Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
After the West finally toughened up economic sanctions against Russia and started providing Ukraine with weapons and other materiel, much commentary has appeared celebrating Europe’s awakening from its decades of myopic foreign policy idealism. Typical was columnist Michael Barone, who announced “a vast and historic transformation in Europe . . . that will continue reverberating, no matter what happens in Ukraine.”
But judging from past history, these moments of renewed vigor are unlikely to produce the deeper structural reforms needed to meet future challenges, especially from China and Iran.
There’s no question that EU nations have taken steps no one would have expected. Most noteworthy, Germany, which has long institutionalized pacifism and zero-carbon energy goals as expressions of national identity, is providing weapons to Ukraine, pledging to keep closed the Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia, and postpone the decommissioning of its remaining nuclear power plants. It also promises to raise its military spending by 100 billion Euros, with 78% of Germans approving the move.
According to German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, “February 24 marks a turning point in the history of our continent.” The EU and NATO, as optimists claim, are now restoring national defense and military preparedness to its rightful place in their spending, rather than relying on U.S. taxpayers to subsidize their security.
However, we’ve lived through such confident predictions before. After 9/11, the proliferation of flags on houses, the numbers of people joining the military, the return of open displays of patriotism and affection for our country, and the swift punishment of the Taliban for enabling the 9/11 attacks all suggested “this changes everything,” as many said. The vacation from history during the Nineties was over, and the U.S. was back, confident in the righteousness of its power and the goodness of its political order.
It didn’t take long for all that to change. The 2003 war in Iraq was waged during the presidential primary season, and the conflicts over the intelligence justifying it became politicized. Howard Dean’s insurgent primary campaign, and its antiwar demagoguery, caught fire and concentrated the minds of the establishment candidates. Senators John Kerry, John Edward, and Hillary Clinton––all of whom had voted for the Authorization for the Use of Military Force Against Iraq based on the same intelligence used by the Bush administration––turned against the war. Fabulist Michael Moore’s duplicitous documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 became an in-kind contribution to the Democrat Party. Antiwar activists were “back in Saigon,” and the media filled with “Bush lied, millions died” and “no blood for oil” jingles and warnings about “escalation,” “quagmires,” “torture,” and “unjust war.”
For our adversaries, the return of American self-loathing, failure of nerve, and sacrifice of the nation’s security and interests to political expediency reassured them that the American “mincing Leviathan,” as Dennis Miller put it, that they knew and loved was back. The flags disappeared, and the country elected the vacuous “lightworker” Barack Obama, who instituted a foreign policy of retreat and “leading from behind,” and warned us against celebrating “American exceptionalism” as a uniquely defining feature, since “Brits believe in British exceptionalism, and the Greeks in Greek exceptionalism,” as Obama lectured in 2009.
That repudiation of “this changes everything” should make us skeptical of claims like Chancellor Schroder’s “turning point in history.” For one thing, there is less to the recent “tough sanctions” than meets the eye. The exclusion of Russian banks, for example, from the SWIFT system for managing global finance affects only seven banks, and leaves out Russia’s oil and gas sales. Much of the rest comprises promises for the future that are hostage to future governments and voters.
The most serious reservation regards the continuation of Western, especially European, dependence on Russian oil and gas. As even Aristophanes’ Lysistrata knew in his famous comedy, war depends on money, which is why the women barricade the treasury on the Acropolis. Right now the U.S. and Europe are paying Putin $1 billion a day for gas and oil, but sanctions on energy production and transactions––36% of Russia’s national revenue––are off the table, since the economic damage to the West would be too great. And given oil prices at $110 a barrel, average gas prices in the U.S. approaching $5 a gallon, and rates of inflation the highest in 40 years, the costs to politicians facing elections are too big to risk.
From a broader perspective, the most important reason for tempering our enthusiasm about “turning points” is the persistence of dysfunctional ideals that have contributed to the current crisis. These include the fantasies of a “new world order” in which increasing prosperity and the spread of liberal democracy will replace force with “diplomatic engagement.” This dubious idea has made appeasement of aggressors easier, for it gives Western leaders and diplomats a means for masking the lack of necessary action with endless talk at “summits” good only for photo-ops and braggadocios rhetoric. Given that the action needed to check an aggressor costs lives, money, and possibly a political career, diplomatic theater is the go-to response.
The current crisis is a good illustration of this dynamic. As the Wall Street Journal writes, Putin has long declared his malign intensions: “As far back as 2007, in a speech at the Munich Security Conference, Mr. Putin excoriated the European security order and teed up NATO enlargement as a ‘serious provocation’ that would justify a serious Russian response. His tone was fierce. In 2008 he reportedly told then-President George W. Bush he didn’t consider Ukraine a real country.”
That same year Putin snatched part of Georgia, and faced only ineffective economic sanctions. In 2014, no doubt he was emboldened by Obama’s global apology tour, preference for “leading from behind,” and anxious solicitation of a “reset” with Russia along with a promise of “flexibility” after the election. So no surprise that Putin acted on what he had publicly announced six years earlier about Ukraine not being a “real county,” and annexed Crimea and Ukraine’s Donbas region. Again, no response apart from diplomatic scolding and ineffective sanctions.
More troublesome, even as we are trying to confront a brutal aggressor in Ukraine, our diplomats in Vienna are partnering with Russia to restore the feckless Iran nuclear deal with a genocidal regime that, like Putin, has made clear its traditional jihadist aims of establishing Islam’s sharia hegemony over the whole world. Such is the incoherence of our decrepit foreign policy orthodoxy.
As a result of that stale paradigm, we are now faced with the biggest armed conflict in Europe since 1945, one that no Western leader is going to mobilize his military, or even shut down Russia’s oil and gas revenue, to end. The institutional structures, foreign policy shibboleths, and political calculations that have put us between a geopolitical rock and a hard place have not changed. This means sooner or later, Barone’s “transformation” will stop “reverberating.”
The second deep-seated bad idea that has made this crisis so difficult is the war on carbon that the West has been waging for decades, and that has given Putin such powerful leverage. Europe may keep some nuclear power plants and build some LNG terminals, but the underlying rationale for this obsession with “green” and “renewable” energy is not going to be abandoned. “Climate change,” which is more correctly known as Anthropogenic Catastrophic Global Warming (ACGW), is too embedded in the cultures of the West despite its dubious science and reliance on hinky computer models. There is too much money to be made from “green” subsidies and research grants.
But there’s something more than just lucre. In a secular age of declining traditional faiths, political religions fill the void. ACGW embodies old nature-love myths and anxieties about modernity and technology, yet wraps itself in the quantitative data and polysyllabic jargon of science, the better to exploit our cognitive elite’s fetish for “following the science.” The “climate change” gospel, then, serves our innate need for a master narrative about good and evil, redemption, and the superiority of our virtue.
The cost of this cult has been high. Pursuing the green-energy chimera has endangered the West’s access to the cheap energy that has powered the phenomenal growth in wealth across the globe. And it has empowered Russia and China, who have no intention of following the West over the green cliff. Hence the most stark repudiation of the “net-zero carbon” delusion: even if the West creates a carbon-free world, temperatures will not decline. But our civilization will, while emission-spewing China replaces the West as the global hegemon.
For a true “turning point” to happen, it will take more than a pipeline here or nuclear power-plant there. The whole cult of ACGW that permeates our culture, schools, entertainment, and corporations will have to discredited, while our own oil and gas resources are aggressively developed, just as Donald Trump did during his term, leaving the U.S. the world’s top producer and exporter of oil products and natural gas.
Finally, all the countries of the West need to increase their defense spending, and NATO in particular. The ignored 2% of GDP standard is shamefully low for rich countries like France and especially Germany. And our current 3.2% of GDP in military spending is woefully inadequate given how far we’ve slipped behind China. If we are as serious about protecting the sanctity of national borders and the “rules-based international order” as our rhetoric suggests, we have to accept that at some point we’ll have to use force to back up our principles, which requires spending a lot more money than we do now.
If history is a guide, the current recovery of common sense and moral vigor will fade once the crisis abates. All Russia and China have to do is wait.