Tocqueville and Ukraine: European Union, Freedom, and Responsibility
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen speaks during a press statement on Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Brussels on February 24, 2022. (Photo by Kenzo Tribouillard via Getty Images)

Tocqueville and Ukraine: European Union, Freedom, and Responsibility

Eric Clifford Graf
Eric Clifford Graf
8 min read

As Russia pushed into Ukraine, we learned that Germany was still preparing to ship 5,000 helmets to the besieged European country. The US, meanwhile, had already sent $2.5 billion in military aid there since 2014. The contrast between the wills and capabilities of the US and Europe appeared to signal that the free-rider problem would remain an unfortunate consequence of the Cold War. But then something changed.

For reasons that are still not entirely clear, Europe roused itself from the pacific slumber into which it had lapsed beneath the US’s protective umbrella. On February 26th, Germany ended its longstanding refusal to send lethal aid to conflict zones and announced that it would ship 1,000 anti-tank weapons and 500 Stinger anti-aircraft defense systems to Ukraine. The following day, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz committed to spending more than two percent of GDP on defense from now on.

A few hours later, the President of the EU Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, announced that “For the first time, the EU will finance the purchase and delivery of weapons and equipment to a country under attack.” Sanctions against Russia, she announced, would also be strengthened:

Within an hour of the EU announcement, Sweden declared that it would send 5,000 rocket launchers along with helmets, body armor, and field rations to Ukraine.

These moves are unprecedented. Not only has Putin’s invasion of Ukraine united NATO, but it has regalvanized a previously divided and irresolute continent in a way that not even the sectarian bloodletting in the Balkans during the 1990s could manage. Although the war in Ukraine is still in its early stages, Russian progress has surely not been as swift or decisive as Putin hoped, and his assumptions about the fecklessness and weakness of liberal democracies may yet prove to be among his most consequential miscalculations.

Those assumptions, however, were not spun from nothing. For too long, Europe has been enfeebled by its reliance on the protection offered by a Pax Americana. With the rise of revanchist great powers, this is not a luxury the Old World can continue to afford.


In Volume Two of Democracy in America (1840), Alexis de Tocqueville noted that, although centralized national governments will decide global issues, wherever possible, local issues are best left in the hands of citizens. This was far more than a conservative case for the efficiency or fairness of decentralized government. Rather, Tocqueville was worried that the centralization of government would emasculate the habits and minds of the citizenry of a democracy, thereby weakening its ability to adapt to future circumstances and defend itself.

As he surveyed the unintended consequences of a free society, Tocqueville’s reasoning was gloomy, skeptical, and paradoxical. To combat apathy—from which free societies suffer precisely because they emphasize personal independence—he observed that Americans cultivated local responsibility for maintaining freedom. Municipal governance effectively supplies the experience needed for the preservation of freedom as a public good. Without this experience, ignorance and dependency leave citizens vulnerable to the short-term promises of demagogues, whereas experience managing complex local affairs educates and liberates the people who live there, making them better stewards of the nation at large.

But there lurks here a counterintuitive and potentially existential problem. When free citizens are deprived of the experience of self-governance, they are at particular risk of retreating into the necessary management of their own lives. They too easily lose interest in cooperating with their neighbors or working to maintain critical aspects of their environment. Entrusting citizens with the management of local affairs, Tocqueville observed, would encourage awareness of and concern for public welfare, and provide a bulwark against apathy.

From the outset, Tocqueville signaled the lesson for French readers by quoting Malesherbes’s address to Louis XVI regarding the unfortunate sociopolitical circumstances of 1775. The French monarchy, he argued, had unwittingly provided the tinder for revolutionary unrest, exposed itself to the agents of tyranny, and created the conditions for its own collapse:

The deliberations of the inhabitants of a village are declared invalid if they have not been authorized by an intendant ... the community is deprived of the power of exercising its rights. These, Sire, are the means by which all municipal spirit has been stifled in France and by which all the opinions of the citizens have been smothered, as far as it was possible; the entire nation has been as it were silenced and given over to guardians.

Tocqueville argued that the same debilitating process continued under the guise of the French Revolution and every imperial and restoration government since: “How could one express it better today than that the French Revolution has achieved what one might call conquests in the matter of centralization? In 1789, Jefferson wrote to one of his friends from Paris: ‘Never was there a country where the practice of governing too much had taken deeper root and done more mischief.’ Letters to Madison, 28 August 1789.”

For Jefferson, Madisonian federal republicanism was the ultimate guarantor of liberty—citizens living together in a republican city state comport themselves in ways similar to what one might expect from various states that are signatories to the constitution of a federal republic. Reading Jefferson, Madison, and Tocqueville, we find that classical liberals viewed ceding power to local parties as a virtue bordering on an axiom.


Applying Tocqueville’s experiential theory to international relations, we might think of each nation as an institution, and an alliance like the EU as a network of such institutions. A more dogmatic view of this classical liberal theory would observe that the adaptability, utility, and functionality of an alliance of nations requires that its constituents assume responsibility for their own freedom. But Europeans have assumed responsibility for every aspect of normal governance except force. It is common in international affairs for weakness to invite coercion; it is also typical that the most effective force is wielded by those who want to be free.

Do Europeans want to be free? If so, they must seize the opportunity provided by the Ukraine crisis to learn to be serious geopolitical actors again; they should muster serious armed forces along with the will to assume the responsibility of defending liberty among a complex community of nations. It has proven dangerous, unwise, and unhealthy to be dependent on Americans, who have their hands full with China and domestic problems of their own.

The senior echelons of the Russian military resemble Europe’s own floundering feudal aristocracy as described by Tocqueville. They have become a noble caste that has outlived its social utility by many generations. Their values are logical, but only when viewed in the context of a hyper-violent world that we seem no longer able to comprehend. Europe, on the other hand, has 10 times the GDP of Russia and can easily afford to arm itself to deter Putin. His weapons would be rendered futile and his antiquated status made clear to his own people and the world.

That does not, of course, mean that Europe should drive an army toward Moscow or Volgograd. It does, however, mean adjusting budgets, facilities, staff, and training so that Russia understands that to press beyond Ukraine (should its conquest of that sovereign nation succeed) is to engage all of Europe from Portugal to Scotland to Finland with zero hope of success.

But Germany’s unwillingness to arm the EU or to antagonize Russia has hitherto handicapped any response to exactly the kind of bellicosity that such pacifism invites. Europe’s problem has admittedly included a degree of guilt regarding historical events that is staggering to imagine. But this guilt can and should be overcome if the kind of atrocities that produced it are to be prevented in the future.

What the world needs now is a European League of Free States. Until the present crisis erupted, Europe had allowed itself to become self-absorbed, hedonistic, and irresponsible. Apparently rattled by the violence and effrontery of Putin’s assault on Ukraine, the continent is finally reasserting itself. Perhaps Europe will at last apprehend that it needs armed forces that can project power globally, and that the benefits of such forces surely outweigh their complications. A strong confederation comprised of several large nations and a number of small ones, and with sufficient internal dissidence, has no reason to fear a repeat of WWI or WWII. Europe should be encouraged to work for its own preservation.


All of this is to admit that at least some of the blame for the current predicament lies with Americans, who have fostered a culture of dependence in the Old World. We fumbled the ball at Versailles in 1919, and performed only marginally better in the decades after 1945. We have resembled Louis XVI, ignoring the warnings of Malesherbes in 1775. By imposing rules, weapons, policies, and guidance we have destroyed the self-governing instincts of Europeans. Until this current crisis, many European governments were no longer responsible, and in some cases, no longer serious.

More importantly, we allowed this to happen to Europeans at their own expense—the ability to thrive on their own and to defend their own way of life appeared to atrophy. They lost sight of the very first order of governance, and as the Balkan wars demonstrated, found themselves unable to muster the military means necessary to halt genocide on their own continent without US assistance. America had unintentionally transformed Europeans from responsible citizens into dependent subjects at the mercy of fortune, many of whom despised us. Charity, after all, reliably breeds contempt.

This was a moral error, but it was also strategically suboptimal. Because when tyrants do come to Europe—attracted by the cultural malaise and the governing paralysis—their power and menace will be all the greater. Better to avoid that outcome by returning responsibility for self-defense to the people of Europe. Even setting aside the economic cost and the time required to re-establish the effectiveness of European armed forces—both of which we can expect to be substantial—the consequences to the US and the free world of continuing to shore up Europeans are compounding.

Responsibility and self-reliance, not dependence on the US, will be best for Europe and America, and even for those Russians and Chinese who seek to win freedom from their own despotic regimes. Everyone involved should have to confront the unrest in their own publics without the luxury of exporting their frustrations via nationalistic adventures in such places as Ukraine and Taiwan. This is why a strong and inviolable Europe is such a fundamental lynchpin to world peace and progress. It offers the hope of security as well as the hope of a model for that security.


Tocqueville was arguably overly optimistic about the ability of leagues of free commercial nations to maintain a peaceful and independent world order in which to flourish and avoid the ravages of tyrannical mass movements. But he agreed generally with Hamilton, Madison, and Jay in The Federalist Papers that the major shortcoming of leagues is their lack of cohesion (see F6, 7, 15, 16, 18, 38, 43, 45). But if a league is to exist at all, it must first agree to arrange its regional security. To be sure, Tocqueville insisted we should also worry about our own capacity for unruly armies, opportunistic dictators, and stupefied citizens, specifying what to watch for in these cases. However, apathy and ignorance due to lack of local governing experience are their ultimate causes.

Concluding Volume One of Democracy in America (1835), Tocqueville made an ominous observation which may have led one of Dostoevsky’s characters in Devils (1871–72) to tour the US: “Today, two great nations of the earth seem to be advancing toward the same destination from different starting points: the Russians and the Anglo-Americans.” But that is long over, and the West won decisively. It is now time for Europe to step up and demonstrate to Russia that it too believes in itself.

All nations in Europe share an interest in regional stability, but those on the periphery of Germany and France—nations such as Spain, Hungary, and Estonia—should most pressure their colleagues in Brussels to continue to take self-defense seriously once the present conflict reaches its endgame. The Russian assault on Ukraine already seems to be changing European attitudes to defense, and Americans should embrace Europe’s tentative steps towards self-sufficiency in matters of security.

During her address announcing the delivery of arms to Ukraine, Ursula von der Leyen called the EU’s decision “a watershed moment.” It may be that Europeans have begun the difficult process of renewing their faith in themselves and in Western Civilization, which has suffered an epic case of navel-staring abulia. It’s probably the best way to ensure that peace and stability are eventually recovered by the people of Ukraine, and even Russia herself.

PoliticsForeign AffairsEurope

Eric Clifford Graf

Eric Clifford Graf studies early modern Spain. He is author of Anatomy of Liberty (2021), De Reyes a Lobos (2009), and Cervantes and Modernity (2007).