Sunday, April 10, 2022

The National Conversation about Ukraine

Among the more compelling aspects of the Russian War against Ukraine is the national conversation. For once, we are seeing different and divergent perspectives, articulated well for the most part, looking at the situation very, very differently.

At times, you start wondering whether all of these people are seeing the same reality. In fact, there is one reality but there are multiple interpretations. And there are also multiple prophecies about the outcome and the fallout of the current ongoing war.

For example, begin, almost at random, with Janan Ganesh, a fine writer from the Financial Times who does not specialize in foreign policy matters.

He does specialize in contrary opinion, so he observes that America is winning the war. It feels a bit optimistic, but still:

In retrospect, debacle though it was, what happened in Afghanistan last August obscured the underlying strength of America’s place in the world. We are living through a reminder of its economic weight and natural resources, as well as of the intelligence assets that predicted the fact, if not the fitful progress, of Putin’s invasion. At the same time, the world’s memory is being jogged as to the largest and most easily forgotten of all US advantages: the unpopularity of its rivals.

For the first time since the end of the cold war, we have a glimpse of what an alternative to a US-led world might look like. An autocratic axis, in which strongmen support or at least overlook each other’s depredations, is more than theoretical now. Not all countries flinch at the sight: India and Israel haven’t, at least not as much as Washington had hoped, and that is to cite examples among just the democracies.

To which David Brooks responds, indirectly, that our fondest wishes for a unipolar world of liberal democracy has been sundered by the Russian invasion. Now we are living in a divided and bifurcated world. Dare I say, his view makes more sense than does that of Ganesh:

In the wider public conversation, it was sometimes assumed that nations all around the world would admire the success of the Western democracies and seek to imitate us. It was sometimes assumed that as people “modernized,” they would become more bourgeois, consumerist, peaceful — just like us. It was sometimes assumed that as societies modernized, they’d become more secular, just as in Europe and parts of the United States. They’d be more driven by the desire to make money than to conquer others. They’d be more driven by the desire to settle down into suburban homes than by the fanatical ideologies or the sort of hunger for prestige and conquest that had doomed humanity to centuries of war.

This was an optimistic vision of how history would evolve, a vision of progress and convergence. Unfortunately, this vision does not describe the world we live in today. The world is not converging anymore; it’s diverging. The process of globalization has slowed and, in some cases, even kicked into reverse. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine highlights these trends. While Ukraine’s brave fight against authoritarian aggression is an inspiration in the West, much of the world remains unmoved, even sympathetic to Vladimir Putin.

Ross Douthat responds, in his way, by suggesting that the war might spur a recovery of liberal values in the West. One notes, with some chagrin, that if we are selling the concept of human rights to the rest of the world, we should not be associating it with the right to mutilate children.

The idea that Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine would be a restorative tonic for Western liberalism, touted hopefully in the first few weeks of war, has taken sharp blows in recent days.

First came the election in Hungary, where Viktor Orban’s conservative populist government won a sweeping popular majority, despite — or, more likely, because of — Orban’s relatively dovish approach to the struggle in Ukraine. Then came the presidential-election polling out of France, where Marine Le Pen is suddenly climbing in second-round polls, threatening Emmanuel Macron with a shocking upset.

Le Pen will probably still lose, not least because her past friendliness to Putin will get more attention between this weekend’s first-round vote and the runoff, assuming she wins through. But there is no sign as yet that the war has prompted a vast revulsion against nationalism or populism, a stampede back to the liberal establishment.

Apparently, Douthat-- he is hardly alone-- is still hung up on Francis Fukuyama’s notion of the end of history and the advent of universal liberal democracy.

Apparently, Fukuyama has now added the notion of national identity to his gauzy Hegelian vision of the end of history. Not to be too unkind about this, but the Hegelian vision is designed precisely to liberate people from their national identities, and to make them citizens of the world. If Fukuyama wants to add nationalism to the mix, he is simply becoming incoherent. If he believes that national identity can only be solidified when a nation is under threat, he has moved far away from his prophecies about the triumph of liberal democracy:

Another possibility, however, is that the Ukraine war could help the liberal establishment in the long run, by encouraging an internal reassessment of what liberalism itself should seek to be.

For example, a writer who seemed overly hopeful about the liberal-revival scenario in the first days of the war, Francis Fukuyama, has now written a searching essay for Foreign Affairs on why “liberalism needs the nation” arguing that the heroic resistance of the Ukrainians should teach liberals a lesson about the virtues of national identity.

“With their bravery,” he writes, the Ukrainians “have made clear that citizens are willing to die for liberal ideals, but only when those ideals are embedded in a country they can call their own.” 

The war has thus been a partial rebuke to the fantasy of a pure cosmopolitanism, of a liberalism that transcends borders, languages and specific histories. And it’s offered a case study in how the nation-state, its loves and loyalties, can unite a disparate population around a common cause in a way that no supranational institution has ever been able to achieve.

The challenge, though, is that the “sense of national purpose” Fukuyama is praising in Ukraine conspicuously depends on an external enemy, a wolf at the door, and you cannot simply will such an enemy into being. (Nor should you wish to!) Whereas most of the peacetime sources of national solidarity he cites, from food and sports to literary traditions, are somewhat thinner things. And one of the potentially thicker forces, a sense of religious unity within a liberal order, Fukuyama rules out: In a pluralist society, “the idea of restoring a shared moral tradition defined by religious belief is a nonstarter,” leading only to sectarianism and violence if applied.

Douthat falls into the same trap as Fukuyama here. To say that one’s ideals are one’s own is precisely the problem. We do not own ideals. In no sense can we be said to possess them. We fight to defend our nation, but the Hegelian reverie attempts mostly to overcome that sense of belonging to an organized social group-- and not belonging to other organized social groups.

But, Douthat raises an important question. Do we attain a sense of national unity and purpose only when there is a wolf at the door, when we are threatened? This might imply that if we do not have an implacable enemy trying to destroy us, we need to invent one, lest our sense of national purpose disintegrate. I suspect that this is incorrect-- if we are not a cohesive nation before an enemy arrives, we will continue to be fragmented when he does arrive. And thus, we will be less likely to want to compete or even to struggle against the enemy. And if we cannot compete in the real world of bullets and gadgets, we might well revert to competing in the world of ideas.

Fair enough, Fukuyama does not believe that national identity depends on shared religious beliefs. A group that shares religious beliefs, though it would be more accurate to call them practices, is a religion, a church, a synagogue or a mosque.

And yet, Fukuyama has himself been trafficking in a secular version of Biblical eschatology. His and Hegel’s reverie about the end of history mimics, as some have long since noticed, the Biblical prophecy of the end of time in the book of Revelation. The vision of a worldwide liberal democracy translates the advent of Heavenly City descending on our miserable planet.

I find it rather unfortunate that so many people take this all so seriously. Have we forgotten that Hegel's theories begot Marxism? It's strange to see supposedly conservative thinkers embracing crypto-Marxism.

The problem, if I may call it thus, is that intellectuals think that the ultimate battleground involves ideals. They want to control minds and do not much care about the rest. And that, dare I say, is the problem. The war in Ukraine is more about territory than about ideas or ideals. Real people are being killed and real cities are being razed. If we still accept the notion of the clash of civilizations, the truth must lie in the fact that countries compete, not just on the battlefield, but in building things, in producing wealth, in creating prosperity.

So, we will take some exception with John Halpin’s sense that it is an intellectual struggle:

On one side are the United States and most of Europe. On the other are Russia, China, and various forces of illiberalism within Western nations themselves. To win this conflict, liberals must once again prove to the world—with brains and brawn—that political orders based on individual rights, market economies, constitutional rules, value pluralism, reason, and basic decency are superior to those maintained through force, internal fear and propaganda, and widespread corruption. 

This intellectual struggle might seem like a slam dunk for liberal societies because of their successes throughout history. Liberal nations defeated both fascism and Communism and worked cooperatively to create decades of rising growth and expanding prosperity for people in America and Europe. But with mounting internal political divisions in our countries—fueled by new digital forces of propaganda, extremism, and mis-information—it’s not at all clear that proponents of liberalism are adequately prepared to win the fights ahead. 

Wars are primarily about occupying territory. Persuading people that the cause was just comes later.

For a more down-to-earth analysis, we turn to George Friedman, quoted in the New Neo. Friedman believes that the Russian army has been defeated and that Putin has no real way out. This will be true until Putin finds a way out. One suspects that the Russian plan is to destroy Ukrainian cities and to take control over the entire Eastern part of that country:

This means that Putin’s war plan is shattered. The resistance has been effective and his troops need a relief he cannot provide. Putin will feint in other directions – perhaps in the Baltics or Moldova – but he lacks the force to fight on another front. He can’t sustain this war easily, especially in the face of NATO soldiers who have so far stayed out of the fray.

If Putin gives up his position, he is compromised, and perhaps lost. The buzzards are circling. So he must continue to fight until he is forced out and someone else not responsible for the disaster takes over and blames it all on Putin. I think that this can’t end until Putin is pulled from the game.

And then, one Donald Sensing, also at the New Neo, suggests that the massacres make a negotiated compromise impossible:

These massacres and casualty levels (on both sides) now mean that a negotiated peace is off the table. For Putin to make such an agreement would be seen by the senior military and civilian Russian leadership as an admission of Putin’s personal failure.

As for Zelensky, to negotiate a peace with invaders who have mass murdered his people on repeated occasions would also be an admission of failure. Unlike Russia, he would likely remain in office until the end of his term, and even if he was forced out, his exit would have the fa├žade not of disgrace, but of an exhausted hero of world significance, to whom the nation owes its everlasting gratitude.

According to Sensing, the war cannot conclude unless and until one side has achieved victory. At the least, this tells us that more violence, more bloodshed, more casualties lie ahead. True enough, Ukraine has staved off the Russian attack on Kiev, but we do not know and cannot know whether the Russian army can or is capable of mounting another offensive on the Ukrainian capital.


Fredrick said...

".... despite — or, more likely, because of — Orban’s relatively dovish approach to the struggle in Ukraine. "

Douthat, like many, leaves out what Urban did for the last decade as Prime Minister of Hungary.

David Foster said...

"To win this conflict, liberals must once again prove to the world—with brains and brawn—that political orders based on individual rights, market economies, constitutional rules, value pluralism, reason, and basic decency are superior to those maintained through force, internal fear and propaganda, and widespread corruption."

Many of the 'liberals' in the US and Europe are not liberals at all by this classical definition. They believe in speech control, not free speech; economic fascism, not market economies; 'cancelling' of dissidents, not value pluralism.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Absolutely-- you cannot sell what they are calling liberalism if you do not practice it yourself.

Aaron said...

The REAL DEEP truth about the "current" Ukraine "crisis" is this...

“Ever since serious protest broke out in Ukraine in February THE WESTERN MAINSTREAM MEDIA, particularly in the United States, has seriously downplayed THE FACT that the usual suspects – THE US/EUROPEAN UNION/NATO TRIUMVIRATE – HAVE BEEN ON THE SAME SIDE AS THE NEO-NAZIS” (William Blum, US Historian, in 2014)

Blum's account of 2014 is, of course, still true today ...

And THE US/EUROPEAN UNION/NATO TRIUMVIRATE "Has Killed More Than 20 Million In 37 Nations Since WWII" ...

With the (ongoing) CURRENT Ukraine ploy the ruling psychopaths (especially "THE US/EUROPEAN UNION/NATO TRIUMVIRATE") effectively brainwashed OVERNIGHT/INSTANTLY the "intelligent" "thinking" members of herd stupidity into believing and "thinking" THEY are the "good guys" -- what a stellar display of the "intelligence" of the dumb insane masses (virtually everyone). It's true that people never learn from history, why is that? Meet “The 2 Married Pink Elephants In The Historical Room” ....

With the demise of the Covid Scam (see last cited source above) came that more and more people STARTED to mistrust the official narrative on Covid (the official lies). That led to a broad MIStrust in the official authorities (especially "THE US/EUROPEAN UNION/NATO TRIUMVIRATE"). With the Ukraine ploy the ruling psychopaths (especially "THE US/EUROPEAN UNION/NATO TRIUMVIRATE") regained public trust in them, overnight.

For that purpose the elite psychopaths used an ancient fake tactic, "divide and conquer"... along the line of Russia vs. the US. The TRUE DIVISIVE WAR has always been .. between the ruling psychopaths vs the non-ruling masses of people --- see last cited article above.

Who won with the Covid scam? The ruling psychopaths (especially "THE US/EUROPEAN UNION/NATO TRIUMVIRATE") increasing their wealth and power. Who lost in the Covid scam? The non-ruling public, losing money, livelihoods, and power.

Now.. guess who is losing in the long-staged Ukraine ploy, or the sanctions against Ukraine? The psychopathic US regime, psychopath Putin, psychopath Biden, psychopath Trump? Mmm... that's a real head-scratcher.

The Ukraine ploy DISTRACTION is a way for the psychopathic rulers to regain authoritative power over the idiotic public hive mind to be able to continue with their end goal achievement to totally enslave and control everyone in a digital prison, which the Covid SCAM was/is an instrument to help them implement that evil plan of dictatorial world control.

"With fairly few exceptions, the people who now hold Putin as a devil figure are the same ones who held the unvaxxed as devil figures: The process has been the same, just the devil figures have changed." --- Paul Rosenberg, Author

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