The tragedy unfolding in Ukraine brings several immediate thoughts to mind.
In a dangerous world, being able to look after yourself is highly advantageous
We talk a lot about how war has become obsolete, how a rules-based international order can substitute for a robust defence capability, and how attachment to the nation-state is increasingly passé.
But as the Russian invasion of Ukraine illustrates, that’s nonsense.
Yes, much of the world has rallied to Ukraine’s side in terms of assistance and serious economic sanctions. This support is genuinely impressive, even surprising, in scope.
However, it’s still Ukrainians who are doing the fighting and dying. And they’re doing it alone. No other nation is prepared to step up because the (very real) risk is too high.
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Ukraine’s response to the invasion is inspirational and heart-stirring, clearly motivated by a passionate love of country and attachment to the concept of the Ukrainian nation. The pull of the tribe is a powerful motivator. Ukrainians aren’t fighting for some abstract 21st-century idea of the post-national state. They’re fighting for their own nation-state.
They would, mind you, be in a better place if their military was stronger and seen to be stronger. With a population of 44 million, they’re not exactly tiny. And possibly Russian President Vladimir Putin’s calculations might’ve been different if he’d perceived them in a more formidable light.
Taiwan will undoubtedly take note. When their time comes, they, too, will fight alone.
Germany’s reality check
Angela Merkel’s recent retirement was accompanied by a flood of commentary lauding her as the wisest Western leader of the 21st century. But her legacy doesn’t look so hot now.
Two glaring weaknesses have suddenly become impossible for her successors to ignore. Both were conscious policy choices.
One was the heavy reliance on Russian gas. While rendering Germany susceptible to political blackmail, it also helped fund Putin’s military.
Modern life is utterly dependent on energy. It has to be abundant, affordable and reliable. Without it, societies will cease to function in any way resembling what we consider normal.
And whether it’s a matter of current supplies or betting the farm on a future without fossil fuels, public policy needs to be aligned with that stark reality. Wishes aren’t enough.
Germany’s second bad choice was the deliberate neglect of its military. To quote German Gen. Alfons Mais last week, “the Bundeswehr, the army that I have the duty to lead, is more or less naked.” In Europe’s biggest crisis since the Cold War, that could be construed as a dereliction of responsibility.
Geography creates conundrums
Canadians are blessed by geography. Thanks to the protection provided by oceans and an historically benign relationship with our much bigger southern neighbour, we’re not exposed to situations like Ukraine’s.
Lots of other countries aren’t so lucky. And that poses difficult choices.
For instance, Eamon de Valera – Ireland’s mid-20th-century prime minister – was exquisitely sensitive to Ireland’s prerogatives. But he was also acutely aware of its geographical proximity to Britain and the reality of British anxieties.
So he made it abundantly clear that he’d never countenance an alliance that could lead the British to believe Ireland might be used as a base to attack them. It wasn’t a matter of Ireland’s right to choose but rather a recognition of geopolitical reality.
The eastward expansion of NATO following the Soviet Union’s collapse brought similar considerations to the fore.
Of course, the newly independent countries had – and have – the right to choose their alliances. And given their histories, joining NATO is an obvious choice. In a similar circumstance, it’s what any of us would want to do.
There is, however, another consideration to weigh.
George Kennan, the hard-headed architect of the Cold War containment policy towards the Soviet Union, thought NATO enlargement would be a “fateful error.”
Writing in February 1997, he had this to say: “Such a decision may be expected to inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion; to have an adverse effect on the development of Russian democracy; to restore the atmosphere of the Cold War to East-West relations, and to impel Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking.”
Noting this in no way absolves Putin from responsibility for the current outrage. Nor does it necessarily mean that Kennan’s advice should’ve been taken.
But it behooves us to think carefully about the possibility of unintended consequences.
Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well, perhaps a little bit. For interview requests, click here.
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