While I was working out on the elliptical trainer at the gym this morning, the TV monitor was tuned to CNN. I could not hear what the talking heads on the monitor were saying (I was listening to Franz Liszt’s symphonic poem Hungaria on my AirPods) but the banner beneath them read “Are the US and NATO already at War with Russia?” I thought, “Well, of course, they are.”
The only real question that can be asked is, “is it a hot war or a cold war?” When one country determines that it is going to attack another country and oppose them in every way possible those countries are at war, even if one of those countries does not realize that they are at war. Russian President Vladimir Putin has been at war with America and its Western allies for years. He believes that Western-style democracies on Russia’s borders (such as Georgia, Ukraine, Poland and the Baltic States) are an existential threat to the Russian way of life (as he sees it). He believes the West is decadent and weak. That Americans and Europeans are greedy capitalists mired in their own self-interest. That was why the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline was such a great weapon. He thought that a Germany addicted to Russian energy while avariciously seeking profits from corrupt autocratic regimes across the globe could not effectively resist Russian aggression if it endangered either energy or profits.
So, Russia has already been at war with America and the West for years. To Putin, the collapse of the Soviet Union was only a temporary setback in the advance of the Russian Empire. But Putin is not alone. Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping issued a joint communique on the eve of the Beijing Olympics that “friendship between the two states has no limits” and “there are no forbidden areas of cooperation.” That alliance, although not formalized by a treaty, is opposed to the extension of liberal democracy around the world and the expansion of NATO or other security agreements that could challenge their ambitions.
It is just that the West has been blind to the extent of this war. In their effort to go green, Europe gave up its ability to supply the energy it needs and gave that responsibility to Russia, of all people. And the United States, in the effort to improve economic efficiency allowed its critical supply chains to be detoured through China, of all people. And when President Biden issued an executive order to strangle the US energy industries on the day of his inauguration (Executive Order blah, blah, blah to Tackle the Climate Crisis), he weakened America’s ability to protect itself. And where does he go when we start to run short of oil, to Iran and Venezuela, two autocracies aspiring to join in with Russia and China, of all people.
No matter what happens in Ukraine, Russia and China will try to get America and the West back on track to this suicidal normality. America suffers from what historian Niall Ferguson calls a national attention deficit syndrome. In the face of truly existential challenges, we quickly fall back into squabbling about paid family leave, pedophile pizza parlors or whatever.
Those closer to the front lines, such as Germany, appear to have had a true wake-up call. Angela Merkel’s replacement, Chancellor Olaf Scholz, has broken with her policy of appeasement and has vowed to increase defense spending to over the two percent minimum NATO members are obligated to spend (he has to play catch up for Merkel’s failure to meet this obligation). Meanwhile he is sending military equipment and supplies to Ukraine.
President Biden has done an admirable job in supporting Ukraine but seems oblivious to the bigger picture. The invasion of Ukraine is not the war, it is just a battle of the greater war. We cannot solve the global energy problem with the US’ Strategic petroleum Reserve or by servilely begging autocratic countries that are allies to Russia and China to pump more oil. He needs to rescind his Executive Order blah, blah, blah to Tackle the Climate Crisis and get American energy companies fracking, pumping and refining again. He also needs to start building nuclear power plants (a necessity not even mentioned in the Executive Order). He needs to lay the foundation for a reinvigorated and strengthened America because this struggle will not be over before the next presidential election and likely many more presidential elections.
Manuel Hinds, in his excellent book, In Defense of Liberal Democracy, points out that there are two basic styles of society, vertical societies and horizontal societies. Most societies throughout history have been unidimensional (vertical) societies. The one dimension of such societies is power, and the power resides in the hands of the king, emperor or warlord. The social order in such societies comes from the top down and people within such a society obey because the alternative to that imposed order is chaos, as described by Thomas Hobbes in his book, Leviathan.
As Mr. Hinds describes, a more diverse multidimensional society was made possible by the Enlightenment’s emphasis on individualism and the natural rights with which each individual is endowed. The basis of the social order in such multidimensional societies is what he calls the Rule of Rights, what we call the Rule of Law (this is likely because the Rule of Law is translated in Spanish as estado de derecho, derecho being Spanish for rights. Mr. Hinds is Salvadoran and a former Minister of Finance of that country. The Rule of Rights, however, does not feel comfortable on my tongue so I will rename the concept as the Rule of Natural Rights).
The great conflict of the twenty-first century will be between autocratic unidimensional societies such as Russia and China and democratic multidimensional societies such as the United States and Europe, just like it was in the twentieth century. And I believe that, like in the twentieth century, the horizontal multidimensional societies will prevail, but it will not be easy or painless.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a good example of how a vertical unidimensional society attempts to exert power, but it also highlights the weakness of autocratic rule. The invasion was conceived of, organized by, and implemented by Vladimir Putin. He thought he had evaluated every variable and developed strategies to deal with those variables. But the invasion has not gone as planned. His tanks are bogged down, and his blitzkrieg has turned into a plodding march of death as Russian body bags mount up. Like most autocrats, he blames others for his lack of foresight as there are rumors of a purge of military commanders and arrests of intelligence officers. This is the principal weakness of vertical rule.
Ukraine’s resistance to the invasion is a good example of how horizontal multidimensional societies function. While Ukrainian President Zelenskyy has been an outstanding wartime leader, it is the citizens of Ukraine that are leading the defense of the nation, taking up arms, making Molotov cocktails (invented by the Finns to defend against a Russian invasion of that country in 1939) and protesting in front of tanks and Russian troops. This resistance has unnerved Russian troops who had been told they were liberators and would be welcomed by the Ukrainians.
Putin and his conscripted troops may ultimately prevail in this battle for Ukraine, but the invasion must be seen as an utter disaster for Putin’s hegemonic plans. NATO has been strengthened and the world united against him. Russia’s energy resources, its greatest deployable weapon, will be rendered useless. And Ukrainian resistance will continue during the Russian occupation, sapping the Russian economy and embittering the Russian people against Putin’s autocratic rule as the stream of body bags continues unabated.
But America and its Western allies must not be deluded into thinking that this crisis will soon be over. Ukraine is just the opening battle, perhaps only a skirmish, in the great struggle of the twenty-first century between vertical unidimensional autocracies and horizontal multidimensional democracies. And all of this must be done while battling domestic factions on the progressive left and populist right that seek to remake America into a unidimensional vertical society.