This week, we’ve all seen the pictures of mothers with their children and old people fumbling in distress in Ukraine—to leave the bombing, to find refuge.
Maybe because they cut so close to the bone and because we’ve seen so many similar images from Syria, Greek islands, Afghanistan and Myanmar, our early warning systems kick in and we become numb before they can sink their teeth into us too deeply.
But we’re less likely to shut ourselves down when events fall outside familiar grooves, not “more victims/different country” but something it’s harder to recall seeing: like those clips of Ukrainian men (and more than a few boys) who’d been living safely in Europe but left their families, friends and jobs behind to board buses and trains for their homeland this week, drawn by some quixotic but irresistible impulse, even though they never held rifles before, had been warned away by their country’s on-going destruction, and knew they might never survive their rescue attempts.
We couldn’t take our eyes off uncommon valor like that, or stop wondering what we might do in their shoes.
When poet Stephen Spender recalled similar impulses almost a hundred years ago, it wasn’t a fool’s errand in a jaded eye but the fragrant whispers of a flowering nobility that he captured.
I think continually of those who were truly great.
Who, from the womb, remembered the soul’s history
Through corridors of light, where the hours are suns,
Endless and singing. Whose lovely ambition
Was that their lips, still touched with fire,
Should tell of the Spirit, clothed from head to foot in song.
And who hoarded from the Spring branches
The desires falling across their bodies like blossoms.
What is precious, is never to forget
The essential delight of the blood drawn from ageless springs
Breaking through rocks in worlds before our earth.
Never to deny its pleasure in the morning simple light
Nor its grave evening demand for love.
Never to allow gradually the traffic to smother
With noise and fog, the flowering of the spirit.
Near the snow, near the sun, in the highest fields,
See how these names are fêted by the waving grass
And by the streamers of white cloud
And whispers of wind in the listening sky.
The names of those who in their lives fought for life,
Who wore at their hearts the fire’s centre.
Born of the sun, they travelled a short while toward the sun
And left the vivid air signed with their honour.
(“The Truly Great,” 1928)
It shows how far we’ve come (or fallen) that the perfume of greatness seems so unfamiliar today, but also through the magic of our technology that it somehow got embodied by these heroes on our news screens this week.
Who fights for one’s country these days? Who leaves so much behind to step into the jaws of the beast in a vain or noble attempt to stop it from closing? Observers like us in the West saw and felt what Spender was describing this week.
And we couldn’t take our eyes off of it. It surprised, maybe embarrassed us, as we confronted our own convictions or their shallowness. But while those closest in, the French, Germans or Poles, wondered whether they’d do the same, they also looked to their fears as a world of ordered boundaries was upended. The unthinkable Bear at the door was all too thinkable now.
Exactly one week ago, as a result of the West’s changed perceptions about Ukraine and the heroism of its president and people, several “historic” things happened. I’d call it a kind of awakening. And while it usually takes the perspective of 20 or 50 or even 100 years to decide “what just happened,” I was persuaded—by sharing the perspective of an economic historian from Columbia and his interlocutor—that several developments in recent weeks really did change the historical arc that we’ve been traveling on. We realized certain things, made some momentous decisions as a result, and implemented them with lightening speed and lethal effect. As a result, I’m persuaded that nothing that follows will ever be the same as it was only a few short days ago.
In addition to the obvious pitfalls of writing an “instant history of the past week,” there are some advantages.
Informed historical judgments can place the rush of on-going events in a broader context. They can put characters like Putin, Zelensky and Biden, themes like sanctions, supply chains and energy interdependence, into a story that tries to make sense of its sub-plots.
And you don’t have to buy-in completely to this kind of storytelling. Instead, you can use such explanations as hypotheses to be proven or disproven by whatever happens next on the world’s stage. But this time you bring with you a few suspicions that you’ve almost nailed down.
Ukrainian civilians confront a convoy of Russian troops this week in a vain but valiant attempt to turn them back.
I became interested in the explanations of history in college. Not as a professional interest but as a continuing sidelight that’s has made me follow “the world news” everyday and always wonder what it meant.
I took a course that became three courses about the sweep of historical events and I was hooked: trying to answer questions like “what explains” a Napoleon or a Hitler, or how “the Black Death” in Europe undermined feudalism? (The beginning of an answer to this last one: by helping increasingly scarce laborers to appreciate their economic value.)
I took this interest into what seemed to me the historic events of my lifetime. Globally, it was the end of the Cold War, the recent pandemic. (Why did they happen? What would follow?) And from a more localized, American perspective: the cultural shifts of the Sixties (involving the civil rights of African Americans and women, Earth Day and the environmental movement) and finally, 9/11. It was sometimes possible to see the Before-and-the-After side-by-side because the changes around each one of them were so profound.
A two-part conversation between Ezra Klein, at the New York Times, and Adam Tooze, an economic historian at Columbia, identified similarly transformative moments around the recent invasion of Ukraine. (This paywall-free link is to both a transcript of their exchange and a recording of their conversation.) It was compelling that Part-One of their get-together occurred almost immediately Before and Part-Two immediately After the unprecedented response to the invasion by a startlingly unified West last Sunday. Klein called Tooze back this past Monday to reflect on events that neither of them had predicted just nine days before.
I’ve separated my summary of their observations in Part One from the comments they made in Part Two of their conversation. Taken together, I’d argue that five historic changes either happened or can be confirmed around Russia’s invasion of Ukraine over the past several days.
PART ONE OF THE KLEIN/TOOZE CONVERSATION (FRIDAY FEBRUARY 25)
1. A Western-Liberal illusion was shattered.
Once Russian military forces crossed the Ukrainian border and invaded its sovereign neighbor, it was no longer possible to believe that the benefits of international peace, finance, law, trade and cultural exchange would outweigh national grievances and territorial imperatives that lingered from a previous age. No invading army had crossed a national border for 50 years. It could no longer be assumed that the mutual advantages of a global “community,” following an ideological Cold War with the West, would constrain either Russia’s desire to expand its sphere of influence against the constraints of NATO along its eastern flank or China’s claims on Taiwan or over the South China Sea to the beaches of Japan, the Phillipines and Vietnam.
Russia’s seizing of Russian-speaking Crimea and support of “breakaway “republics” in the Donbas region of Ukraine had not been enough to dispel the West’s illusion that all nations shared its dream of global prosperity and harmony. Neither had China’s subversion of Hong Kong, in violation of its 50-year treaty with the UK, or trade sanctions imposed by the Trump administration. But those rose-colored glasses finally shattered when Russia marched into Ukraine.
Tooze and Klein saw foreshadowing from Russia and China around 2008, after Russia had recovered from the economic devastation following the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990’s and China pivoted from the Beijing Summer Olympics to the rise of a Xi Jinping. Back then, both China and Russia started chaffing publically about the dominance of the global framework that had been established by the U.S. and Europe a half century before. After the Russian invasion 10 days ago, the West could no longer operate on the assumption that free trade, open communications, and the greater prosperity of home populations would make Russia and China “just like us,” freer, more open and democratic. The world is divided again, less because of communist ideology and more because of national aspirations that cannot be denied.
2. Russia and China effectively used the West’s open, global framework of trade and finance to build “war chests” that could enable them to resist the West’s dominance within their geographical “spheres of influence.”
Since its near financial collapse in the 1990s, and particularly after the sanctions that followed its seizure of Crimea in 2014, Russia used its access to the international banking system to build its financial reserves through its energy and natural resource sales, reduce its dependence on foreign currencies like the dollar or Euro, and make itself more impervious to external interference, including economic sanctions. (Adam Tooze discusses the financial games that Russia played at length if you want to read more about them.) For its part, China also used free trade and access to a global financial system to enrich and strengthen itself at the West’s expense. Once again, wrapped in the illusion described above, the West was slow to appreciate the negative consequences that came with what it believed was “its benevolent dominance.”
3. Supply-chain security involving critical materials becomes a central feature of every country’s defense policy.
As a consequence of #1 and #2, the interdependence of energy and semi-conductor markets (to take just two examples), impose limits on Western sanction regimes and make the future take-over of a country like Taiwan (which leads the world in the production of semi-conductors) even more fraught. Only a couple of years ago, few observers in the West were concerned about these supply constraints and the necessity of home-grown accessibility to critical products and resources.
These three changes in Western perception all hardened with the invasion of Ukraine. Nevertheless, as recently as last weekend most observers believed that the invasion would quickly overwhelm its resistance, that Europe would continue to tolerate unpredictability around Russian energy supplies, and that Russia’s economic interdependence with Europe (i.e. the benefits of prosperity all-around) would continue to keep Europe safe and secure.
As a consequence, the West’s initial responses to the invasion—which had been telegraphed for weeks—“meant to sanction Russia, to cause pain to the country and particularly to its ruling class, but not to crack its economy, not to cause undue harm to their own economies, which are interwoven with Russia’s,” as Klein described it.
Then last Sunday, perhaps after viewing a week of Ukraine’s brave civilian resistance, watching its nationals return to fight, its grandmothers face tanks, and listening to the eloquent pleas of its president to NATO, the EU and the US, the West was ready to make even more fundamental departures with its past.
Throughout the invasion, Zelensky has maintained regular video contact with the people of Ukraine and the world outside, bolstering not only Ukrainian morale but also summoning Western solidarity and resolve that had never existed before.
PART TWO OF THE KLEIN/TOOZE CONVERSATION (ON MONDAY MARCH 1)
4. The West declares economic war against another nation for the first time since World War II.
Last Sunday, the EU and US announced economic sanctions on Russia’s Central Bank and virtually all of its other financial institutions in a bid to bring the country to its economic knees as the punishing cost for its invasion of Ukraine. It’s an economic war that’s not only been brought to Russia’s leader and the oligarchs behind him. It’s an economic war that is likely to have devastating and long-lasting consequences for the Russia’s 145 million people. Adam Tooze:
[W]e are now applying Iran-style treatment to not just a nuclear power, [but to] the number two nuclear power in the world, the old Cold War antagonist, in the middle of an active shooting war in which we are taking sides [and] in which they are not making the progress they expect. And we are threatening by this means to deliver a devastating blow to their home front. I mean, panic in the streets, total disruption of the ordinary lives of tens of millions of Russians.
Today, every American going to the grocery store or looking for a used car is worried about price inflation. But in one fell swoop, the Western sanctions implemented by a united West on Sunday launched “a full out economic war” with far more profound “inflationary” consequences for every person who relies on the ruble to live day-to-day. Coupled with the EU’s unprecedented decision to send military arms to Ukraine (and Germany’s reversal of its earlier refusal to do so), Tooze accurately analogized these counterstrikes to the aggressive American posture immediately before it entered World War II (with its Lend Lease program in support of its European allies). Indeed, it was enough of a body-blow that Putin put his country on nuclear alert immediately thereafter. One result is that a nuclear war, unthinkable just a week ago, is today more of a possibility than it has been for over 35 (and maybe 60) years, depending on how you calculated the Soviet threat level in 1985 and 1960.
It doesn’t take boots on the ground to go to war today. While the West is struggling mightily to avoid a larger conflagration, the economic war it has launched is real and its consequences deep and possibly irreversible. And instead of taking weeks or months to mount, this kind of war began almost instantaneously, impacting a global network of trade, insurance and currency exchange fine-tuned to global disruptions that are far more modest than this invasion.
But another way to assess the damage is from the perspective of the average Russian. According to one report this week, “the fall of the ruble since Russia invaded Ukraine could add 4 to 5 percentage points to Russian inflation, which [already] stood at 8.7% in January.” That’s another order of magnitude reduction in what Russians could buy with their rubles a little more than a week ago. Tooze again:
[T]here is serious reason to worry about lower middle class Russian households [in particular]. They’ve been squeezed hard over the last five, six, seven years. Their incomes have not been going up. They’ve been piling up debt. One of the first things that happened today is the interest rates went to 20 percent. So that’s going to immediately bite into your income. So there is a serious risk here of major economic and social fallout.
We’re talking the destabilization of an entire economy from the ground up.
While it will take the Russian economy some time to “devalue” itself, the impacts on its citizens will escalate in the coming weeks and months with particularly grave consequences for these same lower-income folks who, until now, have been the bulwark of Putin’s “democratic” support. Couple that blow to its citizenry with the escalating costs to the country of an invasion (that was supposed to be over by now) and of fighting a Ukrainian insurgency (if it ever succeeds), and Russia could soon be flirting with the same economic bankruptcy that it faced after the Cold War. And from what Tooze, Klein and others seem to be saying, China either can’t or won’t come to Russia’s rescue.
So however much it is obscured by the daily blizzard of “news” and our other diversions, for the first time in most of our lifetimes, we in the West are on “war-footing,” and have no way of knowing where this confrontation will go next.
A final Before-and-After event also happened last Sunday.
5. The defeated countries in World War II—Germany and Japan—are either bolstering (or considering bolstering) their military capabilities for the first time since they were pacified 75 years ago.
In this regard, Germany announced (in some shame over its lack of preparedness) that it is authorizing an unpredented increase of $110 billion in its defense budget. Moreover, for the first time since its creation, the EU (as a unanimous block of 28 nations) has authorized the delivery of $500 million in weapons to a country that’s not an EU member. This is on top of armaments and military supplies provided by the US and NATO. (The icon of St. Javelin, up top, is Ukraine acknowledging one of America’s most appreciated military contributions, namely the Javelin anti-tank missile.)
Moreover, as China engages in saber-rattling in the South China Sea, Japan is also actively contemplating its rearmament. With these developments, the so-called Pax Americana that was promised after the Cold War but already wobbly before Sunday, was surely dead thereafter.
Five developments that have likely changed the course of modern history.
After the terrible loss of blood and treasure in Afghanistan by many of these same Western countries—economic losses that have yet to be quantified for those of us in these democracies who have covered them—it (sadly) appears that we are off to the same bloody and costly races again, with hardly a pause to take a decent breath.
Of course, the consequences are not only to where the West spends its money but also to where it doesn’t (either because of massive new defense expenditures or the lack of available band-width to consider anything other than national security concerns). For example, how do we also fight a war against global warming and biodiversity loss and on behalf of a habitable planet? Is this battle now, somehow secondary to our survival?
What really happened over the past seven days is that half (or more) of the world suddenly changed its priorities—and it’s not at all clear that in that flash, enough of the citizens of the West have even noticed.
This post was adapted from my March 6, 2022 newsletter. Newsletters are delivered to subscribers’ in-boxes every Sunday morning and occasionally I post the content from one of them here. You can subscribe by leaving your email address in the column to the right.