‘Do you think that the Faith has conquered the World
And that lions no longer need keepers?’
T.S. Eliot – Choruses From The Rock
It is a long time since I read any Fukuyama. His neo-Hegelian take on ‘The End of History’ was all in vogue in the early 1990s, when we in the free Western World breathed a sigh of relief as the Cold War ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the demise of the Soviet communist hegemony.
Fukuyama hoped that the types of ideologically driven struggles which Hegel and Marx saw as the engines of History had come to an end, and we were instead to enjoy the triumph of Liberal Democracy.
Well, how have the past 30 years worked out for you?
We are well used to American adventurism, which has existed since at least the 1840s, when the Americans seized half of the territory of their near neighbour, Mexico, and which has since seen the USA intervene in the affairs of many countries across Latin America at first, and then (particularly post-1945) increasingly elsewhere in the world.
Despite the pro-liberty rhetoric that the USA usually utilises to justify much of its adventurism, there are frequently cynical economic motives behind its actions, which show up an inherent hypocrisy in its claims to be making the world safe for democracy sharing close parallels to the Virginian slave owners writing and speaking about the rights and liberties of all men.
And it does make it hard for the USA and its western allies to then criticise the actions of truly despotic regimes acting aggressively against their weaker neighbours.
How much worse was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 than the US entanglement in Vietnam and the rest of Indochina? Many people (myself included) still think that Henry Kissinger probably has a case to answer for war crimes.
Post-Cold War, the first Gulf War and the US intervention to remove the Taliban Regime from Afghanistan were probably justifiable, although the latter activity has been proven by later events to have gone sadly awry.
But the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 has proven not only to be a very sad mistake, but very hard to justify in the eyes of global opinion. True, Saddam was a menace to his people, but so are a lot of other dictators, and it turns out that he was no longer a threat to his neighbours.
What it did do was to persuade a few other countries, such as Iran and North Korea, that the possession of solely conventional weapons was not going to be a guarantee against being invaded by a super power.
Which takes us to the Ukraine, which in 1994 voluntarily relinquished its share of the former Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal, and who has now been invaded by its nuclear armed super power neighbour, post-communist Russia.
This is another message to those smaller nations that perhaps the nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation demands from the major powers should be balanced against their own security needs.
Whilst Russia has been aggressive to its former imperial vassal states since the end of the Soviet Union, the invasion of the Ukraine is the starkest and most extensive act of war that Russia has engaged in since it rolled its tanks into Afghanistan in 1979.
At that same time, Communist China attempted an invasion of Communist Vietnam.
Both events ended badly for the aggressors, particularly for the USSR as the Red Army carried so many thousands of its soldiers home in zinc coffins over the next decade.
But no one wins a war. Even superpowers lose strategically, even when they inflict a higher body count. I think we learned that from Robert McNamara’s mechanistic attempts to manage the Vietnam War with grisly Key Performance Indicators, let alone the failures of the Soviet Afghan conflict.
One of the problems with the USA’s strategic outlook is that it can never see how other powers feel about threats close to their own territory. Whilst Cuba was a dagger held to America’s throat in 1962, the USA has from time to time blundered into major conflicts failing to understand that other powers see their neighbours as buffer states or strategically vital to their own interests.
Take the tragedy of the Korean War. Whilst communist North Korea was clearly the aggressor, the USA and its allies refused to see that China saw the Korean peninsula as an invasion corridor into its territory, one which had been recently used as such by Japan. By continuing to pursue the communist North Koreans up to the Yalu River, the Americans blindly ensured that China would intervene in the war, prolonging it for another 3 years.
Take the Ukraine now. Russia has been subject to two major and traumatic invasions – that in the Napoleonic Wars, and that of the Second World War. It does not welcome the idea of having potential adversaries aligned with its neighbours. The motivation for Putin invading the Ukraine could have been significantly reduced if assurances had been given that NATO membership was off the table for the Ukraine.
It is great for the Western powers to express outrage. Russia is a nuclear armed superpower and the West cannot directly confront Russia within Russia’s perceived sphere of influence without risking nuclear war.
Rhetoric gives in to reality – the Ukraine needs to defend itself as best it can.
What happens next in the Ukraine is up to the people there. I do not pretend to be an expert on the countries and ethnicities of what was once the Russian Empire and then the USSR.
I just know that Finland, which had won its own independence from Russia as a result of the collapse of that Empire in the First World War, was invaded by the Soviet Union in 1940, and in the next few years fought and lost two wars against the USSR. They lost, and they suffered greatly, but the cost in casualties which they inflicted on the Soviet Union persuaded the USSR not to try and occupy Finland directly.
Similarly, the people of Afghanistan suffered greatly between 1979 and 1989 (and still do today, thanks to their tendency for waging Jihad on each other), but that steady northward flow of zinc coffins home to Moscow persuaded the USSR to withdraw.
If the Ukrainians put up sufficient of a fight, for long enough, they will suffer greatly. But they may inflict enough damage on the Russian forces that Russia will have to reevaluate whether it is worth the cost to try directly occupying a near neighbour.
The crisis could even catalyse the fall of Putin’s regime, much as the Afghan war contributed to the collapse of the USSR.
I do not hope for prolonged wars. I mentioned that this was the most aggressive act by Russia since 1979. I also mentioned that China tried some aggression coincidentally at the same time on the other side of the globe. China is far more belligerent in its rhetoric now than at any other time in the past 40 years, and it is eyeing Taiwan most provocatively. Both Russia and China are nuclear armed powers, and their targets are not. Escalation could be very frightening.