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The Last House to Burn: Why Foreign Affairs Matter by Daria Fedotova

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Essay

The Last House to Burn: Why Foreign Affairs Matter

"The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, October 16, 1834" (1834-1835), a 92.1 × 123.2 cm oil on canvas by Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), located in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

“Recent events are terribly unpleasant, of course, but rather far off. They don’t concern us.”

Such sentiments have become more and more widespread among the people of Europe and America, especially conservatives. They see almost any foreign intervention as costly and unnecessary, and it is hard to blame them after the disasters of Iraq and Afghanistan. They put their country’s interests first, which is not only predictable but commendable. They prefer to think of the burden on taxpayers, the poor families who will have to deal with rising prices, and the damage done to their neighbourhoods. They focus on the problems their own communities face—and so they should. Yet, in their attempts to protect their own, they often lose sight of the larger picture and neglect potential dangers. A great many of the world’s troubles are not for Western countries to resolve. But some of them are.

In 2021, Afghanistan was lost to the Taliban. The United States retreated without a fight, leaving behind warehouses full of weapons. This humiliating defeat sent a clear message to anyone who would listen: the era of Western supremacy was coming to an end. Still strong in terms of military and modern technology, the allies demonstrated a fatal weakness of spirit. Like tired, toothless lions, they had yielded to the socialist poison, crushed by the burden of responsibility. The governments could do nothing but carefully proclaim their disapproval of radical Islam and promise to take in more refugees. China took notice, and so did Russia.

It was only a matter of time before Russia attacked Ukraine and, when it did, many on the political Right reacted with indifference, convinced that this war had nothing to do with them. Nothing could be further from the truth. Like the Afghan conflict, the Ukraine war exposed a lack of decisiveness and vigour in the West. On this occasion, however, the war was in Europe, for the first time in decades. Regardless of which side we support, this fact alone warrants attention.

Suppose Western countries refuse to get involved in international matters and focus exclusively on problems at home. They might be able to solve them—but only temporarily and at the cost of even greater future troubles. We might wish to turn away from the world, but the world will not ignore us in return. We may surrender our position of influence, but another will gladly take our place. If the US, the UK, and Europe do not set standards for the rest, China and its allies will soon fill the power vacuum.

There will be no drastic changes at first. Inflation will stay within the usual rate, shelves will be stocked, and cars will be fueled. But foreign pressure will grow; smaller states will change allegiance; new conventions will be imposed upon national laws; and alien customs will infiltrate cultures. At some point, the West will find itself irrelevant and impoverished, sitting on the fringes of the global community in terms of politics, the military, and quality of life. Past achievements can only carry it for some time; history is cruel to those who become complacent. 

But do these potential dangers justify being dragged into open conflict? This is a question of simple calculations. For now, NATO’s military power has no equals; it is capable of obliterating almost any threat without resorting to such extreme measures as general mobilisation. The task becomes even simpler if fighting takes place abroad and if there is an allied ground force capable of taking the hit. Even in the dreaded event of nuclear war, a significant technological edge allows NATO’s defences to intercept enemy warheads before they reach their targets. Nevertheless, all these advantages will fail to deter potential opponents if they are not put to use. While de-escalation may work in some cases, it turns into appeasement after a few deliberate provocations. With every concession, demands become a little harsher. With every ceded territory, conflict moves a little closer to home.

It is not uncommon to see any international involvement as a form of imperialism—and imperialism is wrong, is it not? However, there is nothing inherently immoral or unacceptable about it. Every empire is built on violence, but so is every other large organisation that survives for prolonged periods of time. Human history is the history of war. “Of the past 3,400 years, humans have been entirely at peace for 268 of them,” wrote Chris Hedges in a 2003 article published in The New York Times; and whether this claim is valid or not, it provides an insight into human nature. Conflicts are inevitable, but their brutality varies. Empires differ as well, being only as oppressive as their metropolises.

The British Empire, for one, was a force both civilising and preserving. Far from peaceful or saintly, it was yet one of the noblest players in the international arena. It brought law, science, and commerce to every land it conquered, built roads, railways, hospitals, and palaces, studied every language and culture, guarded the seas, and did its best to respect the rules of war. Though it lacks support nowadays, it was always a proud defender of liberty and order. Britain’s sons fought around the world, choosing to spill their blood for the great dream of Pax Britannica. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, was not an attractive place, inheriting the worst features of Tsarist Russia and infusing them with communism. This unholy mix made it a land of material and spiritual poverty. It turned corruption into the only refuge for enterprise, suffocated its own intellectual elites, and taught its people to shy away from dignity and comfort. Both were empires, yet London was—and remains—very different from Moscow.

It is natural for empires to form, expand, and force their vision upon the rest of the world. The only thing that limits a great power is another great power; no system of international law has ever succeeded on its own. The UN is just as impotent as the League of Nations, and no court, however lavishly decorated with flags, speaks louder than guns. It is unreasonable to expect any real solutions from them; indeed, it is desirable for them to be as powerless as they are, serving as advisory platforms with little practical influence over sovereign nations. Therefore, the question is not whether imperialism should be supported, but which empire.

Whichever side we take, either in real war or in the culture war which so consumes us, we should take it firmly. We should give our full support to the force which we would wish to shape our future—aware that distant dangers may suddenly appear at our doorstep. The house which is the last to burn burns all the same.

Daria Fedotova is a lawyer and writer based in Ukraine.

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