Home / Opinion / Views /  Open societies must prevail over closed ones for everybody’s sake

Since the last Davos meeting, the course of history has changed dramatically. Russia invaded Ukraine. This has shaken Europe to its core. The EU was established to prevent such a thing. Indeed, the Russian invasion may turn out to be the beginning of World War III—and civilization may not survive it. The invasion did not come out of the blue. The world has been increasingly engaged over the past half-decade, or longer, in a struggle between two diametrically opposed systems of governance: an open society versus a closed one.

In an open society, the role of the state is to protect the freedom of the individual; in a closed society, the role of the individual is to serve the rulers of the state. Other issues that concern all humanity have had to take a back seat to this systemic struggle. That’s why I say our civilization may not survive. After the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the tide began to turn against open societies. Repressive regimes are now ascendant and open societies under siege. Today, China and Russia represent the greatest threats.

Why did this shift take place? Part of the answer is to be found in digital technology, especially artificial intelligence (AI). In theory, AI ought to be politically neutral: it can be used for good or bad. In practice, the effect is asymmetric. AI is particularly good at producing instruments of control that let repressive regimes endanger open societies. Covid also helped legitimize such instruments of control. President Xi Jinping’s China is an example of a state that surveils and controls its citizens heavily.

The alliance between Beijing and Moscow has “no limits", as they declared just before Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “special military operation" in Ukraine. This has not gone according to plan, given the Ukrainian resistance. But while Putin’s army has committed atrocities, the scenario is not all bleak. Ukraine has a fighting chance and Europe is coming closer together.

Putin and Xi, now in an alliance, have a lot in common. They rule by intimidation, and, as a consequence, make huge mistakes. Putin expected to be welcomed in Ukraine as a liberator; likewise, Xi is sticking to a zero-covid policy that cannot be sustained. Putin seems to have recognized that his invasion was a terrible mistake and is preparing to negotiate a cease-fire. But this is difficult because he cannot be trusted. The situation is confusing. A military expert who’d been opposed to the invasion was allowed to go on Russian TV to inform the public how bad the situation is. Later, he swore allegiance to Putin. Interestingly, Xi continues to support Putin, but no longer without limits.

This may begin to explain why Xi is likely to fail. Giving Putin permission to launch an attack against Ukraine didn’t serve China’s best interests. Although China ought to be the senior partner in the alliance, Xi apparently allowed Putin to usurp that position. But Xi’s worst mistake was to double down on his zero-covid policy. Lockdowns have been disastrous for the Chinese economy, which has been in free fall since March. In April, the nationwide highway logistics index, which measures road haulage across China, dropped to 70% of its level one year ago. Moreover, the Caixin Composite PMI index, which uses data collected from some 400 companies to track private-sector business trends in China, fell to 37.2 from 43.9 in March. When the PMI’s value is below 50, it means the economy is shrinking. China’s declining economic activity is bound to have global consequences. These trends will continue until Xi reverses course. But he can’t seem to admit a mistake. And so, with the disruption of supply chains, global inflation is liable to turn into a global depression.

We must minimize risks. For the West, the dilemma in dealing with Russia is that the weaker Putin gets, the more unpredictable he becomes. Member states of the EU have felt the pressure. They realize that Putin may not wait until they develop alternative sources of energy before turning off the gas taps himself, while it really hurts, as he has done to Bulgaria, Poland and Finland.

Given varied levels of energy dependency on Russia, Europe’s cohesion will face a severe test, but if EU members continue to act together, it could strengthen both Europe’s energy security and leadership on climate change.

What about China? Xi has many enemies there. Nobody dares to attack him directly because he controls Chinese instruments of surveillance and repression. But it is well known that within the Communist Party, dissension has become sharp. Contrary to expectations, Xi may not get his coveted third term because of the mistakes he has made. But even if he does, the Politburo may not give him a free hand to select future members. That would reduce his power and influence, and make it less likely that he’ll be China’s ruler for life.

Meanwhile, as the war in Ukraine rages on, the fight against climate change has had to take second place. Yet, experts tell us that we have already fallen far behind and climate change is on the verge of becoming irreversible. That could be the end of our civilization.

I find this prospect particularly frightening. Most of us accept the idea that we must eventually die, but we take it for granted that our civilization will survive. Therefore, we must mobilize all our resources to bring the Ukraine war to an end. The best and perhaps only way to preserve our civilization is to defeat Putin. ©2022/Project Syndicate

George Soros is founder and chair of Open Society Foundations and the author of ‘In Defense of Open Society’

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