In some ways, 2022 felt like the culmination of a decades-long turn toward autocracy around the world: The Russian Federation launched a major land war in Europe, the People’s Republic of China enforced draconian policies at home and lashed out abroad, and the Islamic Republic of Iran responded to protests with arrests, torture, and hangings. In the United States, former President Donald Trump—an illiberal populist if ever there was one—continued to hold sway over one of the two major parties. But as counterintuitive as it may seem, 2022 might have been this century’s best year for liberalism.
It did not start off that way. Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine threatened to wipe a democracy off the map. The core of Putinist ideology is that open societies are inherently weak because they lack harmony. But it wasn’t the supposed Ukrainian weakness that drove Putin to act. As several Russia experts have noted, the Russian leader escalated his eight-year war against Ukraine because Ukraine was becoming freer. Ukraine was growing more culturally liberal, had adopted anti-corruption laws, and was integrating further into the free world. Since the end of the Cold War, no president of Ukraine has been re-elected, proving the success of ballot box accountability. In 2021, Ukraine enacted an anti-oligarch policy that would have set the country on a better course if not for the war. Putin feared that the success of the world’s second-largest Slavic country would give the Russians across the border the “wrong” idea, threatening his rule.
After almost a year of fighting, Russia’s superior economy and military expenditure, as well as extreme cruelty, have failed to force the Ukrainian people into subjugation. Polls consistently show that Ukrainians support their government’s policy of defending Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Ukrainians had the option of a life under tyranny, but their choice has been to live free or die.
Iranians provided another encouraging sign. The Islamic Republic has spent two decades seeking to forcefully reassert its orthodox vision at a time when Iranian society has rapidly become more secular and liberal. The reform movement’s return to power in the 2010s and its subsequent failure to bring change left Iranians disillusioned about incremental evolution, sparking the first mass protests in the Islamic Republic’s history that called not for reform but for regime change. Those protests five years ago started a revolution that is now reaching its climax.