A Night of Compounded Tragedies
The death of even an illusion of order
As Russia rained bombs on Ukraine last night, many things were violently destroyed. Buildings and roads and human bodies, yes - but more than that as well. An entire post-WW2 order, painstakingly if imperfectly created by men who were far, far more responsible stewards of the world than we, came crashing down around us. Diplomacy seemed futile. The United Nations seemed impotent. Europe seemed flummoxed. And the United States seemed tragically, pathetically irrelevant.
We are living in an age when the bad guys are winning. Not just Putin, but also Orban and Erdogan and MBS and Xi Jinping and Kim Jong-un and others who form a loose fraternity of swaggering, hardcore autocrats now looming large on the world stage. Together they form an almost united front against democracy, seeking to make - through persuasion if possible and through force if necessary - dictatorial rule the dominant mode of governance in the 21st Century.
In political relationships as well as personal ones, it’s always tempting to blame our problems on another person. And none of the aforementioned men are bastions of freedom or humanitarian values. But their ability to gain such power as that which is now so horrifically on display in the Ukraine, has been largely due not only to what they are but because of what America is no longer. The United States over the last few decades has abdicated our military credibility, moral authority, and democratic values to such an extent as to have created a huge vacuum in the world. Allowing corporate power and the absolutism of property rights to edge out democracy in our own country, we have thought nothing of recklessly waging imperialistic wars, whoring to China, or surrendering our values in any other way where a quick buck was to be made.
Vladimir Putin is a madman. But his madness has been matched by a madness of our own: hypocrisy, delusions of grandeur, military adventurism, and corporate greed that have hollowed out our very soul. Still, there is one thing that could make a difference now, and that is how many of us do have a healthy sense of shame. Americans who are sickened by the thought of what the Ukrainian people are going through now, might do well to consider what the people of Baghdad went through when we invaded them 20 years ago. It is we, not Russia, who mounted the first great criminal invasion of the 21st Century.
The American people are facing a fact that is very difficult to face, painful but necessary if we are to reclaim our power to make a positive difference in the world: that for the all the reasons mentioned above, we are a nation in decline. Having allowed this to happen, we have not only dishonored our ancestors and failed our children; we have let down the world. We have left a vacuum where our values, our commitment to democracy, and a responsible use of power used to be. This is not a moment to blame the opportunistic adventurers who have taken advantage of the vacuum. It’s a moment to passionately, urgently commit ourselves to rebuilding what has been broken and shoring up what still remains.
America can’t be great again until America tries to be good again. As we do that, we will begin to repair. We will become again a superpower that stands for something important in the world. A superpower that other superpowers are loathe to mess with. “If we do this, what will America do?” will once again become a relevant question to the major bad actors in the world. This repair will not be easy and it will not happen quickly. But it will happen if enough of us agree that it must. If the tragedy unfolding in Ukraine proves anything, it’s that a light is missing in the world or so much darkness could not have gotten in. Part of that light is who we used to be. For the sake of literally everyone, may we claim our light again.
In the meantime, catastrophe has occurred for the people of Ukraine. We are faced with a previously unimaginable horror, with no idea whether the economic and military powers of Europe and the United States will stop the madness or exacerbate it. This much is true, however, regardless of what happens now: the international order which was created and which prevailed during the second half of the 20th Century is no more.
There is no perfect external remedy to what is happening now. Military and political expertise alone are not an adequate match for the psychotic forces that have been unleashed upon the world. And let’s not kid ourselves, it could get worse before it gets better; we need leadership now that’s as wise as it is forceful. Thoughts and prayers aren’t a mere weak add-on to the serious and sophisticated stuff of modern geo-political-military politics. Atonement, reflection and genuine humility are serious powers too. We need to think long and hard about the world right now and long and hard about ourselves. The only way we can fundamentally alter a previously unimaginable state of war is if we are willing, and courageous enough, to create a previously unimaginable peace.