Does the Ukraine War of 2022 mark a decisive turning point in contemporary history? To wade through the storm of media commentary unleashed by the Russian military action is to conclude that it does. All the most famous pundits and foreign policy mandarins agree.
Washington Post columnistRobert Kagan wasted no time. As of February 21 he was already declaring that “the end of the present order and the beginning of an era of global disorder” was now at hand. The signature of this new era would be conflict in “every region in the world” as nations struggled to adjust “to a new configuration of power.
Also in the Post, Robert Gates, revered senior statesman, wrote that "Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has ended Americans’ 30-year holiday from history." Strangely unmentioned in Gates's op-ed were the several U.S. wars that had marred that supposed holiday.
In the Wall Street Journal,columnist Daniel Henninger offered his own definitive judgment. “Ukraine Changes Everything,” read the headline of his column, which warned Europe not to ignore its “this changes everything” lesson.
“Do nothing, and disorder descends,” he wrote. Americans would now harvest the fruits of doing nothing, and President Biden “leading from behind.”
To which the weary skeptic, battered by prior waves of ostensibly transformative events, might respond: Again? So soon? Are you certain?
In just the last few decades, historical turning points have accumulated with such frequency that an observer is hard-pressed to keep up. First came 1989: the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent collapse of communism. Together, these signified “the End of History” itself. Our side had won, the other side had lost. The resulting triumph of American-style liberal democratic capitalism was irreversible.
Serious, well-informed, and influential people said such things and were well-compensated for doing so. Their analysis turned out to be at the very least premature. Some might even say wildly wrong. The passing of the Cold War turned out to be other than transformative.
Indeed, barely a decade later, the horrific events of 9/11 showed that History had either not ended or had resumed with a vengeance. From a post-Cold War perspective, the deadly attack that targeted Lower Manhattan and the Pentagon wasn’t supposed to happen. But it did. So the same pundits who had with assurance and conviction declared that history had run its course now outdid one another in describing how History had charged off in a new direction. The events of September 2001 had “changed everything.”
In short order, the United States retaliated by embarking upon a vastly ambitious global war. The overall aim of this undertaking, according to the U.S. commander-in-chief, was to “rid the world of evil.” This time for sure History would do America’s bidding.
Here again, things didn’t work out as planned. The war itself — more accurately, several wars — did not achieve decisive results. Evil evaded the snares laid by successive administrations in Washington. The deaths of thousands of U.S. troops, the harm sustained by tens of thousands of others, and the expenditure of trillions of dollars produced few benefits. Among American elites, however, the evil consequences of a war fought to end evil elicited little by way of serious reflection.
In some respects, the present war arrives as an exquisitely timed excuse for forgetting the recent past. Why rehash previous failures to forecast the future when a new one, stamped “Made in the Kremlin,” is staring us in the face? Why dwell on losses and disappointments incurred in places like Iraq and Afghanistan when there is fresh work to be done in and around Ukraine? Why second guess when forgetting is so easy and convenient?
Well, as a former First Lady/U.S. Senator/secretary of state/presidential candidate famously put it, “Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.”
To my fellow citizens: Let’s not be fooled a third time.
I do not mean to minimize the thuggishness of Russia’s president or the barbarism of the Russian forces that have invaded Ukraine. Both deserve our condemnation. Nor do I mean to trivialize the suffering of the Ukrainian people, which demands sympathetic attention. Yet however appalling, such events are not without precedent, even in recent times.
Observers like Kagan, Gates, and Henninger have an aversion to context, especially when it complicates their own analysis.
In international politics, crimes are not easily measured with precision. Guilt and innocence tend to be in the eye of the beholder. Yet however distressing to admit, crimes committed by the United States in recent years, usually justified under the guise of liberating the oppressed and spreading democracy, have inflicted more damage on the international order than anything done by Russia. Moscow never promulgated a patently illegal doctrine of preventive war. We did. And the death toll resulting from U.S. campaigns undertaken subsequent to 9/11 — more than 900,000 killed according to Brown University’s Costs of War Project — exceeds by several orders of magnitude the number of Ukrainians killed (or likely to be killed) in the present conflict.
The point is not to justify Russian aggression, which cannot be justified. Rather, the point is simply to assert that the invasion of Ukraine does not mark some astonishing, unprecedented departure from an “order” that existed mostly in the minds of Western observers rather than the real world.
In fact, the events in Ukraine affirm the continuing relevance of that famous dictum of Thucydides: "The strong do what they can, the weak suffer what they must.” The United States has no intention of declaring that axiom inoperative. Indeed, Washington has every intention of exploiting it to the fullest — even as senior U.S. officials express their devotion to the rule of law and the wellbeing of humankind.
So whatever Joe Biden and his various counterparts may say or do regarding Ukraine, History will continue on its anointed path. I make no pretense of knowing how the war there will end. I can only hope and pray that the fighting will stop soon, with far fewer casualties than resulted from our own “war on terrorism.”
What I do know is that when the war does end, Ukrainians and Russians will still be neighbors, with the latter bigger and stronger than the former. Facilitating their efforts to coexist — permanent hostilities being the only possible alternative — actually figures as a pressing priority to which the Gates, Kagans, and Henningers of our media universe should give their attention. Would that they would do so.