The Russian tanks are rolling on, the infantry marching into the “meat grinder” ahead of them in Ukraine as Vladimir Putin ramps up his winter offensive. And while that offensive is unlikely to succeed, the war will grind on, the deaths mounting. More Ukrainians will be buried in shallow graves because they defended their country; more Russian mothers will weep for their sons who died only to satisfy a strongman’s ambitions.

Their deaths are a stark reminder that while this war is one between two countries, it is also one between two systems – between democracy and autocracy. It is a war started by an impulsive dictator, Putin, who ordered the invasion because the “yes men” around him failed to understand or acknowledge that it was a terrible idea. And it is a war being won, it seems, by a democratic country seeking to preserve its way of life and winning support from the broader West at least in part because of its liberal credentials. This is at least one thing on which Labour and the Tories can agree: Keir Starmer says the war “is about values […] about democracy […] [and] about basic freedoms,” while Rishi Sunak has said the Ukrainians are “defend[ing] the principles of sovereignty and democracy.”

Yet this grand rhetoric about the war’s ideological nature has not been matched by the ambitious reforms needed to reinvigorate democracy – whether in the United Kingdom, United States, or Japan – at a moment not when Russia wages war on Ukraine, but when powerful autocracies like China and Saudi Arabia advance their illiberal visions of international order in less violent ways, seizing on our weaknesses. Rhetoric is cheap, and will not allow democracies to preserve democracy where it exists and nurture its seeds where it does not. Only action will. 

Certainly, Ukraine-supportive countries in the broader West have seen the war as a reason to shift security and energy approaches. But that’s hardly enough, given the autocratic challenge we face today. 

Modern autocracies may be fundamentally flawed, but many have proven themselves quite durable; some have not just survived but thrived. They are nothing like the Soviet Union, whose system never performed effectively, let alone well. Part of the reason the West won the Cold War was because Soviet illiberalism was never successful; it was, as the German writer Hans Magnus Enzensberger said, “the highest stage of underdevelopment”. The system never achieved legitimacy at home or abroad because it never worked. 

The same cannot be said of autocracies today. China is already the world’s largest economy when adjusted for purchasing power parity; countries like Singapore and Vietnam have successfully married authoritarianism with market economics. Autocracies account for some 35 percent of global income – compared to only 12 per cent in 1992. There are today more autocracies than democracies.

Public legitimacy is conditioned on performance. And because some autocracies today increasingly seem to be performing better than democracies, even if these autocracies lack the benefits of true freedom, a distressing number of people looking for new political visions are finding inspiration in autocracy. Polls show that a disturbing number of Americans would prefer an authoritarian strongman to a democratically elected leader. Some Europeans feel the same, believing that autocracies can better handle complex issues like climate change. 

Armed with their own domestic success and our dysfunction (think January 6 or Britain’s political chaos), countries like China and Saudi Arabia are now looking to refashion the international order in their own image, punishing trade partners for purely political reasons and interfering with neighbouring countries on the margins of Western interest. If their behaviour is any indication, a world of autocracies will not be a world of friendly one-party states like Singapore; it will be one of antagonists like China and Russia, whose insecure leaders could plunge us into war – and cut us off from the global economy, if it does flow through them as they get richer – at any moment. 

Democracies can prevent that world from existing only by learning to perform and deliver for our people once again, because better performance will both prevent the rise of authoritarian-friendly leaders like Trump at home and allow our democracies to serve as a model to the world once again. Only once we combat the tendency towards autocracy with better governance at home can we hope to patch up the liberal order – and better stand up for democracies like Ukraine and Taiwan.

To do so, we will need to make our systems more meritocratic and accountable; we will need to win social trust, reform our immigration systems, build top-class infrastructure, and invest in human capital, all while embracing the volatility that is intrinsic to democracy and drives progress and innovation. 

We must not assume that democracy is pushing to victory on a door ajar. Instead, we must act, because if we don’t get this right, our failure will be democracy’s failure both at home and abroad. And it will be democracies – and more importantly, our people – who will pay the price.

Charles Dunst (@CharlesDunst) is the author of the new book, Defeating the Dictators: How Democracy Can Prevail in the Age of the Strongman (Hodder & Stoughton), from which this essay was adapted.