In the past two months, small countries with little or no democracy have learned a hard lesson on who will help them if they are attacked.
First in March, Ukraine stood helpless as Russian troops took over its Crimean Peninsula. Then this week, China sent dozens of ships into waters off Vietnam and began its first deepwater oil drilling in waters claimed by another country. The Chinese ships rammed Vietnamese Coast Guard vessels and fired water cannons at them.
Both acts of aggression have upended assumptions about the current world order between big powers. But most of all, they should refocus interest in the protection provided by alliances among countries that share the civic values of individual rights and freedoms.
Ukraine and Vietnam each lie next to giant countries, Russia and China, respectively. Yet they are not members in any mutual-defense treaty that binds many of the full-fledged democracies in Europe and Asia. Ukraine’s government remains in political limbo after the ouster of a corrupt, authoritarian ruler. And Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party suppresses almost all dissent. By not being in a democratic club, they are targets for expansion plans by their big neighbors.
Russia would think very hard before taking parts of Poland or the Baltic states, which are secure as democracies within NATO. And while Chinese maritime forces harass islands claimed by Japan and the Philippines, Beijing knows these democracies are part of a string of alliances around Asia backed by American power. For China, Vietnam remains the easiest pickings.
The strength of security pacts among democracies is not mainly in their warships and fighter jets. As President Obama stated in a 2011 swing through Asia, “the ultimate source of power and legitimacy [is] the will of the people.” That was the key lesson of World Wars I and II, and the cold war, but one not yet absorbed by many countries.
In a speech at NATO headquarters Wednesday, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe linked the Russian and Chinese aggressions. He suggested the transatlantic alliance still has a role similar to the one it had during the cold war. “The security environments surrounding Japan and Europe are once again becoming increasingly severe,” Mr. Abe said.
Vietnam has sought American military weapons to defend itself from China. But its poor record on freedom remains a stumbling block for the United States. In December, Secretary of State John Kerry announced a deal to help strengthen the Vietnamese Coast Guard. But it is only for $18 million. “Frankly,Vietnam needs to show a continued progress on human rights and freedoms, including the freedom of religion, the freedom of expression, and the freedom of association,” Mr. Kerry said bluntly during a trip to Hanoi.
In contrast, the Philippines and US signed a new agreement in April to boost their security alliance by allowing American forces to use bases in the Southeast Asian country. The new pact will boost the Philippines’ deterrent against China. The US and Japan have also beefed up their alliance since China has made new claims on the Senkaku Islands.
Mr. Obama’s “pivot” to Asia is often seen chiefly in military terms, such as moving more US ships and planes to the region. Yet the main US strategy is to boost democracy in the region, such as in Myanmar (Burma), Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam. In Europe, too, the West seeks to bolster Ukraine’s plans for a May 25 election.
The best defense against aggression is intangible – the universal rights of freedom and a respect for the dignity of the individual. Nations that unite around those values have shown a strength that draws more nations to join them. Ukraine is now trying. Vietnam has a long way to go. But they have strong reasons to hurry up.