Ukraine War: Seems Like Old Times
In Bratislava earlier this week, I had dinner with some Slovak friends, and heard them talking about how old friendships are ending because of the Ukraine war. Those ending the friendships are people who support the war, and who will not tolerate being friends with those who are skeptical of NATO policy -- this, even though none of the skeptics believe Russia was right to invade.
Last night at a dinner in Budapest, I mentioned this sad fact to a Czech and a Hungarian with whom I was speaking. The Czech identified himself to me as a skeptic about the war -- meaning not that he supports Russia (he emphatically does not), but that he questions NATO policy. He told me that he has lost many old friends because of his views, and that this is quite common across Czechia today.
The Hungarian chimed in to say the same thing is happening here, and has even split families she knows.
All of it is awfully familiar. I told my interlocutors that in the period between 9/11 and the start of the Iraq War, conservatives like me were so gung-ho for war that we did not want to hear from anybody who questioned its wisdom. The Right excommunicated conservatives like Patrick Buchanan and Bob Novak, both of whom objected to the plans for war. Our collective refusal to listen to them, and to despise them for their treason to the cause (remember "unpatriotic conservatives"?), helped lead the United States, and the Middle East, into catastrophe.
This is what you get when dissenters are silenced. Maybe the Ukraine war policy skeptics are wrong. But maybe they see something the crowd does not. They should be listened to as friends. But that's not happening. Back in Washington, the Republicans are just as committed as the Democrats to handing Kyiv an open wallet, and not pressing for peace negotiations. That Russia started this evil war cannot be disputed. But we desperately need to figure out a way to a cease fire and peace negotiations. There was a woman at dinner last night who recently returned from Ukraine, where she had gone to deliver humanitarian relief supplies with the charity she works for. She reported incredible suffering from ordinary people, and a deep desire among them for the damn thing to end.
When I got home last night, I shared all this with a Czech immigrant friend back in the US. His response: "Mark my words. There will be [wider] war. That's the Zeitgeist."
Look at this. If you want this war to end before it destroys even more lives and economies, and perhaps even spreads, you are therefore a Bad Person:
UPDATE: John Mearsheimer talking sense. "There is a non-trivial chance of nuclear war."
UPDATE: A reader sends me Philippe Lemoine's essay from a couple of days ago, critical of "liberal imperialism." Lemoine begins like this:
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has unleashed a wave of what I call “liberal imperialism” in the West, which I think is a very unfortunate development, so I want to explain in this essay what I mean by that and why I think it’s such a bad thing. In some ways, this phenomenon is reminiscent of what happened at the end of the Cold War, but it’s also very different. As in 1989, Western elites see the events that are unfolding as validating their worldview and proving that history is on their side. However, today’s liberal triumphalism is very different from the post-1989 enthusiasm, when people assumed that, now that the main alternative to this model had ended in failure, the rest of the world would convert to liberal democracy on its own. Since that didn’t happen, they no longer want to engage with non-liberal regimes and instead advocate aggressive containment, consequences be damned. In the US, Biden claims that a “battle in the world between autocracy and democracy” is currently ongoing and, even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he’d called the defense of democracy the “defining challenge of our time”. In what follows, I will argue that dividing the world into democracies and autocracies and seeing the main goal of foreign policy as the defense of the former against the latter is a mistake, which will make the world less safe and less prosperous.
It's a very long essay. His basic point is that the West is run by "liberal imperalists" -- "liberal" in the sense that everyone in the West favors classical liberal values (free markets, liberal democracy, and the rest) -- and that this causes major blind spots that lead us into serious risks in dealing with autocratic regimes. Lemoine points out that liberal democracies are highly subject to idealism in foreign policy, and to undertaking crusading foreign policy initiatives, like war, that are not in the interest of the war-making nation, or of security and stability. The West's demonization of Russia over its Ukraine invasion is an example. Lemoine writes:
The truth is that, both right now and in the foreseeable future, the West is simply too powerful to be seriously threatened by anyone unless we go looking for trouble. This qualification is important because, as powerful as the US and its allies are, they are not omnipotent and, by failing to correctly appreciate the limits of their power, they risk adopting policies that would endanger their safety or prosperity. Paradoxically, while in some respects liberal imperialists underestimate the West’s power, they also overestimate it precisely in that way. For instance, while Russia is far too weak to pose a serious threat to NATO (something that is now uncontroversial but wasn’t always so), it still has considerable spoiling power and humiliating it could have serious repercussions. Unfortunately, liberal imperialists clearly don’t realize that, so they think that we don’t risk anything by pushing the Russians against the wall. The problem is that people have such a cartoonish view of Russia that they think it’s already as bad as it can be, but unfortunately I fear they might soon realize how wrong they are. Indeed, there are a lot of things Russia is currently doing that we like, but that it won't be doing anymore if we turn it into a pariah state. Conversely, there are a lot of things it's not currently doing that it might start doing, which we won’t like at all. For instance, Russia has refrained from selling certain advanced weapon systems to geopolitical adversaries of the West in the past, not just because it deemed that it would threaten its own security but also because it wanted to preserve good relations with the West. If we turn it into a pariah state, it will have less reasons to do so and might change this policy in some cases. Similarly, Russia has cooperated a lot with the West on the non-proliferation agenda in the past, but it might no longer do so. Are we sure that we are ready for that? Maybe it’s worth the risk and we don’t need to change anything in our response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but liberal imperialists are in no position to be confident of that, because they think about the question in simplistic moral terms and that kind of possibility clearly isn’t part of their calculation.
Lemoine goes on:
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Liberal imperialism wasn’t always so dominant in the West and I don’t think we should give up the hope that it can be rolled back in the long-run, though it will probably take a disaster or generational replacement for that to happen. If we are lucky and liberal imperialism doesn’t cause any disaster, a return to a more restrained form of foreign policy will have to result from the rejection of liberal imperialism by a new generation of political and intellectual elites, but this is not going to happen unless some people make the case against it.
Good for him for doing so, but I am very pessimistic that this will change. Why? Because the elites in charge of our institutions, and the coming generation (Generation Z), are so driven by moral idealism that they no longer believe in fundamental liberal values and practices (e.g., freedom of expression, freedom of religion, and so forth). What "liberalism" means to them is total support for LGBT+, allowing the NGO class to determine governance priorities, and total support to the designs of Western oligarchs as long as they all fall on the left side of the political spectrum (George Soros and Jeff Bezos good; Elon Musk bad.)
That Europe is risking a far wider war, and immiserating its people for the sake of pursuing this proxy war with Russia, is an obvious reason for trying to figure out how to reach a cease fire and peace settlement between Russia and Ukraine. But that is unacceptable to elites in government, the military, and the media. So they demonize anyone who questions the pro-war status quo as Putin's bitches, despite the protests of the dissidents that they have no love for Putin or Russia, but just want to stop the bleeding and prevent an even worse catastrophe.