Timothy Snyder is an American historian specializing in Central and Eastern Europe. Snyder (Dayton, Ohio, 54 years old) is a professor at Yale University and gave this interview at the Ukraine House on the Promenade of Davos, the Swiss city's main street, during the World Economic Forum celebrations. In it he discusses the war in that country and says that “Russia cannot win if Kiev’s allies behave sensibly”; the state of democracy, for which he believes citizens must show an “everyday existential commitment”; and the future of humanity with the emergence of new technologies. “It's a bit taboo to say this, but we're becoming less intelligent,” he says. As he speaks, the muffled echoes of war explosions and heartbeats can be heard from an adjacent room where images of war are displayed.
Questions. Wars are battles that depend not only on skill but also on will. I would like to ask you how you see the battle of wills between the main actors of the conflict in Ukraine. Let's start with the EU. How do you see their attitude towards the invasion of Ukraine?
Answer. I think the Europeans have done surprisingly well. I believe that European leaders have viewed this war historically correctly, that they are right to make comparisons with the 1930s and to believe that this is a moment that will determine the future of the European Union. It is a challenge not only for individual European countries, but for the idea of the European Union.
Q How do you view the United States given the wavering sentiment of isolationism within the Republican Party?
R. I'm going to blame our political system a lot because to do anything in the United States requires, to put it in parliamentary terms, an agreement between the government and the opposition. If we were in a parliamentary system and had a coalition government, we would adopt packages for Ukraine at any time and without any problem. In fact, there is a clear majority of our elected representatives who support Ukraine. And there is also a clear majority in our population. The problem is the system; that it is very difficult to pass laws. The EU expects Ukraine to adopt 250 laws this year. I would be happy if my Congress approved two of them this year. I don't deny that there is a problem, but it is not society, but the political system, with the support of a small but determined group of Republicans who, in my opinion, are actively opposed because they essentially sympathize with Putin's style systems.
Q Let's talk about Putin. SIPRI data shows that Russia invests 35% of its total public spending on war. Admiral Radakin from the United Kingdom recalled that these were similar values to those before the collapse of the USSR. How long will Putin be able to sustain these efforts?
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R. I will relate the question about Russia to the EU and the US because, as you suggest, the extent of the budgetary commitments that Russia has to maintain tells us how the war may end. 35% on the Russian side. What is the percentage for Spain? What is the percentage for the USA? I will speak for my own country. It is in the order of 5% of our defense budget. A small percentage of the total budget. If we all doubled the budget, this war would be over. Together we, the EU and North America, have overwhelming economic dominance over Russia. Russia cannot win this war as long as Ukraine's allies behave sensibly.
Q Putin recently suffered a loud rebellion led by Yevgeny Prigozhin that landed him in trouble. Then he managed to overcome it. How do you assess your ability to remain stable in power?
R. It will seem stable until everything goes away. And it will be unpredictable until it happens. That's what dictatorships are like. I'm glad you mentioned the Prigozhin episode because it was very topical and people have already forgotten about it. It's only been six months. Prigozhin's coup attempt proved several things. One of them is that a change of power in Russia will happen in a Russian way and will actually have nothing to do with us. The other thing is that this episode tells us something about the negotiations with Putin. Prigozhin negotiated with Putin, made a deal, and then Putin killed him. I think it's worth remembering when some tell Ukrainians to negotiate with Putin. There is no one there with whom you can seriously negotiate.
Q You just mentioned the Ukrainians. Let us conclude the balancing of the wills of the main actors in the conflict. How do you currently see Ukrainian society?
R. This is not a Hollywood film. It's not a situation where all the good guys survive. People die. We must recognize the weight of the sacrifice they are making before we can say they remain determined. They are very determined. They don't give up.
Q This is a war that is closely linked to the concept and reality of democracy in modern times. Major studies agree that democracy is eroding around the world. What are the main causes of this trend?
R. Democracy is not something we take for granted. It has always been an exceptional situation. It always requires constant reflection, self-reflection. If we don't think about ourselves, we won't have democracy. It is in the nature of democracy that we are capable of self-correction. But if we think that democracy is a process that survives on its own, then we have already forgotten what it is all about, namely self-correction. From there, there are a number of specific problems.
Q Which of these are you most worried about?
R. First, at least in the US, the radical inequality of wealth, which makes it difficult for people to believe that everyone belongs to the same society and makes it harder to have a single political conversation. A second problem is social media, which tends to distance people from the kinds of human conversations in which differences are understood. And the third problem is that there is a coalition of hostile, active and sometimes quite effective anti-democratic actors in the world, such as Russia. And the final, more subtle problem has to do with ethics. And here Ukraine is very important. You have to want democracy. It is not a natural state. It's something you have to want. They make sacrifices for democracy. And I think if we could internalize a little of that lesson, we would be in better shape. I think over the last 30 years people have become convinced that democracy is a mechanism. And it's not really a mechanism. It's more of an everyday, existential obligation. It's not something that surrounds us. This is something we have to do. It's an activity. And I think one of the reasons for the democratic climate is that we have forgotten it. Democracy is something we have to do.
Q When it comes to US democracy, how would you explain Donald Trump's strength to European or Latin American societies? Given his history, and particularly the issue of the attack on the Capitol, this may be difficult for many to understand.
R. It's a tricky question because I myself have difficulty understanding it empathetically. But I can name a few factors. One of them is the problem with our system. Due to the peculiarities of our system, election campaigns have a lot to do with the mood in the country and not with politics. And that ties into the second thing: He's running a very effective and intelligent campaign based not on politics but on resentment. He is not the only politician who has been successful in this way. There are other examples in Europe. His election campaign is not about governing at all. On the contrary, it's about revenge, about retribution. Thirdly, we are a very forgetful country. It is now very difficult to remind people that we actually almost lost constitutional government in our country. Still, at the risk of being wrong, let me just say that I don't think Trump's election is a sure thing. I think there are some big problems. And dominating Republican rivals is not the same as winning a general election.
Q We're talking about risks to democracy. I would like to hear your point of view on generative artificial intelligence (AI). How do you see this revolution, its impact on democracy through misinformation and on our cognitive abilities?
R. The case of Ukraine might also be useful to think about. If you look back to 2013 or 2014, when there were pro-European demonstrations in Ukraine and when Russia invaded, Russia was able to absolutely dominate the discussion not with AI, but with social media. And that was new. This was something that technology, these big platforms, had just made possible. Social media actually dominated reality. There were some fundamental things, such as Russia's invasion of Ukraine, that were lost in the discussion. Now, in a way, Ukraine also shows the answer to the fact that it is possible to use social media flexibly, but also that it is very important to have human connections. And so we see how [Volodímir] Zelensky is a human being and other Ukrainians making human connections, capable of taking ownership of the narrative and making a difference. That's the crux of the matter. There were many things that were wrong in ancient Greek democracy, and there are many things that were ineffective in local Swiss democracy, but they are right that there must be an element of human contact. Because the moment I see you, I realize that you will have different interests than me and that you are real in some way, just as I am real. When we're on the internet, I don't have to think you're real, even if you are. And often you're not, so to speak. You're often a bot or whatever. And the Internet, even before AI, guides us so that we generally associate with people who agree with us. Then from time to time we are filled with fear because that is the pattern. AI makes this all worse.
R. One risk is that AI acts as a kind of bad therapist. The kind of therapist you go to and they say, “Yeah, you're absolutely right.” You know, it's all your wife's fault. No, no, everything you did was good. You're a great human being. All your beliefs are correct. It will recycle and validate what we put into it. And that is very worrying, because democracy is only possible thanks to a kind of gentle friction between people. And we have to be able to withstand the friction. We also need to know how to do it smoothly.
Q But we are moving away from it.
R. We spend a lot of time online. We lose real friction and also lose the ability to do everything smoothly. Learning is not just informational. Learning brings with it some cognitive discomfort. Encountering things that surprise us, that are difficult for us. But we learn from them. And AI will take them away from us. Without discomfort there is no learning. And that's why I'm worried about it. It's a bit taboo to say this, but I worry that we're all becoming less intelligent. And to me our defensive attitude towards it is a sign that we have become less intelligent. If we became smarter, we would be better able to accept criticism. But as we become less intelligent, we also become more defensive about being less intelligent and it becomes taboo. But I think it's a real problem.
Q There is a lot of criticism of the West, particularly the Joe Biden administration, over alleged double standards in Ukraine and the Gaza Strip. Do you think the US government should have put more pressure on the Israeli government to respond to the Hamas attack with more caution towards civilians in the Gaza Strip? Does this harm the position of the US government, the US and the West?
R. As for this general comparison, before we start criticizing governments, which I am about to do, we need to be honest and clear about the comparison we are making. The conflict in Gaza is very different from the conflict in Ukraine. The conflict in Ukraine is morally very simple. And it's also much easier militarily because it takes place between two armies. The ethics of the Israel-Gaza conflict are much more complicated. And the solution, unlike between Russia and Ukraine, cannot really be a military solution. The solution must be political. And I don't think it makes sense to support Israel unconditionally. It is normal for Israel to react in some way. We cannot forget how large and terrible the Hamas attacks were. But the biggest problem for Israel and for people who care about Israel is endless war. It will be impossible for Israel to occupy Gaza, that will not happen. And it is morally harmful and wrong for Israel to respond to crimes with more crimes. As an American, I think that American policy should have said from the beginning that any military action by Israel must be aimed at a political solution that we can define, because more military action in itself does not necessarily bring a political solution. And I personally worry that the people who govern Israel will, to put it mildly, not come to the conclusion on their own that there needs to be a political solution. I think this idea has to come from outside. Therefore, I believe that American policy should move in this direction.
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