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Five Lessons for Europe from the Ukraine Crisis by David Boos

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Five Lessons for Europe from the Ukraine Crisis

"Allegory of the Abdication of Emperor Charles V" (ca. 1635-1640), a 132.8 × 170.7 cm oil on panel by Frans Francken the Younger (1581-1642).

Photo: Courtesy of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

The Russian attack on Ukraine has left Europe catching its breath. Instant paralysis was followed by increasingly extreme divisions among the people of Europe, a trend that followed neatly in footsteps of the COVID-19 pandemic and which seems to only increase by the day. Caught in the maelstrom of the news cycle, the thirst for ever more escalation and action unleashes a slumbering beast inside of people, a beast that is desiring to be fed with violence, anger, and hatred.

This is not exactly an obvious opportunity for calm reflection on the lessons Europe ought to learn from the state of the world. And yet, let us try just this.

1. The World Police have retired 

For many decades after the second World War, foreign interventions by the United States were the most common of sights. The reach of the U.S. was seemingly unlimited and, thanks to their dominance of the oceans of the world, the U.S. military was willing and able to ‘defend American interests offensively’ anywhere in the world. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the world became unipolar, which prompted Francis Fukuyama to announce the “end of history” early in the ‘90s.

But, as with all Empires, there is always a danger of overextension. It became apparent that simply bombing a country into submission and installing a new government wasn’t enough to maintain lasting influence in a region, and neither was offering a course on Gender Politics at Kabul University. Attempts to occupy Iraq and Afghanistan have run up the death toll and proven the impossibility of shaping foreign societies according to our Western models, even after many years of attempted restructuring.

Last year, the American retreat from Afghanistan and the following blitz by the Taliban rattled the Western world. It was the first chapter of an Empire in retreat, unable and unwilling to commit itself anymore to the task of controlling its furthest provinces. What we are witnessing in Ukraine is—independent of the outcome—the second chapter. The third chapter, presumably, will be Taiwan, after which the world will have completed its shift from a unipolar back to a multipolar world order. 

Whether we like it or not, the West will have to adjust to this situation in its dealings with other parts of the world. It should also be noted that the challenges and strategies in the United States differ from those in Europe. America is already in the process of re-evaluating its strategies, Trump’s relative isolationism was already a hint at where things might be going in the future. The future legacy of Joe Biden (which looks to be disastrous) will only speed up this process. For a Europe that has been relying on its transatlantic partner for all its military needs, the time will soon arrive to reappraise whether the Big Brother from overseas is willing and able to protect us, or whether he considers us a buffer zone on one hand, and a competitor on the other, best used to engage in conflicts with other major powers to strengthen the position of the United States.

2. The Age of Liberalism is coming to an end

The 20th century saw the rise of three societal concepts: fascism, communism, and liberalism. While fascism was defeated in 1945 and—despite constant warnings that a fascist takeover might be imminent—hasn’t reared its head on a larger scale since. Communism, at least in its best known form, was defeated when the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991. But compared to fascism, communism (and its sweet-talking brother, socialism) is far from dead. Utopian socialist projects have popped up regularly throughout history and are among the most popular concepts entertained by politicians, media, and Western intelligentsia today.

Liberalism has long been considered the clear victor of the twentieth century, but the first two decades of the 21st century have shown that it is a system not only under attack from the outside, but, more importantly, one that is crumbling on the inside. While we’ve been told it’s especially the right wing that threatens our liberal democracies, the past two years of political and social responses to COVID-19 have given us plenty of examples to the contrary. 

Australia, once hailed as one of the most liberal democracies in the world, implemented some of the harshest rules in the western world to combat the virus. Another favorite among liberal democracies, Canada, recently even invoked the Emergencies Act to end the protests against vaccination mandates—a first in Canadian history! With it, the government seized the opportunity to freeze bank accounts and cancel insurances of truckers involved in these protests, an unprecedented move that not only cut the protesters from their accessing any sort of income, but essentially destroyed their livelihood in a move reminiscent of excommunication from society. 

On the other hand, free markets have been under attack from monopolists on one hand and the left–wing on the other, leading to an increasingly centralized economy that could best be described as ‘billionaires’ socialism.’

The most worrying aspect of all this is that, while there are protests going on in wide parts of the West, elections and studies show that there is unfortunately not a silent majority who opposes these appetizers of totalitarianism. On the contrary, most citizens in Europe and throughout the West seem to be in support of (or at least open to) measures that reduce democratic participation drastically. Whether democracy can be saved or not, the struggle for alternatives to the liberalism of the 20th century is in full strife.

3. The loss of honesty … and its return

When Vladimir Putin declared war on Ukraine, he used terms such as ‘de-Nazification,’ spoke about the genocide in Eastern Ukraine, and announced that the ‘peacekeeping’ mission that was about to be unleashed. For Kremlin-standards, that was a remarkable choice of words, not least because it was such a searing jab at Western rhetoric. Until recently, that kind of jargon was primarily the domain of Western powers (especially the United States) intervening in foreign conflicts. Western media was quick to mock Putin’s choice of words as dishonest, distorted, and cynical. It is true that this part of his speech felt almost contrived, an attempt to morally justify a decision that on a geopolitical level was actually about drawing the infamous red line for NATO. 

The West has been losing its capacity to call things what they are. ‘War,’ for instance, is the domain of others; our bombs are dropped in the name of peace. And these ‘peacekeeping’ missions were never performed to protect vested interests or access to strategic resources or locations, but only to bring the inhabitants the blessings of democracy, whether they asked for it or not.

But most people in the affected countries never really cared for the political correctness of the terms we used, they only wanted the bombs to stop falling, no matter what political message accompanied them. For Western powers, though, this method worked just fine, as no other country or military alliance had the capabilities to put a stop to these methods, not even the UN.

The introduction of the moral casus belli and political correctness has lulled us Westerners into a state of almost complete ignorance as to the workings and terminology of politics. Not just average citizens, but also journalists, and even many members of the new political caste, lack understanding of politics and its attendant language. This understanding can seemingly only be found in a handful of think tanks nowadays. The whitewashed language we used for justifying our own foreign politics has caused us to fall for our own lies and forget that—ultimately—there are interests at play in politics.

Now that another major power has started appropriating our own terminology, we pretend to be shocked (and some probably honestly are). For decades, we’ve spotted the next Hitler behind every corner—even now—and suddenly there’s another power that dares to use our lingo to justify a war. It’s the latest escalation of the an-eye-for-an-eye policy Putin has been using against the West. If anything, this should be a reminder to us to drop the whitewashing of Western warfare, if not for reasons of honesty, then at least out of practicality. It doesn’t work on the diplomatic stage anymore, people in countries affected by our peacekeeping have never bought it, and our competitors are starting to use these tactics against us. The only ones we’re still fooling with this are ourselves.

At the same time, there is a directness, even an honesty, to the way Russia and China are communicating their intentions, and this seems to have been lost in the West for generations. The joint statement issued by China and Russia at the beginning of the Olympics a few weeks back uses a language that might be sometimes comically enriched (as when they refer to the long democratic traditions of their respective countries), but which is direct and, at least when taken at face value, honest about their intentions.

Both countries want to limit further expansion of NATO into their respective spheres of influence, and Russia supports China’s ‘One-China-Policy.’ Their ideas to bring prosperity to the masses might have some appeal, but are clearly born out of a philosophy in which the individual is subordinate to the ‘greater good’. It doesn’t take a lot of guesswork to understand the true meaning behind the positions outlined in this common statement: even taken literally, it should scare Europeans about the rising competition in the East, that is threatening what is left of our Western way of life.

Because of the loss of honesty in Western politics, even many conservatives have adopted moralizing, virtue signaling, and imprecise language when dealing with foreign threats. We accuse Russia of breaching international law on one hand, after never batting an eye when Western powers have done so in the past. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz says that war in Europe has become an unimaginable concept for his generation, but fails to remember the wars in Yugoslavia—led by a chancellor of Scholz’s party SPD! But instead of dropping the double-standards and recognizing conflicts of interest between political power blocks, we all add flags to our profile pictures (lest we want to be considered politically suspicious) and need to ‘unite’ behind our governments (even if those same governments treated us like fascists just a week earlier for protesting against mandatory vaccinations and segregation). 

While morality might inform our political decisions, moral indignation blurs our vision of reality. The current crisis leaves Europe with a stark choice: Will we return to the realities of diplomacy, vested interests, spheres of influence, and balance of power, or will we dive even deeper into the rabbit of hole of outrage, moral blackmail, division, and, ultimately, dishonesty. This choice will be a determining factor whether Europe will remain a power block in the coming multipolar world or destroy itself from within.

4. What if they don’t want to be like us?

‘Make the world England’—it is hard to imagine four words that could more succinctly describe the spirit, confidence and appeal of the era of European colonialism. The motto sums up the missionary spirit of the British Empire of the 18th and 19th century, a missionary spirit that went beyond the purely religious, and envisioned that the whole world might partake in the greatest life there is on earth: the life of an Englishman! But not just England, the whole West had been a terra desiderata for many other parts of the world. These other countries often aspired to be like us, or to at least partake in what the West had to share with their native cultures. Europe shared what itself and others perceived as a ‘better life’.

But that time is gone. When politicians talk about European values these days, they mean wokeness, enforced belief in transgenderism, and intersectionality, all of which the developing world wisely shows no interest in. Other cultures perceive the West as old and fat, and, while they would gladly take a piece of our riches if we’re so inclined to share them, there is no cultural vitality within us left to make them want to emulate us.

This is important to understand when dealing with powers outside of the European Union. Turkey, Russia, China, India, large parts of Africa and South America—none of them strive to be like us, none of them are interested in us telling them how to live. On the contrary, they rather consider us to be decadent and any sort of moral superiority the EU is trying to exude therefore comes across comical, inept, and lacking any sort of self-awareness.

Instead, the time has come for Europe to take a long, hard look in the mirror and ask ourselves how we got to this point. Only a reappraisal of what, exactly, these so–called European values are supposed to be will help us out of our quagmire. Doing so will not only allow us to shine again; it will aid us before intervening in the conflicts of foreign countries, foolishly expecting everybody in the world to welcome us and our values with open arms.

5. Final thoughts, or: It’s time to grow up

Europa est omnis divisa in partes duas—while we’re used to seeing the constant reduction of the Overton window in the mainstream, it has finally arrived in conservative circles—with a vengeance! Those who fail to support one camp, are immediately considered to be part of the other camp, a tendency sadly reminiscent of the frenzy described by Stefan Zweig at the beginning of the First World War.

In simplified terms, the divide in conservative circles seems to be between Transatlanticists and Eurasianists. Not only is it worrying that no other road seems to be worth considering, the mere thought of an independent Europe trying to maneuver on the world stage being rather a source of ridicule than of serious considerations, but the dialogue also suffers from the symptoms outlined above, which can be reduced to an intense dishonesty and arrogance towards ourselves and the outside world.

However beneficial our relation to America has been in the past, the future might see the United States increasingly retreating from Europe as it struggles to keep up its Empire, and ultimately seeing Europe as a disposable and natural competitor. The migration crisis of 2015 had the handwriting of U.S. foreign policy over it, but the bill was mostly paid by Europe (and, of course, the countries in the Middle East). And the current crisis in Ukraine might leave Europe in a new role as America’s very own buffer zone to the East.

That said, Eurasianists would be well advised to be wary of promises of a blossoming Europe in the multipolar world order, since it has been made abundantly clear that it would include the sacrifice of individualism, one of the core concepts of Western Man. Many of the methods of modern China align beautifully with the concepts promoted by Klaus Schwab in his plea for a Great Reset, and many Western elites are already flirting with the adaptation of the effective forms of governance from the Far East.

Therefore, it is crucial for Europe to grow up, cast self-deprecation and moral grandstanding aside, and return to politics that strengthen Europe as a whole, not to act as an aggressor, but to assert its independence and its interests in the world, openly, honestly, and free from the shackles of being anybody’s lackey. That will be challenging enough, and it demands all of our energy.

David Boos is an organist, documentary filmmaker, and writer for The European Conservative and other publications.

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