Ukraine Shows Cultural Civil War Is A Luxury The U.S. Cannot Afford

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Russia’s invasion of Ukraine somehow managed to be shocking despite being repeatedly predicted by President Joe Biden and members of his administration. Even the people making the predictions didn’t seem to believe them. Now that it’s happened and the implications are being felt, the gap between the reality of the world and Americans’ perception of it seems wide.

It’s almost enough to make you wonder if a bitterly divided America fought over the wrong issues.

If the United States and its European allies had been more confident and concerted, they might have given Russian President Vladimir Putin pause. But the United States is not simply divided; it’s distracting. The American Cultural Civil War has diverted attention from issues – about trade, national security and economic policy – that turn out to be very important.

Precisely what Putin hopes to accomplish with this war is unclear. The strength of popular resistance might have surprised him. With luck, his invasion will ultimately be seen as a colossal mistake. For now, however, one thing is clear: his grievance over what the United States and the West have done to Russia is a driving force. Chinese President Xi Jinping, on good terms with Putin lately, also believes honor is at stake in his dealings with a scheming, self-righteous and historically oppressive West.

Guess what, as Biden might say: two of the world’s greatest nuclear military powers see Europe and the United States not as potential friends or even rivals, but as actual or potential enemies.

In a world where brute force counts in the affairs of nations, the wise move is to speak softly and carry a big stick. Speak softly, as humiliating heavily armed opponents is likely to make them more dangerous; carry a big stick, because your own ability to meet the force with superior strength will make them less. It is not a huge exaggeration – and it is hardly an exaggeration in the case of Europe – to say that the Western approach to great power rivalry in the post-Cold War era has been to speak loudly and not to carry a stick. What is happening in Ukraine is the result.

This sudden ability to believe what we know about the world might not last. In due course, we might be surprised by a Chinese attack on Taiwan. (I mean, who could have seen this coming?) But if it lasts, it will require markedly different approaches to international relations. National security will require a much greater share of attention and resources, even in the United States, which had hoped to save money by turning away from commitments in Europe.

The implications go beyond spending more on defense or questioning whether NATO is still fit for purpose. The United States and its allies will need to think more about achievable goals (what foreign policy ambitions are they not talking soft on?) and available means (how big a stick are they willing to buy?).

Global economic relations are also involved. Germany and Europe have made a big mistake by depending so much on Russian gas. From Putin’s perspective, this was no coincidence. He thought it would dull the West’s response to his ambitions – and it did, at least initially. The West’s reliance on Chinese manufacturing, not only for consumer products but also for essential inputs, also fits the pattern. For the West, it’s as if nothing had happened; for Beijing, it builds prosperity but also serves a larger geopolitical purpose.

As a lifelong neoliberal, I choke on the thought of integrating trade and industrial policy into a national security strategy. The possibilities for abuse and incompetence are virtually limitless. Trump’s silly tariffs — many of them based on specious national security grounds, applied to friends as well as potential foes — prove this point. Their main victim has been the United States itself. Nevertheless, the moment of clarity in Ukraine shows how dangerous it can be to completely separate trade and domestic investment from geopolitics.

To depend on potential enemies for essential materials and manufactured goods is a mistake. The alternative is not self-sufficiency, even if that were possible, but a more deliberate conception of strategic resilience and closer economic cooperation with friends and allies.

It would be an understatement to call this reassessment demanding. The difficulties are so acute, in fact, that falling back on cognitive dissonance will be the easier choice. And there is no hope of effectively tackling these issues, or telling the world that America has purpose and conviction, unless the country can fix its domestic politics. Ukraine shows that cultural civil war is a luxury the United States cannot afford.

Clive Crook is a Bloomberg columnist. ©2022 Bloomberg. Distributed by content agency Tribune.

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