There are times in history when those who enjoy the fruits of free societies are tested. Is that blissful anodyne existence of easy criticism, free discourse and relaxed harmony, something which they genuinely value, or are they willing to trade freedom for tyranny when times get tough?

Such time is now.

In February 2022, Ukraine made the decision to fight and sacrifice, at terrible and heart-wrenching cost, to defend its own version of liberty and the right to carve its own trajectory into the future.

The West – every single one of its component nations – also had a choice to make. That choice was not only about the values each nation was willing to defend at a single point in time, but has mutated into a test of resolve. And now, who has what it takes to see the task through?


At the risk of crowing, I’m glad to say that, largely, right across the political spectrum, the UK has stood firm. The fight for liberty has become embedded in British institutional memory and thus, in the upbringing of its people. I know that this rather grandiose claim will cause some eyebrow raising in (say) India or South Africa, and I’m sensitive to that justifiable historical skepticism, but I’m talking about the UK mainland.

From the air, we experienced the destruction of our cities less than 100 years ago, and at least prior to the decimation of the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain, the existential threat to Britain was real. For many of us, this history remains rooted in our sense of nation. There is a deep resonance with the Ukrainian situation on these matters. I think, I hope, that Britain will never be found wanting in its view of Ukraine.

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Across the pond, there seems to be some incertitude. Born from the furnace of its own revolutionary war, the US has been a staunch ally of liberty. But is that sense of individualism eroding back into isolationism, carried forward in a current of cynicism?

The US does not have some unspoken mandate or responsibility to use its vast military and financial capability to come to the aid of other nations. There is no presumption that the US is sitting there waiting for a phone call to sacrifice blood and treasure to bail out others. But in every stage of human development, there are always nations that command the moral, material, and manpower superiority to provide that role, and the question is whether they have the strength of character to recognize that unfortunate and, perhaps, unwanted position, and to heed the call.


Ancient Athens took on the role as the leader of the Delian League to hold off the acquisitive Persians. The extent to which they welcomed that and remained enthusiastic about it through that tenure is lost to history, but they accepted their role as the most influential liberty-seeking state on which such an alliance could coalesce.

Some might say that the Delian League is a poor example since it disintegrated into infighting, while Athens appropriated the funds for its own uses. However, one might equally point out that this loss of focus and an inward turn, although motivated by a very different political situation than the one we face today, is broadly a stark reminder of what happens when feuding on a small scale gets the better of bigger thinking.


Clouds on the horizon

Today, with trouble in Ukraine, the Middle East and Venezuela, clarity of moral conviction and a willingness to put aside domestic squabbles to show a resoluteness and steadfastness in leadership has become critical. Nations from Iran to North Korea are aligning with autocracies, not to offer some clear and compelling vision for the management of humanity, but simply to oppose the West.

The danger of an autocratic dark age engulfing large parts of the globe is a real and serious threat. The coordination of these axes opposed to the liberal and democratic vision of humankind gets stronger by the day. This, it should be said, is largely fueled by the western world’s weakness.

At every check point at which we fail to believe in ourselves, the lessons of brazen conquest become clearer. Push onwards and the West will buckle. Even if the US Congress was to approve aid tomorrow, a few weeks of dithering suggests that there are fractures within the US’s self-confidence or international conviction. Maybe another year of this will open those cracks wider? And so, the forces against freedom are emboldened.

Each moment of hesitancy delivers a stronger conviction that liberal democracies can be hounded into a corner. The price that we may ultimately have to pay to defend our freedoms rises higher and higher.


There seems to be a collection of politicians, commentators, and personalities in the US who are naively unaware of this, or, if they are sensible to it, they lack the clarity of mind to stand back from political point scoring and embrace the extraordinary peril and danger to our way of life that this rise in violence and tyranny may presage.

Needless to say, this clash of self-interest and higher purpose takes on a particularly obvious hue when there is a presidential election looming. But in a sense, one might also say that the appearance of this tussle on the horizon is more of a reason for the candidates in that race to demonstrate their capacity to rise above that fray and lead the US to the right decisions. This is an opportunity, not a challenge.

It would be wrong to chide the US alone. In Europe there has also been much failure, and the Netherlands may now have elected a government ready to turn its back on Ukraine. Europe’s history of standing up to tyranny in the last century hasn’t been a blazing example, let’s be blunt, but one might have thought that lessons would have been learned since 1945. Even Hungary’s government seems to have forgotten what all that noise and loss of life was about in 1956 (a clue – it wasn’t a cry for more autocracy).

There isn’t much leeway in all this. The decisions taken in the coming months could ramify across decades, potentially even centuries. Democracy, the liberal order, the freedoms of an open society – they are not a system of government that bubbles up from the wreckage automatically. They must constantly be clearly stated and defended. Anyone who holds these ideas to be valuable must do it, but the most powerful nation that can do it has a special responsibility.


Will the US stumble in the cause of freedom? At the eleventh hour, when the resolve, energy, and fortitude of all those who love liberty are tested to its limits, when easy excuses and slogans for election campaigns are cheap, will the US, at this moment, lose its focus and its nerve? We will find out. And upon that outcome, a great deal will rest.

Charles Cockell is Professor of Astrobiology at the University of Edinburgh.

The views expressed are the author’s and not necessarily of Kyiv Post.

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