Whatever the West’s response to Russia’s attack on Ukraine’s sovereignty, the crisis demonstrates the limitations of western politics and policy across the board. If Vladimir Putin understands any demographic better than the Russian people, it is the governing class of the West: that Harvard-Oxbridge-Sciences Po axis of toweringly smug and practically interchangeable global-liberals who weep for international norms they weren’t prepared to defend. Their ideas and their sanctions are tired because they are civilisationally tired. Putin knows this, but none of the rival ideologies aiming to replace liberalism have anything better to offer.
The failure of the global-liberals comes on many fronts but two of the most significant have been on hard power and energy independence. Two-thirds of Nato members do not meet the alliance’s two per cent of GDP guideline on defence spending, while 47 per cent of coal, 41 per cent of natural gas and 27 per cent of crude oil imported into the EU comes from Russia. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s decision to halt the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline is significant, but it is a shame it took a European invasion for Germany to realise the pipe might have been a bad idea.
Europe has grown soft and complacent since the end of the Cold War. It has grown accustomed to sheltering under expensive US firepower while directing their own revenues to social welfare programmes and other large-scale domestic spending, all the while sneering mightily at America’s fondness for hard power and its supposed ‘warmongering’ ways. The liberal delusion that government can provide the good life without national defence has led to this point: a Europe humiliatingly shown up by its neighbour.
But if global-liberalism has not risen to the moment, it is still more credible than the alternatives — just.
What of the sounds coming out of the anti-imperialist left? Their keen interest in the Middle East might have us guess their position on an imperial power dominating a free nation it once ruled. Yet Jeremy Corbyn, the man the Labour Party twice tried to make Prime Minister, is siding with the oppressor. He has signed a statement by that coalition of cranks Stop the War, which claims the UK government has ‘poured oil on the fire throughout this episode’ and ‘talked up the threat of war continually’. At last, someone willing to condemn the real warmongers in all this: us.
Corbyn appeared to draw moral equivalence between a Russian invasion and the presence of Nato in eastern Europe, asking Defence Secretary Ben Wallace yesterday: ‘Would he be prepared to countenance, if the Russians pull back, any reduction in the Nato presence on the border as well, in order to bring about a longer-term, secure peace in the region?’
When it came down to it, when an act of imperial bullying and land theft began playing out before their eyes, the anti-imperialist left could not bring itself to support the oppressed, because doing so might suggest being on the same side as Britain. The far left doesn’t particularly care what happens in Ukraine, just so long as the West loses and can be blamed for it.
West-blaming is not a matter solely for the left. The ‘post-liberals’ and the New Right have demonstrated how unserious they are when they position against America’s ‘forever wars’, as though conflict was something initiated by US generals after reading one too many Bill Kristol columns. As Ukraine shows, post-liberal foreign policy is really just washing hands, a cynical parochialism that turned disillusion with the Iraq war into obstinate America Firstism.
So too, disgracing themselves, are the adult-onset paranoids who went from sensible critiques of populism to hyperventilating about Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and their role in a Russian plot to control the White House and 10 Downing Street. But it was not under Trump that Russia decided to gobble up more of Ukraine, but under Biden, who once declared: ‘Vladimir Putin doesn’t want me to be President.’ Johnson, apparently, is ‘by any strict definition of the word... a Russian asset’, so he's somewhat spoiled all this jolly John le Carré hijinks by being such an early and forceful ally of the Ukrainians. Unless, of course, that’s all part of Moscow’s dastardly scheme.
Tall tales about Trump or Johnson being the perfect candidates for Putin have allowed educated liberals to rationalise away their repeated defeats at the ballot box. They haven’t lost because their ideas are bad: it’s that a dark cabal is working against them. The sort of demographics who engage in this comforting paranoia are the very same who sneer at the less well-educated for reading Dan Brown books or tuning into trashy TV shows about UFOs. Blue-tick conspiracy theorists believe in things that are no less absurd. The difference is: they wield much more institutional and cultural power.
With the state of debate as it is, is it any wonder Putin looks at the West and doesn’t feel in the slightest bit threatened?