Change of framing and the need for peace in Ukraine: A reply to Szulecki and Wig

By Irina Domurath and Stefano Palestini

The “democracy vs. autocracy” frame has gained momentum in the interpretation of the war in Ukraine. On March 25th, we wrote an op-ed to point out the flaws and possibly serious consequences underlying that frame. Our argument was portrayed as “provocative” and “surprising”, and Review of Democracy published a reply piece by Kacper Szulecki and Tore Wig that advanced a counter-argument. In the meantime, others have joined the critique of the democracy-vs.-autocracy frame, with similar and/or complementary arguments to those advanced in our original op-ed.

We believe that this is not only an important academic discussion, but, first and foremost, a public controversy about how to understand and engage in world politics in turbulent times. The controversy that has been revived in the context of the tragic events in Ukraine has deep roots.

In the spirit of continuing the conversation, we use Szulecki and Wig’s critical reading of our op-ed as a foil to clarify what, in our view, is at stake when the “democracy vs. autocracy” narrative becomes mainstream. 

Let us briefly restate the argument of our op-ed, which was twofold: first, we argued that the frame of democracy vs. autocracy used by foreign policy makers, pundits, and scholars had a dubious empirical basis and was normatively dangerous as it could obstruct possible ways out of the war. Second, we argued that framing Putin’s aggression as an unacceptable and massive violation of international law was not only empirically accurate but also constituted a more inclusive way to organize an international response to Putin’s war.

Szulecki and Wig raised three major objections to our arguments.

1) They claim that our argument gives primacy to the international order over domestic politics to explain the causes and drivers of war. They criticize that we focus on security concerns and, therefore, give primacy to the perspective of Russia (the former great power) and neglect the perspective of Ukraine. In short: our argument is perceived to be (neo)realist

2) Szulecki and Wig further argue that, because of our neorealist premises, we fail to see that Putin’s invasion is all about democracy both in causal terms (the war is caused by the fact that Ukraine is a democracy and Russia an autocracy) and also because Ukraine’s democracy – and the fate of other democracies such as Taiwan – is at stake.

3) Lastly, Szulecki and Wig claim that our definition of democracy is flawed because we define it as a value or quasi-religious belief, while democracy is a regime type (a set of institutions) essential for solving conflicts over values in a non-violent way.

Let’s address these criticisms one by one.

A neorealist argument?

Our argument is not neorealist. In fact, neorealists would raise an eyebrow because of the importance we give to international law not only as a way to frame Putin’s aggression but also as the main way to respond to it. If we want to put arguments into boxes, ours is constructivist and critical.

Our argument is constructivist because we give importance to frames as mental and discursive devices to portrait and construct reality. When president Biden says “in the battle between democracy and autocracies, democracies are rising to the moment and the world is clearly choosing the side of peace and security”, he is constructing a reality. The frame of democracy vs. autocracy – just as any other frame – not only describes (and attributes causality), but also prescribes reality as it creates expectations about the way in which the war and the afterwar (including the next wars) should and will develop.

The critical dimension of our analysis lies in our concern with the reification and naturalization of the frame “democracy vs. autocracy”, as if it was the obvious – if not the only – way to understand the decision of Putin to invade Ukraine and to interpret the united and multilateral backlash that such an act triggered. Ours is not an external critique produced from an illiberal standpoint, but it is an immanent critique as we are academics who live in and believe in liberal democracies.

We both grew up under autocratic regimes, and we both value the freedoms ensured by democratic institutions. It is from that conviction that we argue that democracy vs. autocracy is not only an oversimplification of reality (to different extents, all frames are), but also one that can lead to terrible outcomes with global implications when naturalized and mainstreamed by the most advanced and militarily best-equipped democracies of the world.

Is this war about democracy?

Szulecki and Wig are right in stating that our piece provides an insufficient explanation of the causes of the war. But the critique is misplaced because our piece did not seek to provide such an explanation. We rather wanted to show that the assumptions underlying the democracy-vs.-autocracy frame have empirically weak bases.

The democracy-vs.-autocracy narrative assumes that caeteris paribus an autocracy constitutes a threat for a democracy. In contrast, we believe that if we want to explain Putin’s war, we need to drop the ceateris paribus assumption and bring other factors into the analysis. Quoting Putin’s speeches does not mean assuming Russia’s perspective, as Szulecki and Wig accuse us of doing, but rather illustrates that other characteristics of Russia (status loss of a former great power) and of Putin’s view of the world (framing NATO enlargement as an existential threat) might carry as much or even more weight in explaining the invasion than having a score close to 0 in Freedom House’s indicators. In any case, those variables shouldn’t be outright dismissed as possible explanations. In this regard, Szulecki and Wig may be overshooting when positing the counterfactual that “if we had a different regime-types in either Ukraine (to dictatorship) or Russia (to democracy) […] Ukraine would be at peace today”.

In order to support their argument that the Ukraine war is indeed about democracy, Szulecki and Wig argue that “autocracies have problems of misinformation and lead to personalistic leadership and aggressive behavior”. However, while it may be on average true that autocracies are more aggressive, this cannot be taken as the sole basis for a presumption of aggression by every autocracy when it deals with a democratic regime.

We have to be extremely cautious in translating the empirical findings of the “liberal peace” scholarship into foreign and security policy advice. Foreign policy should not be based on the presumption of enmity between democratic and non-democratic societies.

Enmity is all the more problematic a basis for foreign policy because the idea that autocracies are more aggressive than democracies is too simplistic and empirically incorrect. As Andrew Moravcsik (not a realist, for sure) rightly argued already two decades ago, socially segregated democracies with biased institutions of representation can produce the same negative outcomes in terms of rent-seeking and aggressive foreign policy as autocracies (think of some Republican presidents in the last sixty years of US history). And, as Gregor Walter-Drop has recently put it, the democracy-autocracy divide runs through Western democracies as well. Therefore, Western democracies – as much as democracies of the Global South – are better advised to improve domestic democracy by fighting social injustice and aggressive authoritarianism at home rather than focusing on the next foreign autocratic aggressor in foreign policy.

Democracy as a value and the potential of the international law frame

Szulecki and Wig contend that our misunderstanding is to reduce democracy to a “value or religious belief”, failing to see that democracy is a regime type. But it is not us who reduce democracy to a “value”. When Biden says to workers assembling Javelin missiles in Alabama “there’s an ongoing battle in the world between autocracy and democracy”, democracy is reduced to an empty signifier, laden with emotion and intended to rally people round the flag of democracy.

Here, the normative part of our argument comes in. From a constructivist perspective, we have a choice about how we want to frame this war and shape international relations. And from a critical viewpoint, we argue that reducing democracy to a value makes it contestable. In fact, international support for the condemnation of Russia is already waning, especially in the Global South which is arguably more hit by the economic repercussions of sanctions than the Global North.

We put forward that abandoning the “democracy vs. autocracy” framing and instead framing the war in terms of “a gross violation of international law” could show a way out of this impasse.

“Russia has grossly violated international law” is an inclusive frame. It allows all states regardless of their regime types to condemn the aggression as an attack on the sovereignty of Ukraine and self-determination of the Ukrainian people.

This means that it could be more successful in bringing more countries on board, for instance, when imposing sanctions on Russia, as evidenced by the first Resolution of the General Assembly and of the expulsion of Russia from the Council of Europe, where more states were on board. The inclusiveness and appeal to international law stems from its formal rules about how to deal with wars of aggression irrespective of whether those emanate from democratic or autocratic regimes.

In fact, as we state in our original op-ed, international law is neutral with regard to regime types and focuses on peaceful co-existence. Instead of rallying countries and people round the flag of democracy, international law gives us the tools to translate emotional outrage about the aggression into a matter of legality. This is an important tool in dealing with this war and in preserving our capacity to make rational judgments in order to prevent further escalation into a devastating Third World War. As Jürgen Habermas argued in a recent piece in the Süddeutsche Zeitung: the, albeit understandable, emotional charge of the discourse about the war leads to a misplaced critique of the cautious and well-reflected consideration of German Chancellor Scholz on delivering arms to Ukraine, as arguably every step towards further involvement could be interpreted by Putin as a declaration of war.

Against this backdrop, it is ever more urgent to rethink the democracy-vs.-autocracy narrative.

In Weberian terms, those that embrace the democracy-vs.-autocracy narrative end up adopting an ethic based on the conviction that democracies are peaceful and autocracies are aggressive, which is problematic because it overrules an ethic of responsibility about how to avoid even worse consequences of the war (as any war) in terms of human suffering, destruction, and global instability.

We are now in the third month of this war. Peace negotiations have so far failed. By embracing the democracy-vs.-autocracy frame, Ukraine becomes the moral forefront fighter for all democracies in the world and the US and Europe the “arsenal of democracy”. Supported by the West, Ukrainians seem to believe that they can win this war. Whether this belief can become reality or not is beside the point. In our view, the point is rather that this belief makes peace negotiations harder and makes the scenario of a long war of attrition more likely. In its course, there will be more destruction, more suffering, more displaced people, and more deaths.

In collaboration with Ferenc Laczo and Hannah Vos

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