Shortly after the Berlin Wall came down, the US-led alliance of nations that is known as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) pushed the eastern borders of its territory all the way up to what are now the western borders of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. [Instead of NATO, I could have referred to ‘the West’ as a whole, but it is better to be precise when writing about these things.] It is a rather moot point whether or not such expansion was tacitly agreed with the leaders of what was then a rapidly disintegrating Soviet Union. In 2014, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev said that NATO’s enlargement was, quite simply, “not discussed at all” at the time, so we should probably leave the historical discussion at that.
One thing is quite clear, however: no one in Europe thought Ukraine was part of Europe until Mr. Putin decided to invade it. That is the number one reason why NATO refused to get involved in it: the ‘in’ or ‘out’ of area distinction is just a legal nicety which NATO (the US, I should say) uses as it pleases. Indeed, NATO went to Afghanistan so there is no reason why they should not go to some other area if NATO member countries would agree on going there. Personally, I think it is a very wise decision for NATO members to leave NATO out of the war between Ukraine and Russia. Furthermore, from the historical record, it may not be very clear that NATO would be pushing east, but one thing that is very clear is that NATO would not turn against Russia. So what is it that I want to say here?
I just want to illustrate such things are a matter of choice and, at the same time, question the relevance of NATO: if NATO is not there to defend us against potential Russian aggression, then what is its use? The only reasonable answer is: NATO is there to do whatever the US wants its European partners to do with it, and they can decide to go along with it or not to go along with it. If Europe is serious about European defense integration, then we should cut the umbilical cord with the US.
Think of it. Shortly after the Berlin Wall came down, political philosophers (read: ideologues) like Fukuyama mourned or, more likely, celebrated the ‘end of ideology’. Fukuyama, for example, wrote this: humanity has reached “not just … the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: That is, the end-point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” Thirty years later, history proved him wrong: unlike the Soviet Union, China did not disintegrate. It successfully suppressed the Tiananmen protests and it restructured its economic and political system, in a very unique model which you may or, more probably, may not want to qualify as liberal. I think of this as follows:
1. From an economic point of view, it is probably more liberal than any other system (just care about money, business and wealth production).
2. From a political point of view, the system is not what many casual observers think it is: China’s one-party system clearly allows for different opinions being expressed internally and fierce competition from within the system. Otherwise China would not be where it is now. Also, I have had the pleasure to interact with Chinese diplomats in Asia (12 years of diplomacy, which ended in Afghanistan) and I found they suffered less from the typical ‘groupthink’ problem that marks some other diplomatic corpses.
In any case, what is obvious is that its system is, by far, more successful than the Anglo-Saxon (US or UK) or European system, as evidenced by the fact that China, over the past decades, grew to become the largest economy in the world. Indeed, China’s GDP is now commensurate with its population: measured in purchasing power parity terms, it is the largest in the world. Back in 1989, China’s GDP was only ninth in the rankings. So are we or are we not witnessing the end of ideology or – worse – the end of history, or not?
The answer is rather obvious to me: history never ends (it was so foolish to write something like that) and, therefore, our views on how to manage our societies will also continue to conflict. In that sense, we are surely not witnessing any end to ideology. If anything, that is what the recent clash around the US and China is all about. Truly wise political philosophers should just observe current international realities: the world has, de facto, become multipolar. It is one interconnected world indeed, but it is comprised of many cultures and very different political and economic systems. Such diversity is good.
So, yes, while we are not seeing the end of ideology, we should move beyond ideology and focus on peaceful coexistence and finally be very serious about working towards “the greatest good for the greatest number”, as Jeremy Bentham – the father of liberalism, utilitarianism and pragmatism – said we should aim at above anything else. That means, among other things, working with rather than against China. And it surely means refraining from any aggression or interference in the internal matters of other countries – especially those countries that, through sheer hard work, have seen their wealth growth to levels that are at par of the wealth of the West.
Also, when war is inevitable – as it was between Ukraine and Russia this year – then one should respond firmly (as Europe and the US did) but one should also prepare for armistice and peace as soon as possible. That is not happening now: shipping US$40b arms packages to Ukraine is not what is needed now. For those who are not familiar with such numbers: the annual defense budget of Russia is about US$65b and most of that is spent on salaries: not on highly lethal offensive equipment. So, yes, such interventions totally reversed the initial perception of a David versus Goliath relation between Russia and Ukraine: Ukraine is now, by far, the most powerful army in Europe, and it is not because of NATO or European support. It is because the US took over. That is a fact. Do we want that? Possibly. We just need to be aware of it.
The frontlines are all but frozen now, and the US and Europe need to work with China to end the war. Through hard-nosed diplomacy rather than more sabre-rattling. More sanctions do not only hurt ourselves but – more importantly – risk alienating Russia (not only its leaders but – much more importantly – their citizens) to a point of no return. That is not what we want: Russia is and remains our neighbor, and – just like individuals – countries need to learn how to live with their neighbors.
Post scriptum: When you are a European or an American reading this, you may be irked and think that I think of the Chinese way of living as, somehow, being superior to ours. I do not. I lived in Asia for a long time (20+ years), and I also lived in the US (Washington DC) for a couple of years (I was married to an American woman). Now I live in Brussels. In the country where I was born and grew up: Flanders, Belgium, Europe (Europeans have multi-layered identities, don’t they?). I think of it as the best place in the world, but that is probably because, yes, I was born and grew up here. There is no place like home and, yes, ‘home’ is, of course, a very different place for all of us – just like family is different for all of us. That is good. That is how it should be. That is why the world is such fun place and why wars should be avoided at all costs: war destroys homes and families. I have witnessed that in Afghanistan and in Ukraine. I have seen enough of it.
Just for the record, I add a personal note on why I think I should speak up in regard to the need to seek peace with Russia. I left for Ukraine as soon as President Zelensky made his appeal to European and other international volunteers to join the fight. I would have stayed on (many left after the terrifying strike on the Yavoriv base, but I did not) but, sadly, when seeing lots of idiot volunteers and private companies and militias from the US swamping in about a month after we had arrived, I thought it was no longer worth it: we are all ready to die for the right cause but if, I use Sun Tzu’s words here, you no longer find yourself on the right side of the Moral Law, then it is better to go home. From a practical point of view, the Ukraine-Russia war is now a war between Russia on one side, and Ukraine and the US on the other. It is no longer the war between Russia and Europe that our media pretend it to be. Here too, I do not mince my words: Yankee, go home. Please. We Europeans can and will deal with Russia. They are our neighbor. We will find a way. How?
Well, for starters, the EU’s relationship with the country that now has the most leverage on Russia (yes, China) has remained relatively unaffected. Let us bank on that to begin with. I also think Europe’s diplomats do not have the kind of ‘with or against us’ attitude that is so harmful in such situations. Let me be blunt here: European diplomats do not display arrogance and are not complacent. That is why Chinese and Russian diplomats will probably find it easier to talk to them. If your only tool is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail. So, if your only tool is a gun, then… Well… Then everyone looks like your enemy, right? Europeans do not think like that. Why? History: this continent remembers its wars and has learnt from them. Unlike the US, Europe did not go to war again after WW II (except for the Korean war, perhaps, as part of the United Nations). The US has fought many wars in foreign lands since then, and participated in even more proxy wars during the Cold War. These wars have been everything but successful, and I see little or no learning from them at all.