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The example of Ukraine for other harassed democracies

For some security experts, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine marks a new era of aggression by authoritarian rulers, especially against neighboring democracies. Equally remarkable is how these democracies are responding.

Take the heroic resistance of the Ukrainians. Their inspiring defense of their young democracy can help “empower [other] populations to speak out in disagreement with such authoritarian efforts,” Avril Haines, director of US national intelligence, told Congress this week.

In three democracies long threatened by intimidating neighbors – South Korea, Taiwan and Iraq – the invasion has been closely watched to see how well Ukrainians are uniting around a common identity based on civic values. The support of Ukraine by the United States and Europe is also closely watched. This Western resolve, says CIA Director William Burns, helps demonstrate “the resilience of democracies at a time when there has been much speculation about their lack of strength.”

In South Korea, which has enjoyed a thriving democracy for more than three decades, a presidential election was held on March 9 amid more ballistic missile launches by North Korea. During the campaign, candidate Yoon Suk-yeol cited Ukraine’s strength against Russia and the need for South Koreans to do the same with North Korea. Mr. Yoon won the election.

In Iraq, an election last October resulted in the victory of a coalition of three parties across religious and ethnic lines – all opposed to Iran’s support for violent militias in Iraq. The leader of the coalition, the Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, promises a “national majority government”, a signal to Shiite-dominated Iran not to meddle with its neighbor. Mr. Sadr is still struggling to form a government.

For Taiwan, the Russian invasion sparked a renewed commitment to its democracy as an underlying defense against threats from China to take the island nation by force. “The determination of the Ukrainians moved the world, making the Taiwanese feel the same,” President Tsai Ing-wen said.

As democracy took root in Taiwan in the 1990s, its citizens began to create a national identity distinct from the mainland. More than 60% of the island’s 23 million people identify as uniquely Taiwanese, according to a 2021 poll. China has tried “to weaken trust” in Taiwan’s elected leaders, Haines says. In 2014, however, student protests in Taiwan, known as the Sunflower Revolution, further cemented democracy and led to a shift away from trade ties with China.

What’s at stake in Ukraine, says the CIA’s Mr. Burns, is “an incredibly important rule in the international order that big countries can’t gobble up small countries just because they can”. The example of Ukrainians defending their democracy may simply help other democracies to keep this rule in place.

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