Russia and the West

A conflict born in failures of imagination.

Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center. 

After weeks of feints, offers to negotiate, threats, and counter-threats, Vladimir Putin has put the question to the West by creating facts on the ground. On Monday he ordered Russian troops to enter the eastern Ukraine Donbas region where in 2014-15 he helped ethnic Russian separatists seize a territorial enclave. He has also created two puppet states which he has promised “friendship and mutual assistance,” and he is sending them “peacekeepers” to defend the new nations, and perhaps expand their territory beyond what they already hold.

So far, the West has responded with bluster and economic sanctions that are unlikely to make Putin back off. Anticipating this move, Russia has already stockpiled $638 billion in reserves and redirected trade from the West. With China’s support, and with oil over $100 a barrel and rising, Putin calculates he can ride out sanctions just as Iran and North Korea have. He also knows Germany and other EU nations needs the Nordstream 2 natural gas pipeline, the opening of which Germany has suspended, more than Russia does. We’ll see how stalwart European sanctions are when energy prices start biting even harder.

In short, Putin acts and drives events, while we react with “words, words, words,” as Hamlet put it.

Meanwhile, here at home the Democrats’ PR firm known as the “mainstream media” focus on the conflict in order to avoid talking about runaway inflation, the porous southern border, blue-state revolts against covid mandates and racist school curricula, Canada’s descent into tyranny, and the revelations from the Durham investigation exposing more of the Clinton campaign’s involvement in confecting the Russia-Trump collusion hoax.

So how did we get here? By a century of bad foreign policy decisions that have been hostages to feckless idealism, outworn paradigms, and chronic failures of imagination.

The more proximate cause was the West’s triumphalism over the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. What our foreign policy mavens and we the people should have done is imagine the possible consequences for global order. For all the frighteningly macabre scenarios of Mutually Assured Destruction, that specter and U.S. forward-deployed troops and materiel had prevented a massive conflict the destructiveness of which would  have been several orders of magnitude greater than World War II.

The question we should have asked in 1991, then, is without that grim standoff, what would restrain ambitious aggressors no longer kept in check by two balanced superpower patrons? What threats that had been developing under cover of the superpower rivalry would now be given scope for mischief?

One threat that had surfaced in 1979 a decade before the Soviet Union collapsed, Islamic jihad, burst into the open with the Iranian Islamic Revolution and the taking of U.S. hostages; and the failed decade-long Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that bestowed global prestige and honor on Islamic jihadism. Similarly, the rise of al Qaeda and other jihadist organizations during the Nineties serially attacked with impunity U.S. interests until the gruesomely spectacular carnage on September 11.

Yet rather than being chastened by this repudiation of our “new world order” idealism, what followed was 20 years of misunderstanding the nature of Islamic jihad, and feckless nation-building wars, which enabled the expansion of Iran and Russia into Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, and the facilitated the ongoing depredations of ISIS and other jihadist gangs throughout the region, as well as Iran’s relentless progress toward possessing nuclear weapons.

Another question that needed to be asked was how the loss of a bipolar balance of nuclear terror would affect China and its ambitions. An ancient, proud civilization resentful of its diminished global stature and history of Western dominance, and convinced of its innate superiority and right to global hegemony, would now find greater scope its ambitions. The ill-conceived, bipartisan invitation of a ruthless communist regime into the global market-place––spurred on by “new world order” fantasies about the liberalizing power of commerce and trade––has facilitated a nuclear-armed rival’s attempts to diminish our global reach even as it games the “rules-based international order” to finance its growing military and create economic clients across the globe.

Finally, it doesn’t seem many of our wise men in the Nineties were thinking about how Russia, another old, proud civilization––one that sacrificed the most lives to stop Nazism––was going to handle the loss of its superpower prestige, and the humiliation of having NATO forces––whose purpose, after all, was “to keep the Russians out”––stationed on its borders.

These questions and the potential answers did not reach the public’s attention, as did the mistaken belief that the end of the Cold War confirmed the efficacy of the “new world order” made peaceful, prosperous, and democratic by global trade, international diplomacy, and supranational institutions.

Thus throughout the Nineties, as Russia descended into plutocratic plundering of its economy and nursed revanchist passions, the Clinton administration’s  policy of expanding democracy and NATO alike dismissed the prescient warning of George Kennan, architect of the successful Cold War strategy of containment:

Expanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold-war era. Such a decision may be expected to inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion; to have an adverse effect on the development of Russian democracy; to restore the atmosphere of the cold war to East-West relations; and to impel Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking.

Many analysts, then and now, scoffed at the notion that Russia should have a virtual veto on NATO expansion, or had any right to protect its sphere of influence. Today, res ipsa loquitur: expansion has indeed contributed to “inflamed nationalism,” “anti-Western tendencies,” “adverse effects on the development of Russian democracy,” and a Russian policy “decidedly not to our liking,” one that the West does not have the will to resist and correct. And there’s another failure of imagination: assuming in 1991 that Russia’s post-Soviet weakness would last forever, and not imagining that we would one day have to be willing to use force to defend the rights of other nations to join NATO.

The more general cause is the century-long indulgence of questionable foreign-policy idealism. The weaknesses and begged questions of this philosophy are legion: ignoring the global diversity of peoples, cultures, and foundational beliefs; assuming the Western way of liberal democracy, secularism, unalienable human rights, and free-market capitalism is the default destiny for all those diverse peoples; the failing to recognize the permanent, potentially destructive, unpredictable human nature and national aims; and the privileging of instrumental reason and materialist science as superior to tradition, culture, religion, and practical wisdom when trying to understand complex, diverse peoples and their irrational motives.

In fact, our three most consequential rivals––Iran, Russia, and China––all have made clear their resentment of Western hubris about the superiority of our principles and values, usually expressed in terms of democracy and human rights. Yet they’re also pleased to discover that while we talk big, we make it obvious that we’re not going to use lethal force to back up our scolding. Our idealism is laced with hypocrisy, since ultimately our actions will follow not principle, but national and political interests.

The point is not to promote cultural relativism, the specious claim that all cultures are equal, and so cannot be judged by our own parochial standards. We should understand our rivals’ beliefs and cultures so we can better understand their motives and goals, and see through their public pretexts often couched in terms of our own ideals. Just consider the promiscuous dishonest use of the term “Republic” by totalitarian regimes.

Finally, a viable idealism requires that we believe in our ideals passionately enough to consistently defend or promote them with force, especially when we preach them so frequently and arrogantly. And for that, we have to be confident that they are not just different from others, or suited just to us, but are potentially better for all peoples––a choice, however, not a destiny. But our own culture’s institutionalized sense of “unwarrantable self-abasement,” as Winston Churchill describe a demoralized England in the Thirties, signals the world that especially our cognitive elites think we are worse than other alternatives.

So here we are, no longer in control of events now driven by our global rivals. We talk big about the sacred right of nations to choose their allies, and their national integrity to be protected from aggression, but make it clear we will not fight to defend those rights. It’s time for the West, especially the U.S., to put up or shut up, and decide as a people which of those alternatives best serves our national interests and security.

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