The idea that war can be a source of national unity and national regeneration is one of the most dangerous in modern history. In 1914, it seduced a generation of European liberal intellectuals, many younger ones of whom paid for their illusions with their lives. In the interwar years, it formed the very core of Fascist and Nazi ideology.
One of the things that makes this idea so seductive is that it occasionally proves true. In Britain during World War II, the national unity government of Conservatives, Labor, and Liberals gave birth to the national consensus behind the British welfare state, which has lasted to this day.
More often, however, wars are used by endangered regimes precisely in order to strengthen repressive institutions and gain popular support in order to co-opt or crush opponents and block necessary change (as indeed Putin has done in Ukraine). Partly as a result, wars only briefly paper over national divisions, while strengthening ideologies of hatred and extremism.
As far as Western democracies and the war in Ukraine are concerned, the idea that they can achieve regeneration through this war may well seem absurd. For after all, they are not themselves doing the fighting, and they are not making more than limited economic sacrifices (so far).Yet so seductive is this illusion, and so desperate is the desire of Western liberals for some new impetus for essential domestic reform, that even a genuinely thoughtful observer like Francis Fukuyama has fallen victim to it, declaring that:
The war in Ukraine impacts the American people in the sense that, if Vladimir Putin succeeds, then such people here — those anti-democratic forces — will succeed as well…I can tell you what I hope could be a possible outcome [of the war], which is that Putin will be defeated pretty decisively. In turn, that will take the wind out of the sails of the global authoritarian populist movement that he is the leader of, and there will be a rebirth around the world of belief in liberal democracy.
This is, objectively speaking, nonsense. As Fukuyama himself has written elsewhere, the causes of democratic decay in America (and, in different but related forms, in Europe) are deeply rooted in domestic issues of identity politics, racism, migration, socio-economic inequality and political polarization that go back decades (or even centuries) before Putin came to power. None of these issues can be resolved by Russia’s defeat, and there is no sign whatsoever that the war in Ukraine is bringing about the reduction in domestic tensions necessary to resolve them. Nor will the outcome of the war in Ukraine affect in any way the deep and growing divisions in European democracies over issues of immigration and national integration.
Fukuyama has called for a set of steps to regenerate American democracy: a reduction in “identity politics” and cultural radicalism so as to build a new sense of common national citizenship; a strong stand against racism; reasonable compromises over immigration policy; agreement on the need for massive investment in infrastructure and technological development; commonly-agreed policies to reduce socio-economic inequality. He has warned of the dangers of an ossified and unreformable U.S. Constitution, and of the need to address the looming menace of climate change.
Has the war in Ukraine led to agreement on these issues between the U.S. political parties? Not at all. The single — all too familiar — area where war has triggered real unity in the United States and among Republicans and Democrats in Congress, is in allotting enormous sums of money to the Military Industrial Complex. U.S. military spending could be called a kind of national industrial development plan that dare not speak its name — at least openly in the presence of free market Republicans — but, if so, it is a plan of an unutterably wasteful, corrupt and misdirected kind.
The stampede of U.S. and European institutions into inherited and reassuring Cold War mode is a massive distraction from the truly existential threats to Western democracy. As Matt Duss, Sen. Bernie Sanders’ top foreign policy aide, has written:
The danger is that rather than develop a new paradigm for this era, policymakers will simply attempt to exhume an old “us versus them” Cold Warmodel, shock it back to life, and put a tuxedo on it. As in the days after 9/11, a momentary sense of unity could be used to promote a set of tragically counterproductive policies.
The U.S. aid package to Ukraine and the increases in the Pentagon budget put together represent a huge diversion of American resources from the kind of reforms that Fukuyama advocates: infrastructure renewal, action against climate change, and repairing the fraying social safety net. U.S. investments in alternative energy are also now being sidelined by the funds flowing into new oil and gas production to take advantage of global energy shortages caused by the war and Western sanctions.
Far from strengthening democracy, the war in Ukraine and confrontation with Russia are serving as convenient, colossal distractions from essential but horribly difficult domestic issues. How much easier and more comforting for the elites of Sweden, for example, to join NATO in the name of an alleged existential threat from Russia than it would be for them to address the agonizingly difficult issues of immigration, the rise in crime and other social problems, the growth of right wing extremism, and the elites’ own share of responsibility for these developments?
Militarily speaking, the war in Ukraine is confined to Ukraine; and while it began as a Russian attempt to subjugate the whole of Ukraine, since the Russians were defeated outside Kyiv it has become a limited struggle for territory in the east and south of the country. It is a tragedy and a crime and of course a nightmare for the people of Ukraine. But it is not an existential struggle for global democracy.
As Daniel Larison has pointed out, authoritarian regimes are divided between U.S. rivals and U.S. allies. This contributes to demolishing the argument by Fukuyama, Anne Applebaum, and others that Vladimir Putin somehow stands behind the rise of authoritarian populism worldwide. Does any serious person think that Putin contributed to the rise of Indian Prime Minister Modi or Egypt’s President Sisi? Or of Rodrigo Duterte and “Bongbong” Marcos in the Philippines? Or Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil? In Europe, one of the elected governments with the strongest chauvinist and authoritarian tendencies, that of Poland, is also the most bitterly anti-Russian.
The talk of the Ukraine war as an existential issue for Western democracies degrades the very meaning of the word “existential.” Among other things, it reduces the truly existential threat of climate change to a minor threat among a host of others — and that has indeed been the explicit desire of sectors within the Western security elites, for whom taking climate change seriously poses a threat to their jobs, their culture, and their entire traditional way of behaving and looking at the world.
But are our descendants a century from now really likely to think that in prioritizing the Donbas over climate change, our governments acted correctly to defend Western liberal democracy? This does not mean that the West should not support Ukraine. We should. But everyone who really values the health of Western democracy and desires essential reforms should also support every effort to bring about an early, just, and lasting peace — not seek to prolong this conflict in the name of a mythical struggle for global democracy.