Image: “80-391-1041 Kyiv SAM 2039,” by Haidamac, retrieved from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:80-391-1041_Kyiv_SAM_2039.jpg. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

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