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Helpless and Halfhearted


Skepticism is part of democracy. The extent to which the United States and Europe doubt the worth of their own systems and values, however, has become self-destructive. 


(c) REUTERS/Henrik Montgomery/TT News Agency

It was a moment of euphoric hope in the depths of shock. When 3.5 million French took to the streets of Paris on January 11 in reaction to the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo – in defense of the freedoms of speech and thought, as well as of societal pluralism – one thing became impressively clear: the universal values of the West, oft maligned and even declared dead by ideological critics, were indeed alive and well. The massive outpouring of sympathy for France came even from non-Western countries, showing that these values have not suffered any loss of appeal for humanity as a whole.

What separates the free West can be understood neither through geographical or cultural categorization nor through idealistic abstractions: Western values are valid not only for those in the “Occident,” for citizens of certain countries or members of specific tribes, religions, or schools of philosophy, and their true worth only becomes clear when their mortal enemies threaten to extinguish them.

Yet it was never certain that murderous jihadist campaigns would remind Western societies of their unique inner strengths and the merits of their freedom-based political and social achievements. In France, popular opinion sought the reason for terrorist excesses in deficient domestic social conditions – the French interior minister even spoke of an “apartheid” between French society and Muslim immigrants. And in fellow EU member state Greece, a questionable coalition was formed between leftist and rightist nationalist parties, bound as much by their affinity for Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian rule as by the anti-American strain of their opposition to Europe’s transatlantic ties.

The ability to criticize and correct oneself is an unquestionable element at the heart of the Western model of democracy. Yet Western self-doubt has its own pitfalls. In the global political power game, the West continues to lose ground, often appearing overrun by growing global threats, with reaction speeds ranging from inert to lethargic.

Reluctant Engagement

The US only recently overcame its long resistance to intervening militarily to stop the spread of the Islamic State (IS) across Iraq and Syria. Yet it soon became clear that while air attacks could slow the spread of this horrorible militia, they could not destroy it. IS was able to establish state-like structures across wide swaths of Syria and Iraq, a half-mythological jihadist terrorist state financed not least by unabashed criminal activity. This once-unthinkable force is a new element in the history of terrorism, as well as in the process of disintegration the Middle East is currently experiencing. Now, successfully squelching the worldwide Islamist terror threat seems further away than ever.

Those profiting most from halfhearted US engagement (not to speak of that of the Europeans) are Iran and Russia. In the shadows cast by IS, their ally and minion Bashar al-Assad has been able to solidify his dictatorial power over Syria – even if only over a portion of the country. There is a kind of unspoken agreement here: in exchange for Assad being left alone by the West to engage unencumbered in his destructive campaign against his own people, the Syrian dictator and his backers in Tehran and Moscow will tolerate US air attacks on Syrian soil without screaming bloody murder over American violation of international law. As a result, reliable sources report that 2,100 people were tortured to death by Assad’s henchmen over the past year, and over the past four years 12,000 prisoners were murdered through a combination of starvation, lack of medical care, and torture in the regime’s cells.

The difference between Assad and ISIS is in fact only in their degree of shamelessness: the latter murders its enemies in public and gloats over its horrific crimes in front of the entire world, while the regime in Damascus, with the support of Russia and Iran, hides its transgressions. For this reason, the Western public rarely takes notice of the latter – otherwise it would show outrage similar to that displayed toward IS’s atrocities. Even worse, a growing number of Western voices argue that it is better to come to terms with the “lesser evil” of Assad, and with the Islamic Republic of Iran as a purported “stabilizing factor.”

In fact, this appears to be the path that Washington and Obama are now following. An atomic agreement with Iran is one of the US president’s highest priorities. The selection of supposed reformer Hassan Rouhani for the office of Iran’s president has nurtured the Western illusion that the Islamic Republic could be rebaptized a reliable partner in the new Middle Eastern security architecture.

In reality, however, the Iranian regime continues to pursue not only its brutal and repressive domestic agenda, but also its aggressive, hegemonic regional policies. Iraqi territories not occupied by IS are now controlled by the pro-Iranian militias that have terrorized the Sunni population for years, and a pro-Iranian militia recently took control of power in Yemen. The Tehran regime continues to lead its atomic negotiations under the premise that it will not relinquish its potential weapons program, instead compromising just enough to have international sanctions lifted.

While the West fails to develop its own groundbreaking future perspective for the Middle East, Iran is wasting no time in forging an anti-Western alliance across the region. Iran and Russia just signed a military agreement under this exact premise – and this at the same time that Tehran threatens Israel openly with attacks carried out by Lebanese Hezbollah. This Iranian-led militia murders in Syria alongside Assad, thereby gaining access to Chinese- and Russian-produced short-range missiles.

At the same time, the West clings to the idea that Russia is, after Iran, an indispensable ally in the restabilization of the region, a premise often introduced as one reason why Putin should not be too harshly rebuked in the Ukraine conflict; the destructive role that Russia actually plays in the Middle East is rarely addressed.

Helpless Western Maneuvering

Western global policy disorientation cannot be attributed entirely to the West’s decreasing importance in relation to other rising powers in the oft-touted multipolar world order. It is also an expression of a deep crisis of Western feelings of self-worth, an ever-growing doubt that the universal values it defends are applicable to “foreign cultures.” After the painful experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan – which led to a hurried and prematurely announced Western retreat – and the dreadful disappointment of euphoric expectations awakened by the Arab Spring, democratization as a strategic aim for the Middle East has nary a Western supporter remaining. At the same time, a simple return to complicity with established despots is also impossible. The regional enemies of the West recognize its paralysis, taking advantage of it to carry out more and more brazen offensive maneuvers.

The degree to which the West is currently being run over by global developments was shown dramatically by the reaction – especially among Europeans – to Russia’s policy of aggression and annexation in Ukraine. While Western nations finally brought themselves to impose economic sanctions in response to Putin’s increasingly militarized hybrid warfare tactics, the unity of the EU’s Russia policy was so clearly fragile that the Kremlin’s leadership remained unfazed in the face of the collapsing Russian economy.

Putin does not lead like a Westerner, putting top priority on increasing the prosperity of his country; instead, he has shown himself willing to sacrifice the well-being of the Russian citizenry to maintain Russian power. This positions him to take advantage of some of the West’s enduring vulnerabilities: Putin was able to massively intensify his secret war in January at the exact moment when Europeans could no longer bring themselves to further increase sanctions. And as for the German government’s contribution, while Berlin took a strong position against Putin in principle when it condemned both the annexation of Crimea and the arming of eastern Ukrainian separatists as running counter to international law, in practice the German government has maintained a language of equidistance from the beginning rather than clearly differentiating between aggressor and victim. The numerous appeals, most notably from Social Democrat (SPD) Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, to “both conflict parties” to return to dialogue suggest the meeting of two actors of equal political and moral footing. Berlin’s leadership has taken great pains to avoid stating the simple reality that Russia’s military activities in eastern Ukraine were not only an injury to the sovereignty of its neighbor, but in reality an invasion which Kremlin propaganda has made little effort to disguise.

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s mantra that there is “no military solution” to the conflict – as if Putin hasn’t been pursuing exactly such a military solution for quite a while – is the result of the staggering illusion that the Kremlin leader can be led back to the path of international law through some persistent expert horse whispering. Merkel’s steadfast stand on this position, resulting in both her categorical refusal to deliver weapons to Ukraine and her public statement that Putin would not be impressed by Ukrainian militarization, has concrete consequences. For one thing, the chancellor is fundamentally incorrect: Putin, who respects no principle other than a hierarchy of power and superpower and who holds the West in contempt for its “decadent” frailty, can be impressed by nothing less than a clear demonstration of strength and decisiveness. His logic is the same as Stalin’s, who once derisively commented, “The Pope? How many divisions does the Pope have?”

Categorical refusal to provide military support for Ukraine from the beginning, thereby reinforcing Putin’s sense of invulnerability in the earliest stages, was a grave diplomatic failure, amounting to the delivery of defenselessness to the aggressor on a silver platter. Former high-level German diplomat and security expert Wolfgang Ischinger’s proposed strategy to use the potential of weapons deliveries to Ukraine as a form of diplomatic pressure on Moscow was entirely on point. Similar to the NATO double-track decision from the late 1970s and early 1980s, the message to Putin must be that we in the West are willing to forgo arming the Ukrainian army if Moscow will grant substantial concessions – otherwise, we will do it. That successful diplomacy requires concrete threats is a lesson from International Security 101. In the case of the conflict with Putin, this basic wisdom appears to have been fundamentally forgotten.

Historical Revisionism as Weapon

Putin has introduced historical revisionism as a weapon in the disinformation war with the West. He hammers away at the Western public with the idea that his regime and his war with Ukraine stand in a long, proud tradition of Red Army victories over Nazi invaders, whereby the Ukrainians take on the role of “fascists.” That the Red Army was not only the Russian army but also the army of all nations of the Soviet Union – including Ukraine – is glossed over entirely, much as the fact that there were a large number of Russians – and Ukrainians – who collaborated with their Nazi occupiers. This creates the impression that Ukraine was once in league with Hitler’s Germany rather than a victim of invasion, a country subjugated by its Nazi occupiers and plundered to the bone.

Putin’s attempt to stylize the Soviet Union as “humanity’s savior from fascism” – thereby reducing the Western allies to at most marginal actors – and to reclaim this inheritance for himself lies in bold contrast to the fact that the Kremlin chief is also a generous supporter of radical rightist parties across Europe, providing financial support for everyone from France’s Front National to openly neo-Nazi Jobbik in Hungary. What is more, Putin has succeeded in unifying the allegedly mortal enemies of European leftist and rightist radicals under the flag of anti-liberalism and anti-Americanism, manifest in the groundbreaking Greek coalition government of leftist and rightist nationalist parties.

Putin’s cynical instrumentalization of anti-Nazi consensus is not without effect in the West, especially in Germany. The Russian president will play this card in a grand display timed to coincide with early May’s Victory Day celebrations, and whoever strays from his glorified representation of the Soviet Union’s unblemished anti-fascism may find themselves the target of Russian propagandists and their amplifiers, criticized for their historical relativism and vilification of the grand sacrifices made by the Soviets in vanquishing national socialism.

There is, however, another source of sympathy for the Kremlin in Germany: the feeling of thankfulness for reunification, the biggest historical gift received by the Germans in the 20th century. Hans-Dietrich Genscher, Helmut Kohl, Horst Teltschik, Hans-Jochen Vogel, not to mention Helmut Schmidt – practically every member of the generation of politicians who were architects of German reunification or who promoted the policy of detente – have in the wake of the Ukraine conflict spoken out as empathetic advocates of powerful Russian interests. The elder statesman’s credo is: Only when robust, close relations with Russia are ensured is Germany’s security and prosperity guaranteed. This conviction, the result of successful reunification, is buried deeply in their collective consciousness. In fact, it is now clear that the years 1989-90 carried different significance for Germans and for Eastern Europeans, especially the Balts and Poles: while the latter countries saw the retreat of the Soviet Union as a result of their persistent struggle for freedom, the German sense was rather that the peaceful fall of the USSR was above all a result of Gorbachev’s intuition and magnanimity. Dogged diplomatic trust-building measures, it is believed, led to internal clarification processes in the previously aggressive Soviet Union.

What worked in the case of a totalitarian power long believed unassailable, so goes this faulty German logic, must also succeed with Putin. In order to buttress this narrative, the elder statesmen must indeed gloss over large sections of their own success stories. Schmidt, Genscher, and Kohl were all on the front lines of formulating and enacting the NATO double-track decision, which was in fact the major turning point in Soviet policy. Only when the Soviets understood that Western nations were in fact prepared to arm themselves and it was clear that they could not keep up in another arms race did Gorbachev’s reform ideas finally receive due consideration.

In the end, the policy of detente was only possible in the shadow of a massive deterrence strategy – and it is exactly this element that is missing in response to Putin’s neo-Soviet and greater Russia expansionism. His massive military might and his unabashed support for extremist leftist and rightist parties have yet to convince Europe’s elites that he is a strategic threat for the entire continent that must be met with a similar level of armament. Instead, we hear repeated claims that no one wants to provoke a new Cold War and that it is essential to avoid anything which could escalate the conflict with Moscow further – this despite the fact that Putin has been waging a Cold War for quite a while, and keeps escalating the “hot” conflict in Ukraine. The probability continues to rise that Europe will be forced to abandon its peace strategy sooner or later – with Ukraine and its hopes for democracy paying the heaviest toll.

Is Truth Really Relative?

It is not only open sympathizers of Putinism in Western Europe and apologists for a misunderstood policy of detente who open a gateway for the Kremlin’s propaganda maneuvers in the West. There are also structural changes in the Western public’s state of consciousness that have over the years lain the groundwork for the lackluster defense of Western values. This effect could be called the principle of postmodernity, a school of thought that claims there is neither a singular nor an objective truth, but rather many subjective truths fed by various personal experiences. As a critique of dogmatic world views and closed ideologies, such relativism at first seems to fit with the understanding of freedom in pluralistic democracies, their functioning based on the mutual respect and balancing of contradictory political and cultural views. In liberal democracies, no one final truth can or should be forced upon everyone; rather, we construct partial truths through debate between various differing interest groups and societal positions, truths which are repeatedly questioned.

In its most radical form, postmodernism suggests that there are no objective criteria to identify the differences between reality and fiction, between opinion and rumor, or between truths and lies. Everything, so it is believed, is interpretation, merely a reconstruction of reality – a reality free from subjective bonds simply does not exist. What over time appears either true or false depends only on the power relations between the given actors to anchor their interpretation of reality in the central consciousness of their society.

Driven by criticism of power, this postmodern school of thought ultimately blurs the differences between democratic and authoritarian power. Even the Western promise of freedom appears in this light nothing more than one element of any number of stories of domination serving the justification of existing power structures. The reverse side of this general suspicion of Western values is an implicit sympathy for dictatorial and totalitarian regimes – the criticism Western democracies level at the conditions in authoritarian states is deemed hypocritical and hubristic, a way Western leaders seek to distract from their own questionable applications of power. What began as a libertarian impulse against every form of power resulted in the implicit affirmation of the legitimacy of dictatorships.

The communications revolution fed by the Internet and the growth of social media strongly advanced this leveling of perceptions of democratic and authoritarian power. The Internet is today seen by many as an informal countervailing power, balancing the supposedly prescribed truths of our leaders and their purportedly loyal “official” media outlets. In this view, every piece of “information” distributed over the Internet, however absurd, receives the same weight as traditional sources of news or analysis.

In the most extreme variation of this ultraskepticism, every piece of information supporting the Western view of the Ukraine war appears per se suspicious – a manipulated lie fed to us by our leaders. A powerful Russian manipulation factory systematically fabricating propaganda and feeding it to the media utilizes this shocking inability of the public to evaluate narrative truth to its advantage.

The middle-class milieus that during the Cold War were relatively immune to such propagandistic influences – at that time also widespread – are today dissolving. In their place an ever more divided Western society is developing, floating in an ocean of unavoidable currents of information and disinformation, in which a fundamental skepticism of its own Western values reigns.

This tenor overlaps in significant ways with the authoritarian ideology of Putinism, in which human rights and democratic freedoms are viewed as creations of Western propaganda and in which universal Western values are touted as little more than camouflage for Western imperialist interests. Russia is thus even more justified in forcing its interests upon others with amoral violence, according to the sinister and paradoxical conclusion of the Kremlin’s ideologists, since the West also engages in exactly the same behavior. This false logic resonates not only with leftist and rightist Putin supporters, but also among sections of the political and societal median. Thus, Putin’s regime is carrying the destruction of moral legal standards now underway in his own society into Western societies as well.

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