Ukraine: Barack Obama and the West are weakened by a fatal narcissism
In an unstable world, we are unsafe – we will not be left in peace by rogue states and crazed despots to tend our own garden
by Janet Daley
6:30PM GMT 08 Mar 2014
For a man who is new to the job, the Ukrainian prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, is pretty impressive. Indeed, his performance would be stunning by the standards of any long-serving national leader. Responding to the refusal of Russia’s foreign minister to enter into any direct talks with his country, and the less than thrilling response to this obduracy by the western powers, Mr Yatsenyuk’s spontaneous exasperation was pitch perfect: “What’s happened? What’s up with global security? Are we crazy?” It was startling, and deeply shaming.
A sovereign nation was being invaded and occupied by another country’s military while the rest of the world stood by and puffed a bit of smoke. After the meeting in Brussels of EU heads of state, David Cameron said that Russia had committed a flagrant breach of international law, that what had happened was simply “unacceptable” and that this was “the most serious crisis in Europe this century”. So what followed from that? Not a lot. Most of what was immediately proposed came under the heading of non-cooperation, what sports commentators would call time-wasting tactics: delays to discussions about visa liberalisation, putting off preparatory talks for the next G8 meeting, blah-blah. There were also would-be ominous warnings about more terrible things that might happen if Russia continued on its relentless march but, at this moment in time, they remained obscure and firmly in the locker.
In the meantime, while the heads of 28 states try to decide what useful form their outrage over this “unacceptable” behaviour might take, Russia has effectively annexed Crimea. There has been nothing like this in Europe since the end of the Cold War. In fact, the thing it most resembles is Germany’s occupation of the Sudetenland, which was carried out in the name of ethnic Germans living in that region of Czechoslovakia. Having accomplished that annexation without interference, Germany then proceeded with its invasion of Poland. This too was justified as being in the defence of German nationals who resided there. And so began the Second World War.
Yes, indeed. This certainly is the most serious crisis in Europe this century. It is everything that the EU collectively declared it to be: morally, politically and legally outrageous. And that declaration was pretty much as far as it went. Russia’s leaders have been quoted as saying that they will not accept “the language of sanctions and threats”. I expect they will be less alarmed when they realise that language is all it is going to amount to.
Why will all the bluster come to nothing? Or, as Mr Yatsenyuk might put it: are we crazy? No, we are just broke. It has been made appallingly, and humiliatingly, clear why we have little choice but to roll over in the face of this neo-imperialist Russian aggression. National leaders have not even bothered to pretend that there is any real room for manoeuvre: not only is most of Western Europe dependent on the Russians for gas supplies, but we need their cash. Russian money in terms of investment and spending has helped to fuel the economic recovery and nothing can be permitted to endanger the flow of that lucrative business.
That is the official explanation for our culpable inaction. But there is a larger picture here too. Even without the immediate emergency of the 2008 financial crash and the gradual (possibly illusory) return from the brink that has followed, I somehow doubt that Europe or the United States would be throwing much more than verbal abuse at Moscow.
There has been a quite explicit shift in the Western philosophy of governing over the past generation: a change in the understanding of what government is for. Where once the defence of allies from external threat was one of the most important functions of a national government, there is now a much wider brief: distribution of wealth, provision of welfare, eradication of social inequality, and so on, are now the central business of the European governing class.
With the Obama presidency, this has come to America too. It was unfortunate (but telling) that the reductions in British and American defence spending which have caused such great unease in Washington and in Westminster coincided with this dramatic upheaval in Ukraine. The argument is that army manpower numbers are irrelevant now: defence in the 21st century is all about preventing conflict by technological means. It’s about taking out terrorist encampments, not fighting land wars: drones rather than boots on the ground. Well, tell that to Ukraine, which gave up its nuclear weapons on the expectation of Nato protection.
Barack Obama, obviously stung by the terrible press he received over his great dither on Syria, has made marginally more concrete moves on the Ukraine crisis than the EU (which isn’t saying very much). But it clearly runs against his inclinations. He is not there to fight foreign enemies – even with economic weapons. He is there to cure poverty at home and to offer a better health-care system to Americans.
Well, you might say, nothing wrong with that. If the West has decided to beat its swords into ploughshares and spend all its wealth on caring for its own people, then the world will be a better and more peaceful place. Or will it? Isn’t there something terribly inward-looking and debilitating about this idea of government as purely a social services provider? Especially when those social interventions begin to take over the functions which once belonged in the family or the community?
Lord Freud, the minister for welfare reform, stated last week that the financial and social cost of family breakdown in Britain was staggering. We pay roughly £8.4 billion annually to lone parents and another £500 million running the Child Support Agency.
This assumption that it is the proper business of the state to take responsibility for broken homes and fatherless children is a quite new thing in western democratic life. It is morally and politically contentious in itself. But what is less often noticed is that it represents a change in the notion of what is expected of governments, which has huge global implications. If the states of the West are now entirely consumed by – there is no other word for it – a kind of narcissism in which the well-being of those at home is the only legitimate concern, the world is going to become a much more dangerous place.
There will be no force to any condemnation of acts that break international law. In fact, we might as well write off the concept of international law, altogether. Rogue states and crazed despots will be free to inflict any sort of outrage on their own or neighbouring populations without fear of anything but flying rhetoric. Ironically, we will find that in such an unstable world, we are unsafe too: that we are not just left in peace to tend our own garden. Maybe we really are crazy.