As soon as Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his assault, Western politicians and journalists rushed to report that those cracks had miraculously dissolved. Praising “Western unity” and the rejuvenation of the “free world”, they seemed to spend as much time trying to renovate the West’s self-image as they did offering an effective response to Putin’s invasion.
Of course, untargeted actions fueled largely by self-esteem were always doomed to failure. Take, for example, the sanctions, widely hailed as projecting Western resolve against Putinism. Ineffective even against toothless regimes like Cuba, the sanctions have predictably failed to deter the Russian leader while exposing billions of people around the world to high inflation and hunger.
Additional punitive measures have been imposed very selectively, with more emphasis on maintaining unity than on the political, economic and social repercussions for a world that has barely recovered from two radically destructive years of the pandemic. It should come as no surprise that most nations, including close Western allies such as India and Turkey, continue to do business with Russia, or that Putin retaliated by blockading the ports that supply the world with wheat and fertilizer.
Now convinced of their own rhetoric about the strength of the Western coalition, American politicians and commentators have called for regime change in Moscow and a fatal weakening of Russia, without any reference to how such fantasies of supreme power have worked in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. Meanwhile, three months into the war, those same numbers seem no closer to defining realistic Western goals in Ukraine.
In fact, the options before the United States and Europe have always been blindingly clear.
They could give their full support to Ukraine’s resistance to Russia, make sanctions watertight and cut off all financial support for Putin’s war machine. Or they could put forward the inevitable obligation to talk to their enemies and offer incentives to both Ukraine and Russia to reach a negotiated solution.
The first option is hardly ideal. Nations that depend on Russia for their energy and food needs won’t end their relationship with the country overnight – even Germany won’t. Furthermore, an increasingly direct military confrontation with a nuclear-weapon state is unwise.
Yet the second option is hardly pursued vigorously at the moment. Thus, Ukraine receives from the West neither the weapons it seeks for a more successful war effort nor sufficient motivation to pursue peace through diplomacy.
What we get, to a large extent, is a psychodrama – from a tiny but powerful minority of politicians and journalists who have tried to solve the West’s identity crisis by rhetorically exaggerating its will and resources. against Putin.
In his four years in office, US President Donald Trump has destroyed the Cold War idea of a free, democratic and rational West. In Europe, far-right movements and figures who openly admired Putin further clouded a Western self-image forged during the long confrontation with totalitarian Soviet communism.
A brazenly imperialist Russia has now emerged to cleanse and invigorate that identity just as the Soviet Union once did. Statements that “the West must keep its cool” even as death and destruction stalk Ukraine fuel suspicion that achieving a kumbaya moment of synchronized purpose and identity has become more vital for the West than to avert a global humanitarian catastrophe.
Needless to say, the old assumptions – of a singular West with colossal power, prestige or sass – cannot be supported today by a deeply fragile coalition of internally divided Western countries, with angry populations pursuing very different socio-political destinies.
It is true that many members of Western political and media elites, mostly middle-aged, white and male, have basically experienced the world as its hegemons. Too many disorienting things have happened since their youth – among them the rise of China, a country harboring its sense of humiliation by Western powers, and the re-emergence of a defeated rival Russia as an energy superpower.
Faced with such resentful and implacable challengers, they naturally took refuge in the easy certainties and slogans of their youth. But world peace and stability will depend on the ability of today’s fragmented West to find less treacherous ways of dealing with the rest.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Pankaj Mishra is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the author, most recently, of “Run and Hide”.
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