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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 15-04-2022 00:07

The West receives a wake-up call

Attitudes towards the war being fought in Ukraine have excited those who, not that long ago, were on the defensive because they feared that the West really was a busted flush.

When the war now raging in Ukraine started, many were quick to blame it on Western overreach. According to them, prodding the bear by expanding NATO right up to Russia’s borders was a huge mistake because –as the revered architect of the containment strategy that kept the Soviet Union at bay, George F. Kennan, had predicted –  it enraged nationalistic Slavophiles who would be sure to strike back. In other words, like so many other ugly things that happen in the world, the West was to be blamed for what most assumed would be the successful takeover of a sovereign nation by an understandably aggrieved great power whose vital interests it had foolishly overlooked.

For a while, military experts seemed to agree that, yet again, the West had got things wrong. They took it for granted that within a couple of days Vladimir Putin’s reportedly tough-as-nails army would occupy Kyiv, “decapitate” Volodymyr Zelensky’s government, and thereby reincorporate Ukraine into the Russian empire without any outsiders doing more than expressing their disapproval of his behaviour and, to save face, applying some innocuous economic sanctions he could shrug off.

But then, to their surprise, the Ukrainians refused to play their allotted bit part in the geopolitical drama they had sketched out. Instead of resigning themselves to their fate as expected, they decided to fight back and, after driving the Russians away from the outskirts of Kiev, forced them to concentrate on the eastern and southern flanks of the country, much of which has been in their hands since 2014. 

As a result of what has happened so far, a small but growing number of knowledgeable people, including military men, now think the Ukrainians could actually win this war. Some suggest they could even retake the Donbas and Crimea if the Western powers, led by the United States and the United Kingdom, supply them with all the tools they need to “finish the job.” They point out that, though the Russians have more men in uniform, most have been mistreated by their officers and are easily demoralised, while the Ukrainians – who have learned much from the British, Canadians and North Americans who spent years helping to prepare them for battle – are fighting for their homeland and are fiercely supported by almost all their compatriots, whether Russian-speaking or not. They may still be outgunned, but with supplies of advanced weaponry flowing in, the difference is far smaller than it was barely a month earlier.

Attitudes towards the war being fought in Ukraine have excited those who, not that long ago, were on the defensive because they feared that the West – riddled with internal problems involving gender issues, the status of ethnic minorities and the proper approach to historical events – really was a busted flush and the future belonged to China accompanied by a resurgent Russia. The pessimists have taken heart not just from the willingness of the Ukrainians under Zelensky to put their lives on the line for old-fashioned things like national sovereignty, liberal democracy and individual freedom, but also by the changes taking place in until yesterday pacifistic countries like Germany which had grown accustomed to letting others take care of their defence while haughtily criticising them for their bellicose nature.

Some have even gone so far as to talk about a Western revival, by which they mean a return to taking pride in the collective achievements of what, after all, is the world’s dominant civilisation and, they hope, a belated refusal by its elected leaders to continue to beg forgiveness from the rancorous men and women who take “self-criticism” to hysterical lengths by denouncing just about everything that was done by their racist, sexist and imperialist forefathers in the shamefully unenlightened past.

This sort of thing was taken lying down by those who, in other circumstances, would have mounted a fierce counter-attack, largely because they too took it for granted that the societies which made up the West had seen off all their rivals and therefore had nothing to fear. They wanted a quiet life so they preferred to remain silent rather than get verbally mugged by a mob of social-justice warriors or, if they thought physical differences between men and women were real, by transgender individuals obsessed with pronouns.

Though China’s rapid rise did cause some alarm among those interested in foreign policy, few were much concerned. It took the invasion of Ukraine by a big country, led by a man who is fond of drawing attention to his well-stocked nuclear arsenal, to bring Europeans and North Americans face-to-face with their own vulnerability and make them ask themselves what could be in store for societies as ludicrously sensitive and inward-looking as the ones they lived in. 

Will this last? Or will everything return to “normal” after the guns go silent? Much depends on the answers to such questions. It would appear that unless a community is under threat it will find it hard to resist the temptation to pretend that nothing matters very much and, if its rulers are so disposed, to give way to the demands of single-minded activists determined to replace the established order with something radically different based on the desires of their own particular minority. However, when an outside threat is genuine and not just the product of scare-mongering, people feel inclined to stress what they have in common with one another rather than what separates them. This makes societies more coherent and much less self-indulgent.

Can the West recover from the malaise that has weakened it? For it to do so, it would have to do far more than increase military spending and, for a while, put up with having to pay more for the energy needed to heat homes and keep the economy working. The greatest challenge confronting all modern societies is demographic; outrageous as the thought may seem to those seeking to destroy “the patriarchy,” unless the birth rate is high enough, before many decades have gone by they will simply die out. And then there are the difficulties arising from the “hollowing out” of economies, spurred by technological progress, which leaves many millions of people without the stable jobs which, as well as providing those employed with incomes, helps give them a sense of belonging to societies to which they make a valuable contribution.

For the West to survive the dangers facing it, most of which are due to the social models that have evolved, those living in it will have to believe it stands for more than an unprecedented degree of prosperity. This is why the jolt provided by Putin could have a positive effect, if only by reminding people that even surviving, let alone preserving the freedoms that have been won in the last 200 years or so, will require a considerable collective effort and, perhaps, a strong dose of toxic masculinity.

James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).

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