Tanks, Think Tanks, and the Decline of Liberalism

February 13, 2023 Topic: Ukraine Region: Eastern Europe Tags: UkraineUnited StatesRussiaCrimeaWarLiberalism

Tanks, Think Tanks, and the Decline of Liberalism

The liberal method of transposing its values to foreign policy has hit the buffers, despite Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s Sisyphusian demands

When Churchill made his famous “Iron Curtain” address, it seemed apposite to the zeitgeist of the time. Alas, now, the curtain swaying across Central Europe—from the Baltic to the Bosphorus Straits, and from Bialystok to the Black Sea—is not one of iron. The Cold War antithesis, that Free Market vs. Communism bivalent thinking which had symbolized everything from the dawn of Christianity onward, became solidified into the concepts of good and evil. That type of thinking, with Liberalism being the successor to Christianity, has continued, although there are several shades of grey now between good and evil. No more the clarified pure air of indians and cowboys, or the honest sun setting on the philanthropic British Empire. No, the twentieth century threw up what the Czech philosopher, Jan Patocka called the polemos of night, a century of war and horror—a reckoning of third-world nations, of revolutions, of metaphysical solutions. After the Enlightenment reaction to Christian thinking and the sanctification of reason, there sat in opposing camps the sciences and the spirit. The legacy of the French Revolution appeared to show the epic struggle of Church vs. State.

Now, in the post-Liberal epoch, the bivalent labels are still used to categorize the good and the bad. The new curtain falling across Europe is a virtual one. It can be moved, reassembled, realigned. Essentially it is a curtain of appearances, a simulacrum of reality. For, behind the “arras” of Enlightenment morality, of “just wars,” lurks Polonius and the spirit of realism. The specter of communism has gone, yet there still stands guard the Janus-faced China, wearing a mask of capital, beyond the wall. Therefore, it tells us something different about the weltanschauung of the present. It is the end of ideology, not the end of history. Realism in politics is back. It comes in three forms; a big Russian bear, a Chinese Silk Road, and a realization that wars of liberal universalism are over.

Realism is an important weather vane, shifting like the frosts of the Eurasian steppe. The new president of the Czech Republic, Petr Pavel, arrived in time for a kind of “Prague Spring,” and very conveniently, in the midst of a volte-face of sorts by the good coalition. Whilst it is a welcome bolstering for the Western alliance forces against Russia, the weather cock of realism has started crowing. The Czechs are rooted in the earthly, ruby soil realism of Bohemia, of the “Good Soldier Svejk” of Jaroslav Hasek. In this, Hasek mocks the pointless crusades of war; it sees through the surreal nightmare of a war and loyalty to an empire the Czechs have no allegiance to. This is realism; it’s opposed to the “blood and soil” of the Third Reich or the Alexander Dugin-type romanticism of the Russian soul. Not for the Czech spirit the existential wonder of war of Ernst Junger. Yet, unlike the liberal credo of the West, it also is not enshrined in the moral language of universalism or the correctness of liberal values. It isn’t therefore bivalent, it is ambivalent. The Czechs sit uncomfortably in this buffer zone of Europe. At once a culture of resigned despair at the alacrity of its neighbors. Hence Pavel strides both of these camps although, as a former NATO commander, he knows the value of realpolitik. It was Bismarck who anecdotally said, “he who is master of Bohemia, is master of Europe.”

The liberal method of transposing its values to foreign policy has hit the buffers, despite Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s Sisyphusian demands. You can judge the winds of change in foreign policy by the sudden proliferation of “think tanks” piping up and stating the obvious. There are tanks and think tanks, and, despite the commitment of the Leopards , it may be the think tanks gaining the upper hand. The RAND Corporation posits in its paper Avoiding a Long War: US Policy and the Trajectory of the Russia – Ukraine Conflict that the mantra of Kiev, to push the Russians out of the Ukraine, particularly Crimea, is unrealistic. There is a recognition that a likely Russian counter-offensive this spring will push back any Ukrainian gains. The report sees a kind of “sliding scale”; whilst Ukraine’s territory gains may appease the media of the West, it comes at a greater infliction of Russian infrastructure attacks. A Ukrainian campaign to take Crimea, besides increased loss of life and the fact that Crimeans are aligned with Russia, makes such a move a bridge too far, according to the report. But most tellingly, it also does not align with the United States’ other “global priorities,” and the fact that “duration is the most important” factor for the United States. Biden seems to be lagging behind; he was quoted in The New York Times (January 18) to be all for striking Crimea, a day before his CIA chief, William Burns was hinting to Zelenskyy in Kiev that unlimited aid was old school, despite the new tranche of $45 billion sent forth in December. Putin is manipulating these tendencies, and with China is playing the long-term economic game of Xiangqi—the ancient Chinese board game—the object of which is to surround your opponent by attrition, rather than a knockout blow, like chess. The idea of unlimited support, implanted in the minds of Kiev by portfolio-less politicians like Boris Johnson, also augers badly for future peace talks.

The Washington Post signals a “post-war military balance that will help Kiev deter any repetition of Russia’s brutal invasion.” Hence the Article 5-like support is waning and the tactic will be the allocation of weapons rather than fighter jets or NATO entering the equation. It would seem the United States is angling for the sense of the April 2022 proposal in Istanbul; military backing by the West but a foregoing of NATO membership by Kiev. Boredom and Time are ephemeral things. Schopenhauer, the arch-melancholic who made Sartre look like a stand-up comedian, opined that “Life swings like a pendulum back and forward between pain and boredom.” Where the pendulum freezes will determine whether the short-termism of the West, the drain on cash and weapons, will inflict too much pain on the Faustian liberal West. The Russian spirit, accustomed to hardship, to the vast endless plains of Dostoyevsky’s soul, are used to playing a long game.

Despite the advent of Pavel in the Czech Republic, the new school of realism is drawing the curtain. The president of Croatia, Zoran Milanovic, has said he is opposed to “sending any lethal arms as it prolongs the war” describing the war as “deeply immoral” due to a continuation of the war. A Just War must be tempered by realism and suffering. Continued support raises other issues such as the fate of ethnic Russians and Ukrainians in the Donbass. Two-thirds of the ethnic populations of Donetsk and Lugansk have left to Russia or Ukraine respectively. Ukraine would be looking at a re-plantation of the Donbass; the history of Northern Ireland being a sobering lesson for the future. The Western alliance is not de facto uniform; Croatia, Austria, Hungary, and Italy are noticeable “culture” states opposed to the pastorate like civilizing missions of the Western powers. Yet the Western alliance is predicated on a liberal worldview that incorporates a globalist economic perspective. This is the petrol in the think tank, the resource-driven contradiction which conflicts with a moral hegemony. The battle between tanks and think tanks continues. The virtual curtain flutters through Bohemia. Meanwhile Zelenskyy ushers in a campaign against corruption, no doubt aware of Machiavelli’s maxim: “War makes thieves and peace hangs them.”

Brian Patrick Bolger studied at the LSE. He has taught political philosophy and applied linguistics in Universities across Europe. His articles have appeared in the United States, the UK, Italy, Canada, and Germany in magazines such as The National Interest, GeoPolitical Monitor, Voegelin View, The Montreal Review, The European Conservative, The Hungarian Conservative, The Salisbury Review, The Village, New English Review, The Burkean, The Daily Globe, American Thinker, The Internationalist, Philosophy News. His book, Coronavirus and the Strange Death of Truth, is now available in the UK and the United States. His new book, Nowhere Fast: The Decline of Liberal Democracy, will be published soon by Ethics International Press. He lives near Prague, Czech Republic.