Whether we fully realize it or not, the West in general and NATO in particular face a new crisis—by far the most serious and dangerous of the post-Cold War era. It is not a crisis about the intricacies of NATO reform, the mechanisms of European security, the finer points of cyberwarfare, or the coordination and financing of Transatlantic defense policy. It is rather about something far deeper and far more fundamental. The fact that many seem not to realize it is both part of the problem and starkly symptomatic of it.
The crisis has a name—Ukraine—but the crisis is about more than one country, and it is even about more than Ukraine’s aggressor, Russia. It is, quite possibly, a foundational crisis in an early stage whose potential for menace is as great as the crises that enveloped our civilization in the century past: its two world wars and the Cold War, when the high civilization of the West trembled before the onslaught of totalitarian enemies. We have not yet reached a level of danger of the same magnitude as 1917 or 1941 or 1949, and strong, state-based totalitarian threats do no not properly define the crisis. But we are in some ways beyond the level of danger of most of the Cold War crises of the past century—Berlin 1961 or the December 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, for example.
In the three great crises of the 20th century the United States ultimately stepped forward; as Churchill put it in a particularly dark moment, the New World came forth to rescue and liberate the Old. In part for that very reason, the United States is today as much the front line of crisis as Europe. Whether the United States will or indeed can do anything like that again remains to be seen. But we are getting ahead of ourselves. First we need to sort out how the new crisis resembles or echoes those of the past century, in what ways it is different, and how we should approach it going forward.
The crisis of the moment is, as noted above, “Ukraine.” In and of itself the crisis consists of, some believe, an unfortunate set of not especially critical or dangerous events. This assessment is at best fractionally true; to explain why, we must again invoke the ghost of Winston Churchill.
In September 1935, Vincent Sheean, an American journalist and novelist, was lodging in an elegant house in the south of France where Churchill, as was his wont, was visiting at the very end of summer. The talk of the day was the Ethiopian crisis. Here are Sheean’s words:
He had a distinction which he tried to bring out in every talk about Ethiopia just then: it seemed to him very important. “It’s not the thing we object to”, he would say, “it’s the kind of thing.” I had not then succumbed as much to his genial charm as I did later, and I could not quite accept this. I mentioned the Red Sea, the route to India, the importance of Aden. Mr. Churchill brushed all that aside: “We don’t need to worry about the Italians”, he said. “It isn’t that at all. It isn’t the thing. It’s the kind of thing. . . .”
Mr Churchill was pinned down firmly one day by an elegant lady, Mme Lepelletier, who said that an objection to the thing might be practical and necessary, but that England had no historical right to object to the kind of thing. England had too often profited by “the kind of thing.”
“Ah, but you see, all that belongs to the unregenerate past, is locked away in the limbo of the old, the wicked days”, Mr Churchill said, smiling benevolently upon her across the luncheon table. “The world progresses. We have endeavoured, by means of the League of Nations and the whole fabric of international law, to make it impossible for nations nowadays to infringe upon each other’s rights. In trying to upset the empire of Ethiopia, Mussolini is making a most dangerous and foolhardy attack upon the whole established structure, and the results of such an attack are quite incalculable. Who is to say what will come of it in a year, or two, or three? With Germany arming at breakneck speed, England lost in a pacifist dream, France corrupt and torn by dissension, America remote and indifferent—Madame, my dear lady, do you not tremble for your children?”
That is just the point. It does not matter whether Khrushchev was wise in giving the Crimea to Ukraine in 1954, or how it came to be that eastern Ukraine is largely populated by native Russian speakers. Nor does it now matter what kind of policy it was prudent to pursue in the 1990s in terms of contemplating NATO entry for countries that had been part of the Soviet Union. Even the events that precipitated the crisis are not important. Such things perhaps used to matter, but we are beyond them now, not least because we cannot go back and mend our judgments even if we wished to do so.
It’s the kind of thing we must understand. And the kind of thing is the dismemberment of a sovereign state, in this case one whose borders were guaranteed thusly under the first article of the Budapest Declaration of 1994:
The Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America reaffirm their commitment to Ukraine, in accordance with the principles of the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine….
And it is dismemberment not only by economic pressure and subversion, but by violence and invasion, by fire and sword, by kidnapping and murder. That is the kind of thing, and it has happened not in Africa or Asia or South America but in Europe, and it has happened not to a remote monarchy but to a reasonably free state whose sovereign rights are, to repeat, guaranteed in writing by the Great Powers.
And the reaction? Sanctions that mean little, and a nervous shuffling of feet and wringing of hands by the leaders of the so-called free world. The crisis consists just as much, if not more, in the implications of the Western reaction as it does to the aggression that stimulated the crisis in the first place. A case in point: Just a few months ago the new Secretary General of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, began his tenure with this declaration: “My main message has been, today and for many years, that there is no contradiction between aspiring to a constructive relationship with Russia and at the same time being in favor of a strong NATO.” In an even more invertebrate statement, the German Foreign Minister welcomed the new Secretary General by criticizing his predecessor: “I found some of the things that came in the last weeks from Brussels, from the NATO headquarters, not always helpful. I wasn’t the only one in the German government who felt that way.”
This is not prudence, or diplomacy, or finesse, or the fine-tuning of optics and options. It is cowardice. The Germans have coined the word Russlandversteher—people who understand Russia. It is not a derogatory term, even though the category includes a former Chancellor who has prostituted the dignity of that office by selling himself to Gazprom. It captures a kind of cravenness in the face of aggression that is not limited to a country many of whose leaders are paralyzed by guilt on the one hand and cupidity on the other.
Thus, in the early phases of this crisis British officials made clear that they could not abide sanctions that would make it impossible for the crooked Russian oligarchs who use London as their playground to bank, invest, live, educate their children, and go on debauches in discreet private clubs. It has been only with the deepest reluctance, too, that France has put on hold its transfer of advanced Mistral warships to Moscow—although, of course, the training of Russian crews continues.
The U.S. authorities have been a bit better, but not much. A few more training exercises in the East, yes. But stop shrinking the U.S. Army? Permanently station U.S. ground forces in Poland and the Baltic states? Supply Ukraine with weapons or training to defend itself? No, not yet; and from the looks of things, not at all. And the subsequent reaction to American reserve in Bratislava, Prague, and even Warsaw? To appease the Russians at the expense of NATO solidarity.
The Ukrainian crisis is therefore but a manifestation of something more deeply gone wrong in the West. This past September witnessed an astounding spectacle. Great Britain, formerly mistress of the greatest empire since Rome, the home of the mother of parliaments, and the source of notions of liberty and self-government that shaped this country and many others—was on the verge of dissolution. It was a would-be dissolution brought about by a feckless political class that allowed 16-year-olds, intoxicated by overheated commemorations of the 700th anniversary of a medieval battle, to vote to break up a Union older than the United States.
And when they suddenly realized that they could actually lose their country, what kind of arguments could British politicians come up with? There was precious little about shared values, an inspiring past, or a common destiny. It was all about whether Scottish banks would need very large sterling balances to maintain the pound, and co-payments for the National Health Service, and how North Sea oil would be divided. It is testimony to the good sense of the people of Scotland—or rather, to their innate caution—that they voted the independence resolution down. But Britain came close to voting itself out of existence in a moment of silliness and selfishness, even as clueless intellectuals and journalists chirped cheerfully about what a model of the democratic process this wanton recklessness was.
This combination of foolishness and fecklessness comes at a time, we all know, of economic lethargy in the West, of the increasingly severe crisis of the euro, whose success depended ultimately on a degree of political unification that the peoples of Europe would not accept, no matter what their betters believed. It comes at a time when for other reasons, too, the larger European project, shaped by elites whose attitude to their own populations was often contemptuous, has come up very short. Those elites are now being rewarded by the rise of parties well outside the social-democratic consensus, at times frighteningly so.
It also comes at a time when other threats hover on the horizon of the Transatlantic world, of which the most notable is the rise of armed radical Islamist movements. These are movements that delight in murder and destruction, and whose antipathy to the West is of the most profound type even if, for the time being, it is all they can do to battle their local antagonists as the para-states of the region dissolve into dust. The European response to all this, too, has been inadequate both materially and intellectually. European leaders are willing to see the United States kill a terrorist here and fire a missile from a drone there, but all the while they tut-tut about Guantánamo and Islamophobia and collateral damage and mutter, usually but not always below audible range, how anyway it’s all the fault of the Israelis (read: Jews).
George Orwell captured the essence of our own situation in an essay published in April 1940:
It is as though in the space of ten years we had slid back into the Stone Age. Human types supposedly extinct for centuries, the dancing dervish, the robber chieftain, the Grand Inquisitor, have suddenly reappeared, not as inmates of lunatic asylums, but as the masters of the world.
But by then we at least knew the kind of thing, and the kind of people, we were dealing with. We have yet to face those realities square on this time around.
The crisis of the West is both external and internal. It is molded partly by geopolitics—by the return of a Russia rich in resources and resentful at how the Cold War ended, and a Russia led by particular leaders whose skills we should respect and understand rather than dismiss as being “so 19th century”, as one National Security Council staffer, callow even by the standards of this Administration, put it. It has been facilitated, alas, by the tactical foolishness of U.S. leaders in several ways. But it is more profoundly a result of the hollowing out of certain Western ideas and values.
The ur-mistake of contemporary politics is its reduction of public life to a combination of manipulation in order to achieve office—tweeting, Facebooking, and generally acting like a teenager in order to curry favor with them; and mere administration when one gets there. In all Western countries the result is a political elite for which our publics—one used to say our citizenry, but that implies more engagement and above all responsibility than is typical these days—express a well-deserved contempt. In such a vacuum of purpose and leadership, other, darker forces can find purchase. Again, George Orwell, in his 1940 review of Mein Kampf, put his finger on the problem:
Nearly all western thought since the last war, certainly all ‘progressive’ thought, has assumed tacitly that human beings desire nothing beyond ease, security and avoidance of pain. . . . Hitler, because in his own joyless mind he feels it with exceptional strength, knows that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flags and loyalty parades. . . . Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people ‘I offer you a good time’, Hitler has said to them ‘I offer you struggle, danger and death’, and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet. Perhaps later on they will get sick of it and change their minds, as at the end of the last war. ‘Greatest happiness of the greatest number’ is a good slogan, but at this moment, ‘Better an end with horror than a horror without end’ is a winner. Now that we are fighting against the man who coined it, we ought not to underrate its emotional appeal.
We are not up against Hitler, to be sure, though we do face belief systems, at least in the Middle East, that are quite capable of dealing out death on the same scale if they ever get the weapons with which to do it. But we are up against the reality that a life of comfort and convenience, and a politics built exclusively around securing them, cannot withstand the forces from without that will prey on it, or the slow decay of values from within that depletes our will to resist. As others have pointed out, there seems to be something about liberalism that in time causes it to generate its own nemeses, or at least sap its own defenses against them.1
The new crisis of the West thus has many dimensions, including some—the steady aging of our populations, for example—about which little can be done. In the proximate case of Ukraine, for example, we could restore adequate levels of defense expenditure, commit forces to the frontline states of NATO, and aid the rump of Ukraine that might otherwise be abandoned to indirect if not direct Russian control. But behind any concrete policy actions there has to be something larger, something deeper, a kind of recovery of spirit. That will be hard, because no leaders seem to be available to offer the inspiration that a de Gaulle or a Churchill did in World War II, or that a Kennedy or a Thatcher did during the spikes of Cold War danger.
Nor am I speaking of political leaders only, or even chiefly. There is no Václav Havel to say “live in truth.” There is no John Paul II to say over and over again, “Be not afraid.” There are precious few intellectuals like Raymond Aron or Isaiah Berlin or Reinhold Neibuhr to explore what freedom means, and speak about how to use it wisely. There are few fierce and fearless journalists like Oriana Fallaci to scream uncomfortable truths at timid politicians.
But we can try, beginning perhaps with Havel’s inspiration, by clinging to the truth. We can call things by their names—using words like invasion and fanaticism, for example, and not pretending that they are something tamer and less dangerous.
We can dismiss gestures like standing up yet another useless European rapid response unit or headquarters from the same pieces that are already on the military chessboard. We can recognize and name such pointless sops to our guilty consciences for what they are. We can admit openly, too, that the comfortable assumptions of several generations in the West, about the essential security of our states and institutions, may rest on as shaky premises as did those that were widely held in 1913.
We can also refrain from treating terms like “deterrence” or “Article 5 obligations” as a kind of strategic pixie dust to be sprinkled over problems in the hope of making them go away as if by magic. We can acknowledge that what deterrence and Article 5 are really about is a commitment to wage war under well understood circumstances. We can face the bracing fact that we need what John Paul II gave so many people: the courage to stand for freedom and principle in the face of danger and even death.
As a teenager, I had a summer job as a tour guide in the state house in Boston. It was then that I learned the meaning of the motto of my home state, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts: Ense petit placidam, sub libertate quietem. It means, “[This hand, hostile to tyrants] seeks with a sword a quiet peace, under liberty.”
To the north of Massachusetts lies New Hampshire, whose motto is simpler: “Live free or die.” The phrase, which may be found on license plates and makes many visitors and suburbanites fleeing high housing prices in Boston squirm, comes from a letter by a hero of New Hampshire, General John Stark. Stark fought in both the Seven Years’ War and in the Revolution and, like Cincinnatus, returned to his farm when his duty was done. At age 81, too ill to travel to a reunion of his old comrades, he sent this greeting to them: “Live free or die: Death is not the worst of evils.”
It’s all very old-fashioned stuff. It is not at all sophisticated. And to most erudite people it is downright embarrassing to hear a professor cite it approvingly. But it is true, and free governments, and free peoples, had better believe these things. They have to believe that freedom is not about ample pensions and free college tuitions and a 35-hour work week, that it is about something vastly deeper and more important than that. One sometimes wonders if belief in big, deeper things itself has gone out of fashion in the postmodern West, as if the larger ideals of the past have somehow become an embarrassment. If so, we would probably ignore Churchill himself were he to return to us from beyond the grave and warn, as he warned his colleagues in the jubilant House of Commons following the Munich accords, that all would not be well; he quoted the Book of Daniel: “Thou art weighed in the balance and are found wanting.”
What is happening now in Ukraine is not a new Munich. But thus far, we have indeed been weighed in the balance and found wanting. And what will get us out of the Ukraine crisis, with any luck at all, is the same thing Churchill invoked some seventy years ago: “Moral health and martial vigor”, and a willingness to take a stand for “freedom, as in the olden time.” Let us not merely hope so, but act now to make it happen.
1See Abram N. Shulsky, “Liberalism’s Beleaguered Victory”, The American Interest (September/October 2014).