The matter-of-fact finality of these words startled me: “The post-Cold War order, which began in 1989, ended in 2022 when Russia invaded Ukraine and said it had no right to exist as an independent nation.”
The declaration came from Charles Lipson in The Spectator at the end of February, as Vladimir Putin displayed his utter disdain not only for international opinion and Ukraine’s sovereignty but for the idea of individual freedom. Stalin would be proud.
But as we’ve learned from recent analyses of Putin’s state of mind, his real heroes aren’t the Soviet dictators of the 20th century — although he readily employs their murderous methods of conquest. Rather, he idolizes the czars of the old Russian empire and dreams of restoring Russia to its imperial glory, with him as its ruler.
Lipson, founder of the Program on International Politics, Economics and Security at the University of Chicago, stated the obvious, of course. The shaky post-Cold War peace in Europe and beyond has been on life support for years — fatally weakened by Western complacency and hubris, costly regional conflicts, Russian aggression, Chinese expansionism and the explosion of little dictators everywhere.
“The shaky post-Cold War peace in Europe and beyond has been on life support for years.”
Now it is well and truly dead.
“Putin’s military aggression plus China’s rise and renewed ferocity form a concerted effort to reshape the global order, not at the margins but at the core, (and) they are willing to use force to do it,” Lipson warned. “If the U.S. is to maintain the tottering liberal order, which has sustained peace and prosperity for decades, it needs willing partners in Europe and Asia … . The future of world order hinges on (their) decisions — and on the Ukrainians’ success in thwarting Putin’s war of choice.”
Back to the future
The triumphalist “end of history” nonsense written in the 1990s about one superpower, the United States, bestriding the globe is long gone. So are confident predictions of the inevitable spread of liberal democracy and human rights. I used to make such predictions myself after the collapse of the Soviet Union. How naive.
Democracy is the exception, not the rule.
History isn’t “one damn thing after another,” as the saying goes. While it might not repeat itself, it relentlessly rhymes with the foibles of humanity writ large: the struggle for power, tribal hatred, exploitation of the weak by the strong. And above all, war.
Ukraine isn’t even the worst human tragedy unfolding at the moment, just the most dangerous. Millions of newly re-enslaved Afghans face starvation after our abandonment of them to the Taliban, the latest and perhaps most shameful example of America’s habit of “ending” a war before it’s over. The people of Yemen also are being starved by a proxy war between Iran and our “ally,” Saudi Arabia. China is committing systematic cultural genocide against an entire people group, the Uyghurs.
“Ukraine isn’t even the worst human tragedy unfolding at the moment, just the most dangerous.”
Putin surely saw a green light for his Ukraine invasion, if he had any remaining hesitation, as he watched the last American planes leaving Afghans to their fate. Xi Jinping of China surely feels more confident about his clear intention to retake Taiwan.
The essential alliance
So the post-World War II (and post-Cold War) alliance of Western democracies — endlessly derided, often justifiably, for its failings, its neocolonialist tendencies, its aimlessness since the fall of the Soviet empire, its lurch between overreach and retreat — turns out to be essential after all.
Thanks, Vlad, for showing us that so clearly. You have signed your own probable death warrant as a dictator. You might bring down the whole crumbling edifice of Russia as a nation with you — if angry Russian citizens or your own henchmen don’t overthrow you first. But you have unintentionally revitalized NATO, the Western alliance and the whole project of liberal democracy. It may not be perfect, but it is far superior to your brand of tyranny.
“The urgent question now: How many innocents will suffer and die?”
The urgent question now: How many innocents will suffer and die?
Many thousands, to be sure, as heroic Ukrainians vow to fight street by street, whether or not their military survives the Russian onslaught. Putin has quickly defaulted to his preferred method of war, often demonstrated in Chechnya and Syria: the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians.
I don’t think Putin would dare attack NATO directly and risk starting World War III, but what do I know? I didn’t think he would launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine rather than using some phony pretext to grab the eastern breakaway regions. Let’s pray he hasn’t gone completely insane. The potential nuclear nightmare of MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction) is still a thing, much as we wish it weren’t.
For now, the battle is joined with arms and bombs in Ukraine — and with ideas elsewhere. Putin has performed another service for the West: Not only has he reminded us democracy is worth defending, but the “little Putins” he has cultivated in many countries — the Orbans, the Erdogans, the Trumps — have been discredited, not to mention Xi in China and Modi in India. Once again, they will be seen for what they are: authoritarians using fear, hatred, racism and various forms of tribal nationalism to poison liberty and democracy.
They include the far-right extremists in America and Europe who spin dark conspiracies of plots by the “globalists,” the United Nations and George Soros to take over the world. They also include the leftists who have ceaselessly attacked Western “imperialism” for generations. With what would they replace the fallible but durable system of democracy and capitalism that has kept relative global peace since World War II? The Russian or Chinese model? There are better ways to seek justice and equity for the downtrodden. Democracy has lifted countless millions out of poverty and oppression.
If you are a Christian pacifist, I respect you. But I respectfully disagree with you. At this historical moment, your turning of the other cheek to tyrants threatens the global order as much as “America First” isolationism does. I believe in just war when it cannot be avoided. The Ukrainians are fighting a just war of self-defense and self-determination. But more than that, I believe in the inherent moral superiority of democracy and our responsibility to defend and promote it.
“The Ukrainians have been our instructors and inspirers,” David Brooks wrote March 3 in a piece titled “The Week that Awoke the World” for The New York Times. “We owe them such a debt. They have reminded us not only what it looks like to believe in democracy, the liberal order and national honor but also to act bravely on behalf of these things. …
“This week we saw that foreign affairs, like life, is a moral enterprise, and moral rightness is a source of social power and fighting morale.”
Sign me up.
Erich Bridges, a Baptist journalist for more than 40 years, retired in 2016 as global correspondent for the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board. He lives in Richmond, Va.
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