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A moment of clarity
The Russian invasion of Ukraine should wake us up.
“all sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England, from which I sometimes fear that we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs” — George Orwell, “Homage to Catalonia”
Few events create as much moral clarity as the unprovoked, brutal invasion of a peaceful nation by a militaristic empire. It’s the backdrop or the driving conflict of so many of our stories — Star Wars, Casablanca, Lord of the Rings, The Sound of Music — precisely because it creates heroes and villains so easily and automatically. On one side, the haughty, iron-fisted dictator with his legions of destruction — on the other side, children hiding underground while their parents make a desperate stand to protect their homeland.
The story of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine fits that archetype perfectly. Ukraine wasn’t threatening Russia in any way; Ukraine never fired a shot into their neighbor, even though that neighbor had already carved off pieces of their country in 2014 and subjected them to a grinding eight-year war. Putin simply declared that Ukraine is historically part of Russia and sent in his troops. Soon, Russian missiles were blasting practically every city in Ukraine, Russian tanks were rolling into Ukrainian cities, and Ukrainian children were huddling in bomb shelters:
Ukraine’s military, despite their greater numbers, is desperately overmatched, with practically no long-range weapons capable of silencing Russia’s barrage of rocket artillery, cruise missiles, and ballistic missiles. But they’re still fighting hard, holding out on some fronts and winning a few battles even as the Russians push deeper into the country and shell the capital ferociously. The Ukrainian resistance will probably forever be symbolized by the defenders of Zmiinyi (Snake Island), who when ordered to surrender by a Russian warship, replied “Russian warship, go fuck yourself” — and died to the last man. The audio of the exchange is here:
It turns out that the people who derisively predicted that Ukraine would simply fold understood very little about that country or its people. Meanwhile, morale seems to not be particularly high on the Russian side; the leader of a Russian tactical unit that surrendered to the Ukrainians protested that “We didn’t want to kill anyone.” Russia still has an overwhelming advantage in long-rage weaponry, armor, air power, and manpower, but this thing isn’t over yet.
(If you want to follow events from the Russian invasion of Ukraine in real time, check out my Twitter list.)
Out here in the wider world, though, the Russian invasion is sparking a needed moment of clarity. For the last two decades we’ve been sleepwalking through various dreams of our own creation, willfully blind to the dangers that were gathering out in the real world. It is time for those dreams to end now. The alarm clock is ringing.
The end of Pax Americana and the post-WW2 moment
The series of great-power wars that began with World War 1 in 1914 and ended with the armistice in Korea in 1952 represented a flood of blood unprecedented in human history. But for more than half a century after that nightmare ended, American and Soviet power — and after 1991, just American power — stabilized international borders, legitimized the rights of small countries, and generally suppressed major interstate conflict. That “Long Peace”, as some historians call it, created the space for global trade, investment, and migration to flourish, creating an economic boom that benefitted first the developed nations, and — after 1990 or so — the developing nations as well.
That Long Peace was dealt a critical blow in 2003, when the U.S. invaded Iraq on flimsy pretenses. Unlike the Vietnam War (in which we intervened in a civil war) or the Afghanistan War (in which we retaliated for an attack on our soil), the Iraq War was undertaken with only the fig leaf of nonproliferation, supported by obviously flimsy intelligence, as an excuse. Hundreds of thousands died, most of them innocents, and the U.S.’ reputation as the guarantor of international peace and stability was grievously wounded. We were the militaristic empire; Iraqis were the ones cowering in bomb shelters.
But the U.S. didn’t conquer Iraq. Iraq is an independent country, more closely allied with the U.S.’ main regional rival, Iran. Putin’s seizure and annexation of Crimea in 2014 was different, because it represented a great power using its military might to add to its territory — something even the USSR hadn’t done since WW2.
Still, not that many died in the conquest of Crimea. More died in the war started by the Russian-supported separatist movement in the Donbas, but that at least had the fig leaf of civil war.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine is different both quantitatively and qualitatively. It represents a great power simply declaring that a weaker country has no sovereignty, and invading it based on nothing more than irredentism and dictatorial pique. Whether or not Putin declares any additional pieces of Ukraine to be part of the Russian Federation, the norm that kept the peace since World War 2 — the idea that great powers are guarantors of the inviolability of weaker countries’ borders — is no longer a universal norm. And the invasion also shows that although America can presumably still defend its treaty allies, it does not have the power to prevent other great powers from having their way with weaker countries within their spheres of influence.
The law of the jungle has returned, and the strong will dominate the weak if they see fit.
This will have several ripple effects. First, it will dramatically increase the incentives for nuclear proliferation — recall that Ukraine gave up its nukes in 1994 in return for a (worthless) guarantee of security from the Russian Federation. Countries whose territory is menaced by powerful neighbors — Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, and so on — will now be thinking very hard about whether to get nukes of their own.
It will also push countries toward great-power alliance blocs, as in the Cold War (when even most of the so-called “non-aligned” countries really chose sides). Countries in Asia — India, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, and so on — must now be thinking about drawing closer to the United States in case China should decide to follow Putin’s example. And expect alliances to become more militarized — NATO seems likely to put permanent bases in East European countries like Poland and Romania, lest Putin’s appetite continue to grow.
So the post-WW2 moment — a sort of extended after-party for the world to recover from the great catastrophe of the modern age — is now over. Perhaps it was always destined to end once the generation who lived through it passed on.
Nowhere to run to
In recent years, some libertarians have been talking about the idea of walking away from what they see as overbearing governments and stifling society. The internet and cryptocurrency, they claim, has made it possible to simply exit. My friend Balaji Srinivasan is among those who believes this:
But while exit works on a local level — if San Francisco is too dysfunctional, you can probably move to Austin or another tech town — it simply won’t work at the level of nations. In fact, it never really did — rich crypto guys who moved to countries like Singapore or territories like Puerto Rico still depended crucially on the infrastructure and institutions of highly functional states. But Russia is making it even clearer that this strategy is doomed, because eventually there is nowhere to run. Unlike in previous eras, the arm of the great powers is long enough to reach anywhere in the world.
If the U.S. collapses, you can’t just move to Singapore, because in a few years you’ll be bowing to your new Chinese masters. If the U.S. collapses, you can’t just move to Estonia, because in a few years (months?) you’ll be bowing to your new Russian masters. And those masters will have extremely little incentive to allow you to remain a free individual with your personal fortune intact. Crypto will not save you; China shows that national governments can have their way with crypto (note that Bitcoin plunged even as gold soared in the wake of Russia’s attack). What the despots can take, they will take, unless you bend the knee and serve their purposes; this is the law of the jungle.
Thus it is very very important to every libertarian that the U.S. not collapse. This means supporting public goods — a strong industrial commons, strong infrastructure, robust investment in science and technology, a functional legal system, and all the rest. I wrote about this back in 2011, and called it the Tamerlane Principle:
Tamerlane is always over the horizon, waiting to strike. There will always be conquerors waiting for the chance to conquer and pillage the soft civilized nations of the world. If you think Tamerlane is ancient history, just look up Pol Pot, Joseph Kony, Hitler, etc. This is a recurrent phenomenon. The only thing that can protect people against the Tamerlanes of the world is a strong, economically prosperous, well-organized nation state. And the only way you get a strong, economically prosperous, well-organized nation state is to have a strong, centralized government that provides lots of public goods. Roads, ports, schools, technological R&D. You need these things because everything we know about economic development says that these things are absolutely essential for a nation to have a high GDP. And a high GDP is necessary for a nation to win wars with hypothetical Tamerlanes.
Well, now we have at least one modern Tamerlane. And if we don’t want to become the victim of one Tamerlane or another, it’s time to build.
The leftists wake from their fever dream
The Iraq War was one of the main things that revitalized the American Left. In the wake of that war, they adopted many theories for why wars and conflicts happen — most of them warmed-over Chomsky — and believed these theories deeply without much hard evidence. Those theories, which blamed the American military-industrial complex as the source of most (all?) wars, seemed to serve well during a time when the post-WW2 norms still held and U.S. power reigned supreme.
And because they subscribed to those theories, many leftists got the Russia-Ukraine conflict very, very wrong. Until the moment Russia recognized the breakaway regions of the Donbas — making it a certainty that Russia would invade — they treated the whole thing as a show. Convinced that Putin was simply posturing, they felt safe in flagellating the U.S. for NATO expansion that happened over a decade ago.
But to their credit, after the missiles began to rain down on innocent Ukrainians’ heads, many leftists woke up. Matt Taibbi, for example, published a frank mea culpa on his blog:
My mistake was more like reverse chauvinism, being so fixated on Western misbehavior that I didn’t bother to take this possibility seriously enough. To readers who trust me not to make those misjudgments, I’m sorry. Obviously, Putin’s invasion will have horrific consequences for years to come and massively destabilize the world.
And leftist Twitch streamer Hasan Piker did so as well:
Others haven’t apologized, but have switched their rhetoric decisively toward condemnation of Russia.
Meanwhile, in the UK, Jeremy Corbyn continues to blame the West for the war, but his entire party has now abandoned him:
This about-face has not been universal. Jacobin, for example, continues to blame the U.S. for Putin’s aggression. And when Bernie Sanders condemned Putin without equivocation, some of his anonymous online supporters jumped to attack and disavow him for this laudable move.
But mostly, the roar of Putin’s bombs seems to have jolted the Left from their sleep.
Villains on the Trumpist Right
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the Right. The Right in America is still basically split between Trumpist insurrectionists who see the main threat to the country as coming from within, and Reaganite conservatives who are naturally appalled at seeing America’s old foe on the march again. But the Reaganites are still dispirited and dissolute from the failures of the Bush years, and generally fear to challenge the Trumpists. And the Trumpists are very much on the side of Putin:
Tucker Carlson, the most powerful media talking head on the Trumpist side, sounded a similar note, praising Putin as “savvy” for his recognition of the Donbas regions, and arguing that Americans’ true enemies are other Americans:
Now Russia is using Tucker’s show to sell its war to a domestic audience.
Michael Flynn, while he offered a limp condemnation of the invasion, also cited Putin’s “legitimate security concerns” and “legitimate ethnic problems”. And Trump himself praised Putin’s move as “smart”.
The Trumpists’ support for Putin has crossed beyond the realm of “reprehensible”, into the realm of “actually dangerous to U.S. interests”. Whatever the reason for this — whether it’s fear that the country will unify behind Biden in an emergency, or gratitude for perceived Russian assistance in the 2016 election, or a belief that Putin is the guardian of traditional values and/or White power — it needs to stop, and stop soon. Reaganite conservatives have to unite with any Trumpists who correctly see what a dead end support for Putin will lead to.
There are scattered encouraging signs that smart conservatives are coming around. Tech mogul Palmer Luckey, who once held fundraisers for Trump, is on the right side in this conflict:
And Antonio Garcia Martinez offers a sensible rebuke to people who think Putin is good because he cracks down on LGBT:
Even J.D. Vance, who a few days ago said he doesn’t care what happens to Ukraine, is now hastening to condemn Putin (perhaps motivated by the 80,000 or so Ukrainian voters in his state).
But this is not nearly enough. Whereas on the Left, major figures like Bernie Sanders are condemning the Russian invasion and being resisted mostly by anonymous online weirdos, on the Right it’s the big guns of Trumpism — Tucker, Bannon, Flynn, etc. — who are backing Putin. Powerful figures in both the Republican party and the right-wing media need to come out and condemn Russian aggression, lest the GOP turn into the anti-American party.
Germany slumbers on
The Russian invasion shouldn’t just awaken Americans from our slumber; it should awaken the entire world. But perhaps no country more than Germany, the most populous and richest country in the EU. In the Cold War, West Germany was a lynchpin of NATO; the exigencies of the Russian threat on their doorstep overrode any post-WW2 pacifism. But since the end of the Cold War, Germany ended universal military service and allowed its defense spending to collapse:
Alfons Mais, chief of the German Army, expressed his frustration at this state of affairs:
Meanwhile, Germany has taken the even crazier step of dismantling its entire nuclear industry in response to activist pressure. This has made it much harder for Germany to fight climate change, prolonging its reliance on fossil fuels. But now, by making Germany dependent on Russian natural gas, the country’s attack on nuclear power is threatening the entire security of Europe.
Germany needs to start taking its national interests — and the interests of Europe as a whole — more seriously. It’s not possible to be the anchor of the EU and the most powerful European country in NATO and to act like a passive, neutral country. Yes, Germany was the villain of World War 2, but now it’s on the side of the good guys, and it needs to be a more determined and effective partner.
Update: In the time since I wrote this post, Germany has delivered a substantial amount of weaponry to Ukraine, supported cutting Russia off from SWIFT, and pledged to increase its defense spending substantially in order to meet its NATO commitments:
The crisis of the 21st century
For 40 years in the first half of the 20th century, nightmare regimes stormed across the world, wreaking devastation on anyone without the strength to resist them. But the world came through that crisis, and the great powers of the time developed norms that stopped the destruction. In the wake of that great act of responsibility and wisdom, the world for 70 years enjoyed the greatest flourishing of prosperity, culture, and human achievement in all its history.
Now those norms are gone, torn up by jealous, petty men who never lived to see what a world ruled by the law of the jungle is like. We may yet reestablish the norms of inviolable borders and the rights of small countries, but this will take risk and effort and blood — the blood of the Ukrainians now the first to be spilled. The crisis of the 21st century is upon us. And we must go into this crisis with open eyes, discarding the illusions we spun for our own consumption when we took peace for granted. We can no longer afford to treat our wealthy liberal society as a fatted calf to be slaughtered and parceled out by faction.