The events of the past two weeks in Ukraine have assaulted the senses of a Western world that convinced itself war like this was no longer possible.
Europe, we were promised, wasn’t supposed to be like this. War always happened somewhere else.
Now one of the world’s largest armies rolling across the border of a neighboring country has brought comparisons to World War II.
T.V. screens filled with images of desperate refugees fleeing for the border, buildings bombarded, the death toll mounting, a people’s army brandishing guns, and Molotov cocktails staring down a nuclear-armed Russia.
Journalists and commentators revealed their own bias: these people, they said, “looked like us.” They were white, European, “civilized.”
War and refugees are what we see in the Middle East and Africa. So we think.
But humanity’s bloodiest wars were fought on the European continent. Not just the two World Wars, but the 19th century “Thirty Years War” and all of the other wars of religion before that which laid waste to entire populations.
Now Russian President Vladimir Putin is waging what he terms a “holy war.” War for the ancient territory of the “Holy Rus” — Russian homelands.
The Pursuit of Peace
No one is responsible for Putin’s murderous rampage but Putin. He claims mitigation — NATO encroachment and enlargement, Western humiliation — but mitigation is not justification. But that this can happen in our world should give us all pause for thought.
For centuries we have pursued the relentless progress of “modernity,” the elevation of reason and rationality above all. The human is god.
We followed reason and rationality to the guillotine, the gulag, and the gas chamber. Each time we told ourselves we had entered a higher stage of humanity only to plunge into war once more.
Once again, we confront the darker side of “modernity.” That for all our talk of enlightenment — and Steven Pinker’s paeans to progress that allows us to live longer, more healthily, and supposedly more peaceably — the world remains capable of barbarism.
As Immanuel Kant, the philosopher who asked the question “What is enlightenment?” said: “So long as human culture remains at its present stage, war is, therefore, an indispensable means of it advancing further.”
Kant wrote those words more than two centuries ago, and still, his dream of what he called “perpetual peace” eludes us.
Ukraine has stunned us out of our anesthetized state. For all its unrivaled achievements, the modern world has also left us dulled, alienated, and atomized.
Technology has delivered us to a point where we can order a pizza and have it brought to our door without ever seeing the person who cooked our food or the underpaid cyclist riding in the rain to deliver it.
Now the conflict in Ukraine has cracked our world open. What we couldn’t or wouldn’t see in the faces of those already suffering and crushed by war in other places, we certainly cannot avoid now.
The war asks hard questions about what we call a “rules-based order.” Do the rules apply? Who enforces them? Is might right?
Putin certainly thinks so. And the nation that has dominated since the end of World War II, the United States, struggles to renew its moral purpose.
U.S. President Joe Biden has said unequivocally the U.S. will not send troops to fight for Ukraine. He will lead a Western response and send money, aid, and weapons. But the West will not spill blood for a sovereign democratic nation that may not exist — at least as we know it — when this war is over.
Biden faces a world with no moral absolutes, just hard moral choices with monstrous repercussions.
A Big Miss
This is how far the world has come since 1991. Then, the Soviet Union collapsed, signaling the end of the Cold War. Remember this? “Mr. Gorbachev, Tear Down That Wall!” That was President Reagan standing at the Berlin border wall. Gorbachev heard Mr. Reagan and did precisely that, not knowing the Soviet Union was about to be “toast.”
The U.S. stood alone as the world’s great power. As Jose Luis Fiore, a professor of international political economy, put it: “There was no other power capable of questioning the will of the U.S.”
Liberal democracy had won the war, but it is accused of squandering the peace.
To quote the political philosopher Judith Shklar: “Liberalism has become unsure of its moral basis.”
The end of the Cold War marked a victory for what social scientist, Simon Reid-Henry, has called “political minimalism.” It was an outgrowth of the “Atlantic centered post-war order.” I’m sure everyone reading this follows along, saying, “Absolutely correct, Sir!”
After World War II, a new form of politics emerged, as Reid-Henry said, “in favor of a narrower, negative focus on the defense of liberty as the primary task of any legitimate political system.”
It avoided a focus on equality. That could come later, if at all. And as Reid-Henry argued, the architects of the post-war order increasingly made a case for the use of “political violence” in defense of the order.
Reid-Henry said the result “was indeed more about order than it was about liberalism; it was about consolidating political authority in the name of freedom.” Many Americans may disagree with that.
Political minimalism morphed into the dominant neo-liberal ideology that elevated the market as the arbiter of justice and fairness. The market was even elevated above society itself.
One professor of Russian and European politics summed up some of the perils of triumphant liberalism:
“The political West as it had taken shape after 1945 in the form of the Atlantic power system saw no reason for transformation, fearing normal dilution, institutional dysfunction and weakened political partisanship, and instead advanced an increasingly ambitious program of expansion. The logic of transformation ran into the logic of expansion. In the end, 1989 was not ultimately transformative and only reproduced in new forms the expansive logic of the politics that it sought to overcome.”
When the Cold War ended, the West missed the chance to enhance the virtue of its liberalism, appearing instead boastful, triumphant, and expansionist. Since then, we have seen Western nations wage war and be accused of breaching international law.
A meritocracy — a new royalty — has dominated power inside liberal democracies exploiting massive inequality, power, and privilege. While economic globalization lifted untold numbers out of poverty and increased global wealth, it also left people behind.
And now comes Ukraine and Putin’s lust for dominance. It wasn’t an impulse that led Vladimir to light the fires of war and start the caissons rolling. Ukraine is at war with Vladimir Putin. And this war is one that the West does not know how to fight.
The collapse of the global financial system has exacerbated their suffering. They feel abandoned, and they are angry. It has fuelled political populism and tribalism, feeding on the worst impulses of separatism and xenophobia. Of course, the cries in the U.S. of racism have become little more than a yawn for most because the lack of substance and explanation rings hollow in their absence.
There has been a blowback beyond the West: the rise of Islamist terrorism, more powerful strains of nationalism, and, of course, the rise of authoritarian China and its partner, Russia.
Before he became president, Putin was growing desperate about Russia’s future. Ten years after the fall of the Berlin Wall that ushered in the collapse of the Soviet Union, Putin saw his nation in a death spiral.
In a speech titled Russia at the Turn of the Millennium, Putin said:
“Russia is in the midst of one of the most difficult periods in its history. For the first time in the past 200-300 years, it is facing a real threat of sliding to the second, and possibly even third, echelon of world states. We are running out of time for removing this threat. We must strain all intellectual, physical and moral forces of the nation. We need coordinated creative work. Nobody will do it for us.”
He has played a long game, and his gamble on a return of Russian glory is now being acted out in the most devastating fashion with a mounting death toll, Ukrainians fleeing their country and cities on fire.
We live in the shadow of 1989. The fall of the Berlin Wall marked the end of the 20th century and a new and different world. But in the same year, the People’s Liberation Army in China opened fire on their own people in Tiananmen Square. That was the birth of the 21st century. We are now caught between time and nations that are worlds apart. The Left in Europe and the U.S. were sure that liberalism and democracy (they call “progressivism) set us the highest of goals hoping for great peace and an economic expansion never before seen.
But its principles have failed. That utopia required diminishing the value of citizenship, love of Country, patriotism, and the commitment to freedom and all that freedom provides. The Left thrived on the mockery of faith, constant focus on gross inequality, and community collapse. Today in “their” world, human rights are determined more by the market than inherent human worth. The U.S. Constitution and its promises of freedom and equality for all are little more than an issue of a comic book. At the same time, authoritarian regimes have across the globe have grown bolder with their focus now on the U.S.
The war in Ukraine should shake us from our slumber and ask us again to commit to not a “better” America but a stronger and “freer” America: the one our forefathers created for us. We need to revive that nation “of the People, by the People, and for the People,” and stop just saying that and just “Do It.”
Let’s be honest: the people of Ukraine look at Russian President Vladimir Putin as their enemy. Long before this invasion, they envisioned the United States of America as THE bastion of independence and true liberty on Earth. Most, if not all, Ukrainians longed to either live in the U.S. or to have our collective structure of government from top to bottom in their government.
Isn’t it ironic? The Party in charge of government disagrees with the Ukrainians! And, apparently, Democrats espouse a nation that is more like Vladimir Putin’s than ours!