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Ukraine: A Wake-Up Call for American Democracy
I did not intend to write today, and I do not have time to take this deep. But Russia’s unprovoked, unjustifiable, and inhumane attack on the sovereign nation of Ukraine has me thinking about our own national guardrails.
This morning I read Thomas Friedman’s op-ed in the New York Times. He made a point about Russia and China that ties into something I’ve been thinking about as I watch Putin’s crimes unfold. Here is what Friedman had to say:
[I]f you ask me what is the most dangerous aspect of today’s world, I’d say it is the fact that Putin has more unchecked power than any other Russian leader since Stalin. And Xi has more unchecked power than any other Chinese leader since Mao. But in Stalin’s day, his excesses were largely confined to Russia and the borderlands he controlled. An in Mao’s day, China was so isolated, his excesses touched only the Chinese people.
Not anymore . . . .
That phrase, “unchecked power,” is exactly the problem. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was enabled by the concentration of all the power of the Russian state in one person. Although Russia has the framework of a democracy, the other branches of government are subordinate to one absolute ruler. Putin’s ally, Xi, has a similar stranglehold on power in China. And while Xi has not yet sought to terrorize a neighboring territory the way that Putin is doing now, he still has his sights on Taiwan, and has used his power to engage in serious human rights abuses within China’s vast mainland.
I suppose that at the time of the American Revolution, George III held power that rivaled the power Putin and Xi now hold. That is why the framers of the American Constitution insisted on the distribution of power across three co-equal branches of government - the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial branches. America has not been immune from would-be dictatorial Presidents, but so far our system of separation of powers has managed to keep them reasonably in check. The system depends a great deal on the integrity and judgment of the people who work within it, but the sharing of power among the three branches makes it much more difficult for any one person (specifically, a President) to launch a war or trample human rights.
If we take one lesson from the current international crisis, then, it should be this: America should resist at all costs the efforts of any person or group of persons to attain and wield unchecked power. The tendencies of the immediate past President and his allies towards authoritarianism must never be allowed purchase. We must support our institutions, including each branch of government, and that support must include ensuring that they are populated by leaders who earnestly affirm and will defend the separation of powers enshrined in our constitutional framework.
Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine should serve as a wake-up call to all Americans that our democracy is worth preserving. And our own recent history and ongoing assaults on our democracy make the urgency of doing so abundantly clear.