At least two and a half cheers for the “dispirited” and “declining” West in the Age of Putin. Who would have thunk? From America to Australia, from the Baltics to Japan, the battle against Russian imperialism is defying the doomsayers who have reported the imminent demise of the West ever since Edward Gibbon penned his dirge, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. This endless tale has filled a library by now.
In the early 20th century, Oswald Spengler revived the despair in his Decline of the West. More recently, the historian Jacques Barzun published the bestseller From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life. In 2020, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat opined in The Decadent Society that the West had once more succumbed to stalemate and stagnation.
Not quite, as the Ukraine war shows. Time to quote Samuel Johnson again: “When a man knows that he is to be hanged, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” Putin’s invasion was not exactly the Big Surprise; we should have seen it coming since he started arms racing in 2000, crushed Georgia in 2008, and proceeded to rape Crimea and the Donbas in 2014. (This author admits that he could not have predicted the West’s almost uniform reaction to Putin’s lunge for Kyiv in 2022.)
The West has imposed the harshest sanctions ever. It has launched a swelling flow of arms into Ukraine. Eternally neutral Finland and Sweden are pushing into NATO. Even the inventor of neutralism, Switzerland, has signed on to the sanctions regime. Germany, the country in the middle both geographically and diplomatically, has pledged to pump €100 billion into an army it had let rot away after the demise of the Soviet Union. Berlin is scrambling to rid itself of its excruciating dependence on Russian oil and gas—and so is the EU. Only the usual suspects in the Authoritarian International like Turkey and Hungary are sidling up to the Kremlin.
Most amazing has been the reaction of what-do-we-care Western society. Look around in the United States, where innumerable folks have opened their homes for fundraisers. Where small communities have taken in Ukrainian refugees. Where the networks (okay, not Fox News) are keeping up the drumbeat against unimaginable Russian cruelty.
Same in Europe, where public opinion has turned against Putin’s drive to restore the old Soviet Empire from the Caspian to the Baltic Sea. Europeans have to go back to the Thirty Years’ War of 1618–48 for the “model:” committing mass murder, raping women of all ages, looting houses and sending the booty home. The war crimes—de rigueur in the 17th century—can no longer be counted. Europeans, especially between the Rhine and Vistula, have spontaneously outflanked social agencies, sharing their abodes with Ukrainian refugees. Decadent this is not.
For contrast go back to the 1980s, when millions of Europeans thronged the streets to stop the deployment of intermediate-range nuclear missiles, toppling at least one government—Helmut Schmidt’s in Bonn. Go back farther to the Fifties and the “better red than dead” movement in much of Europe, terrorized by the nuclear saber-rattling of the Soviet Union. Today, the new reality is the refusal to be cowed by Putin’s threats to unleash tactical nukes.
Future historians will be better equipped to explain this wondrous turn on the part of the hoi-polloi. These dwarf a small group of stalwarts in the chattering classes on the left and right who keep urging Kyiv to give in to Putin. Better to live on your knees than to die on your feet. What sounds solicitous conceals self-serving angst: You must not entrap us in a war against ruthless Russia.
How to explain the astounding hardening of vox pop? Isn’t the attention of the Great Unwashed riveted on domestic priorities? Don’t people care more about their material comforts amidst accelerating inflation, empty shelves, and exploding real estate prices? Given such risks to their well-being, they should have been cowed by Putin’s unending threats of tactical nuclear strikes. So, they should be pressing their governments to stop baiting the Bear. Yet public opinion in favor of resistance might actually lead official policy.
How to crack the puzzle? Here is a laundry list. Item one: Maybe even the untutored feel it in their bones that Putin is actually threatening mutual nuclear suicide. It is just psy-war bereft of credibility. It doesn’t take a strategist to grasp the single most important truth about the nuclear world: If you go first, you die next. Self-restraint has been the name of the game since Hiroshima.
Two: Europeans have led a cozy life under America’s security blanket. Under Donald Trump, who bad-mouthed NATO as “obsolete” and pulled out U.S. troops, the fabric seemed to unravel. Yet right now, Europe is watching a leftish U.S. President lead a Western posse against Putin while beefing up the U.S. military presence in Europe. This nice reinsurance policy lowers the risk of resolve. Good fences make for good allies, to rephrase Robert Frost. Trump never grasped that point about the shepherd and his flock.
Three: The Europeans are not unaware of Russia’s doomed economy, compared to the West’s astronomic advantage. Russia is not the Third Reich, which could mobilize seven million soldiers in World War II. Nor is it Stalin’s Soviet Union, which sacrificed twenty million of its citizens.
Four: The hoi-polloi, as well as their elected leaders, can take comfort in Russia’s dismal military performance; the bedraggled Bear is limping. Five, the obverse: The Ukrainians, aided by the West’s heavy weapons, copious cash gifts, and precious battlefield intelligence, are fighting in ways Europe has forgotten. So, the bulwark will keep the war away from NATO’s eastern borders. We help ourselves by helping the Ukrainians.
Six: Whether they boast a Ph.D. or deliver pizzas, Europeans deep down have a sense of the historical stakes. Putin’s predecessors like Leonid Brezhnev were essentially conservative, tending their imperial garden in Eastern Europe. Yet Putin wants to demolish a European order blessed by seventy-seven years of great-power peace—the longest on a continent where peace used to be just a pause between two wars. Hence the “concentrated minds” of those apparently listless nations as they contemplate a future on Russia’s leash.
These are hypotheses, if also fed by the realities of the day. This astounding resolve may not last on a continent that has dispatched its old warrior culture (with the partial exception of Britain and France). The larger the posse, the higher the defection rate as the fortunes of war turn against it. Better to opt out or cozy up to the enemy.
Recall Gary Cooper as Marshal Kane in High Noon, where the good folks of Hadleyville fell away one by one as the Bad Guys approached. Self-seeking is the deadliest threat to coalitions. As Kane tries to round up a posse, he keeps hearing, “Hey, Marshal, I have a wife and kids, I don’t know how to shoot, this is your fight, why don’t you just leave town?” This is the rationality of cowardice.
That said, consider seventh and finally a moral explanation that does not fit into the catechism of decadence. Call it a “sense of justice” amidst unspeakable viciousness not seen since the Wehrmacht and SS ravaged Ukraine. This inhumanity used to be the fate of the helpless in faraway civil and tribal wars. No longer. Now, we are living next door to a brave Ukrainian people who defend our own best values as they defy Putin’s killer brigades. That nation deserves our support, even as food and gas prices soar. To repeat: Who would have thought? After all, the Europeans are a bunch of free riders huddling under the American umbrella. Don’t they care more about beer gardens than battlefields?
Maybe they will again pull back into their magnanimous welfare states as the Ukraine conflict turns into an indecisive war. At least the past months are reassuring, and the reason is rare in the annals of international politics: the happy confluence of realpolitik and idealpolitik, callous self-interest and moral obligation. One reinforces the other—an atypical conjunction. Regard how often nations have shrugged off duty in favor of naked self-interest.
In this case, ethics and egotism add up to synergy. The good is also the expedient, buttressed by a sense of kinship with a nearby victim. Altruism and selfishness are in harness. Clinton’s America abandoned Somalia after the death of just eighteen servicemen. Like Czechoslovakia, Somalia was “a quarrel in a faraway country, between people of whom we know nothing,” to recall Neville Chamberlain in 1938.
But Ukraine is us, and we will not thrive if Putin gets away with his grab and then feels emboldened to swallow more. Hitler did it, and so did tsarist Russia in centuries past, when it grew virtually unopposed into the largest country on earth.
Add, in the Ukrainian case, the role of the much maligned media that project the mayhem into our living rooms 24/7. The Great Unwashed may know little about geopolitics and the balance of power, but they recognize soul-numbing malice. There were no TV cameras in the Thirty Years’ War, nor in the “discreet” wars of conquest before the television age, let alone the reign of today’s social media. We may despise the electronic media, but in Ukraine they are a force of good in spite of fake news and manipulation.
“Pourvu que ça dure,” Napoleon’s mother Letitia cautioned her son when he boasted of his exploits—let’s hope that it lasts. So far, the marriage of moral duty and self-interest is holding. Decadence is taking a break. Good for Ukraine, bad for Russia, and good for that soi-disant exhausted, self-absorbed West. Nothing concentrates the mind better than a murderous enemy next door.
Josef Joffe, a member of the American Purpose editorial board, teaches international politics and political theory at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
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