Tocqueville Conversations 2022
Tocqueville Conversations in the Shadow of the Ukraine War: Failure of Change through Trade?

© Unsplash,Kurt Cotoaga

Strolling up the tree-lined path to the Château d’Alexis de Tocqueville, gazing at the picturesque castle against the idyllic panorama of sun-drenched Normandy, one almost forgets that a dark war is raging at the other end of Europe, causing unimaginable human suffering. However, since the cruel reality cannot be ignored even in this peaceful setting, this year’s Tocqueville Conversations were all about the Russia-Ukraine war. But what can Tocqueville, the father of Western liberalism, tell us almost 200 years later on the war in Eastern Europe? What reflections does he give us to the question of war and peace?

“As equality, developing at the same time in several countries, simultaneously pushes the men who inhabit them toward industry and commerce,” Tocqueville wrote at his time, “not only are their tastes similar, but also their interests mingle and become entangled, so that no nation can inflict harm on others that does not come back on itself, and all end by considering war as a calamity almost as great for the victor as for the defeated.”[1]

In his treatise “Democracy in America” Tocqueville not only laid the foundation for the discipline of comparative politics, but also developed the first lines of thought for the later emerging liberal theory in international relations, which today is often associated with concepts such as “change through trade” or “democratic peace”. It is a remarkable view that even today, almost two centuries after it was written, and shapes the understanding of many people in international politics. However, these intermingling and entanglements of trade and interests with Russia have not led to the prevention of armed conflicts. This is apparent particularly in Russia’s war against Ukraine.

How can the Value-based West Deal with the Russian War?

How should the EU and other democratic states respond to Russia’s attack? Are economic or civil society relations with Russia still conceivable in the near future? And what alliances do we need to ward off the threat of conflict escalation? Answering all these questions has been a major task of international politics since February this year. In any case, the so-called “change through trade,” as Tocqueville already dimly anticipated in the 1830s, no longer seems to be a viable solution for most of the participants at the Tocqueville Conversations 2022.

Change through Trade as Part of Liberal Theory in International Relations

Following liberal theory in international relations, a state’s foreign policy is shaped by domestic or sub-systemic actors, processes, and structures. Hence, domestic and societal actors with their diverse interests and aims can influence the state and determine its foreign policy actions. Of course, the assertiveness of these actors depends on various factors. First, on the ability of the respective societal actors to organize and resolve conflicts, and second, on the “strength” of the state, meaning its capability of influencing social relations and asserting its (foreign policy) interests vis-à-vis societal actors. We find this kind of “strength” especially in non-democratic states, which at this point includes Russia.

So what are the basic assumptions for “change through trade”? On the one hand, the bond created by trade relationships promotes democratization and liberalization in the less liberal state and, on the other hand, it manifests the dependencies created by cooperation in order to avoid conflictual and belligerent foreign policy. Furthermore, domestic actors are encouraged to assert their interests against their own state in order to continue enjoying the benefits of international exchange. Accordingly, “change” towards more liberalism and democracy should be the desired outcome of “trade”. The calamity caused by a possible foreign policy conflict, as Tocqueville put it, would therefore fall back on the belligerent state itself and would thus be of disadvantage to it.

The Failure of Change through Trade in Russia

The hope of democratizing a state’s political system in the long term through joint trade relations and civil society cooperation has clearly been shattered by reality in the case of Russia. Although liberal theory generally assumes that the positive effects primarily occur between liberal-democratic states, many western nations have nonetheless trusted that there will be pleasant developments in autocratic states as well. Apparently, this did not happen.

Russia’s attack on Ukraine shows that common economic ties and other interdependencies are no guarantee of producing a peaceful foreign policy. Companies and societal groups within Russia continue to have no discernible influence on their government’s foreign policy actions. On the contrary, the “strong” Russian state silences opposition voices and is jailing critics of the aggressive war. Maintaining previous political and economic relations with such a regime has been deliberately called into question since February 24, 2022. Confidence in Russia has been completely lost and so demands for more security in the form of military armament and the creation of new alliances, a feature of realism, are becoming louder.

More Security and Isolation of Russia

One main finding of the Tocqueville Conversations is that Russia under Putin cannot remain an equal partner in international politics. Calls for tighter sanctions and the supply of heavy weapons to Ukraine illustrate a shift from liberal thinking in international politics to a more realistic foreign policy approach. Due to the unpredictability of Putin and his government, other states on Russia’s borders and in Europe are no longer safe from Russian aggression. For many, taking active steps to improve defense is the only correct consequence.

One thing is for sure: Russia’s imperial aspirations have not been taken seriously enough in the past. Dependence on energy and raw materials blinded the West to Russia’s imperial appetites. The increase of NATO troops on the Baltic borders with Russia is recognized as the only logical conclusion, as stressed for instance by the Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis.

Another necessity is the extension of sanctions to put enough pressure on Russia, forced to abandon its bellicose foreign policy. Free economic relations are hardly conceivable under these circumstances.

Another step under discussion is the delivery of heavy weapons to Ukraine. Although some security policymakers, such as former U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, are wary of this measure in light of a Russian nuclear response, this concern is not widely shared.

In order to counter the danger of an aggressive foreign policy by autocratic states in the long term, it is all the more urgent for the EU to stick together and assume a stronger leadership role in the world. Countries like China and Russia no longer perceive the EU as an equal interlocutor. Strengthening the EU is therefore a necessary step in countering this development according to Nicola Beer, Vice President of the EU Parliament.

Realism as the Only Way Out?

The bleak prospects for the Russian aggression hardly allow any other conclusion than increasing rearmament and an isolation of Russia. Has the liberal promise thus failed completely? This question cannot be answered in the affirmative. Of course, economic relations and civil society cooperation have not been able to prevent Putin’s bellicose foreign policy. Nevertheless, there are many examples in the world where this form of cooperation has led to peaceful coexistence. This is partly due to the fact that diverse social and economic interdependencies generate dependencies that instruct one state not to cut off good relations with another. In times of globalization, this can be observed particularly in the exchange of technology.

Even a country like Russia is no longer able to manufacture or maintain important spare parts such as turbines, which it needs for its gas pipelines, so that it is also dependent on the expertise of Western nations if it does not want to be totally technologically left behind. While this does not currently prevent it from fomenting conflict, such trade-offs may well be of immense importance to other, future governments. Moreover, it is unclear how the Russian Federation will evolve if Putin’s government is no longer in power. A good relationship with domestic actors could then be helpful in moving policy in a positive and more peaceful direction. A society that is completely isolated from the West might have less interest in following this path.

If the European Union is to play a more important role in the world in the future and act as a liberal-democratic beacon, it must set a good example itself. This includes, above all, consistently taking its own values seriously and demanding liberal and democratic development in all relationships. In this regard, double standards must not be applied. We can try to bring about change in the world through trade, but we should also set consistent conditions without which such trade is not possible. This is the only way we can make a positive difference. A liberal difference.

Tobias Winkelsett is scholarship holder of the Friedrich-Naumann Foundation for Freedom and is conducting research on Middle Eastern Politics and Islamist Movements at TU Dortmund University.


[1] de Tocqueville, Alexis (2010). Democracy in America: Historical-Critical Edition of De la démocratie en Amérique. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund. p. 1179.