The 20th Century Comes Back To Haunt the 21st
War in Europe, again.
Ukraine’s President Zelensky showed himself in the streets of Kyiv with his troops, facing death. That’s a commander in chief. That takes real courage — not making meaningless speeches in fake outrage from a presidential office in Washington DC or Europe — or ordering assassinations from behind the walls of the Kremlin.
We — the rest of the world — are doing nothing.
All the White House bluster of the last few weeks and months boiled down to empty threats, as Putin correctly anticipated. The sanctions announced so far are too little too late. Today or in the next few days we might finally see the first serious measure, cutting Russia off the global financial transactions system SWIFT. The other step that could hurt Russia, cutting off its energy exports, has barely started being considered.
US and European leaders had made it clear well in advance that they were not prepared to do anything serious in response to a Russian invasion: Biden memorably said a “small incursion” would just lead to bickering amongst western allies (optimistic in retrospect, since it turned out to be true for even a full scale invasion); Germany initially vetoed a move on SWIFT and Italy’s Draghi said energy should remain off the table. If you think an invasion is imminent, as the White House kept repeating, that’s an odd way to discourage it.
Knowing an invasion was coming, the West could have done a lot more: supplied Ukraine with more and better weapons, prepared to enforce a no flight zone over Ukraine, and mobilized substantial forces at the eastern border. Now NATO is scrambling to bring more military help to Ukraine. But the question to Biden and his allies is: since you knew this was going to happen — as you told us over and over — why didn’t you do then what you’re struggling to do now?
Some have praised the Biden administration for providing a running preview of Russia’s next moves. It deprived Putin of the element of surprise, they say. But you really think that Putin, who had openly amassed overwhelming military force at the border of its much weaker neighbor, needed the element of surprise? To the contrary, Putin seemed to relish telling western leaders, I am going to invade, and you won’t stop me. We gave up the element of surprise by telling him in advance we would do nothing.
Emerging powers are also embarrassingly cynical: China and India both abstained on the UN resolution condemning the invasion. China is thinking ahead to Taiwan. India merely looks cowardly and unprincipled.
Cowardice and hypocrisy are not confined to the corridors of power. Where are the calls to boycott Russian products and investments? The demonstrations across college campuses for “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions”? Corporate leaders in finance, industry and tech have been increasingly vocal and active in affirming their concern for social and environmental issues. Now they are remarkably hesitant. Even our very timid political leaders have described Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as an unjustified and inexcusable act of war. So if you keep doing business in Russia or with Russia, don’t talk anymore about “corporate social responsibility”.
Behind this timid reaction is a desire for business as usual and a quiet life. If we keep sanctions to a minimum, the global economy will keep humming along. We’ll avoid further disruptions to supply chains, and gasoline prices won’t rise too much. Russia will absorb Ukraine, and after a while we’ll all forget about it and life will go on as usual. As it did after Russia’s interventions in Georgia, Crimea and Belarus, and China’s move on Hong Kong. Stock markets seem to be betting on this scenario.
But while we look at the next few months, Russia and China look at the big picture.
Now that we’ve shown cowardice, Russia’s obvious next target would be a small NATO country in the Baltics. For example a “small incursion” across Lithuania to secure a comfortable corridor to Russia’s port of Kaliningrad. After all, some will argue, it was our fault that we admitted both Poland and Lithuania into the EU and NATO, encircling a piece of Russia’s territory.
What then? Will we respect Article 5 and go to war against Russia? Or will we try to negotiate a compromise, and make NATO finally irrelevant?
All this has economic consequences — as well as the tragic human cost. A world where a few countries take what they want at whim through war and blackmail is not a world of fast economic growth and rising shared prosperity. Yes, big corporations are used to do operate in politically unstable countries — but a pre-WW II global geopolitical order is something entirely different.
It’s time to recognize that the world is not a perfect place, and that you can’t always impose peace by peaceful means. The Romans wisely said, “Si vis pacem, para bellum” — if you want peace, prepare for war. If you want peace — and prosperity — show that you are willing to pay a price for it.
This holds for us all. The US must take the lead — and I do not mean “leading from behind” — or it will forfeit its role of leading superpower and pass the baton to China. But Europe must also step up. Germany is especially guilty for pursuing an energy policy that has made it hopelessly dependent on Russia’s gas, while it reneged on its NATO commitments to boost defense spending. American blood and treasure should not pay for Germany’s green dreams. Emerging powers like India must decide what kind of world order they want. And corporate leaders, so keen to show their social consciousness, must take responsibility for the big issues even when they are not trending fashionably on Twitter.