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Putin apologists and the crisis in conservatism
Isolationists are mimicking the left in peddling anti-west propaganda
Russia’s war on Ukraine has illuminated yet further the current crisis in western conservatism.
I’ve previously written, as here and here, about the fact that conservatives who wrongly assumed from the fall of the Soviet Union that their fox had thus been shot have lost sight of what still needs to be conserved, yielding crucial territory to those pursuing an agenda to destroy core western values.
Those self-described conservatives have wrongly assumed that individual self-interest means freedom. They have failed to understand that rampant individualism causes harm and restricts freedom for others in the inevitable fight of all against all. True freedom depends on the individual practising self-restraint, and a civilised society depends on people in certain circumstances putting the interests of others before their own individual wants and desires.
These muddled ideologues — who have dominated the conversation in recent years on the conservative side of politics — have lost sight of these moral lessons. Flying a cartoonish flag of liberty, they have effectively pulled up the drawbridge around the self-interested individual both at home and abroad.
This has taken the form of elevating the free market into a dogma against any state initiative — leading such people to promote, for example, a loosening of the drug laws and immigration controls, opposing every single measure to contain Covid-19 as an onslaught on liberty, and promoting isolationism abroad.
Not all who subscribe to this shallow and meretricious definition of liberty line up in this way on every one of these issues. But hyper-individualism links them all into a recognisable faux-conservative strand.
To this list of conceptual flaws must now be added the crisis in Ukraine. This type of faux-conservative, both in Britain and America, takes the isolationist line that Ukraine is merely yet another quarrel in “a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing” — to quote Neville Chamberlain on Czechoslovakia in 1938 — and that the confrontation between Ukraine and Russia is none of their concern and their government should keep well out of it.
This viewpoint is as myopic as it is objectionable. First, the west bears a significant measure of responsibility for these terrible events. Not only did it turn a blind eye to Putin’s thuggery until now, but it has actually facilitated it by seeking to enrich itself through riding on Putin’s corrupt and kleptocratic financial coat-tails.
In addition, Putin’s unprovoked aggression towards Ukraine tears up the rules-based world order. It thus threatens all of us, and not just the smaller nations bordering Russia who may well be the next to be attacked to fulfil Putin’s vision of a restored mythic Russian empire. If the west stands impotently by while an aggressor devours an independent member nation for the crime of its very existence, then the west is lost.
These isolationists are moreover spouting Putin’s propaganda by stating that the west tore up an undertaking it gave, when the Soviet Union collapsed, that NATO would not expand into the east. Putin uses this assertion to support his ludicrous claim that he is merely defending Russia against NATO’s aggression.
In his 2007 speech to the Munich security conference, Putin said:
And what happened to the assurances our Western partners made after the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact? … I would like to quote the speech of NATO General Secretary Mr Woerner in Brussels on 17 May 1990. He said at the time that: ‘the fact that we are ready not to place a NATO army outside of German territory gives the Soviet Union a firm security guarantee’. Where are these guarantees?
But this account is contested. Stephen Pifer, who was a deputy director on the State Department’s Soviet desk in 1990, has set out in an article for Brookings what he says actually happened. He writes:
Western leaders never pledged not to enlarge NATO, a point that several analysts have demonstrated. Mark Kramer explored the question in detail in a 2009 article in the Washington Quarterly. He drew on declassified American, German and Soviet records to make his case and noted that, in discussions on German reunification in the two-plus-four format (the two Germanys plus the United States, Soviet Union, Britain and France), the Soviets never raised the question of NATO enlargement other than how it might apply in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR).
What the Germans, Americans, British and French did agree to in 1990 was that there would be no deployment of non-German NATO forces on the territory of the former GDR. I was a deputy director on the State Department’s Soviet desk at the time, and that was certainly the point of Secretary James Baker’s discussions with Gorbachev and his foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze. In 1990, few gave the possibility of a broader NATO enlargement to the east any serious thought…
When one reads the full text of the Woerner speech cited by Putin, it is clear that the secretary general’s comments referred to NATO forces in eastern Germany, not a broader commitment not to enlarge the Alliance.
We now have a very authoritative voice from Moscow confirming this understanding. Russia behind the Headlines has published an interview with Gorbachev , who was Soviet president during the discussions and treaty negotiations concerning German reunification. The interviewer asked why Gorbachev did not “insist that the promises made to you [Gorbachev] — particularly US Secretary of State James Baker’s promise that NATO would not expand into the East — be legally encoded?”
Gorbachev replied: “The topic of ‘NATO expansion’ was not discussed at all, and it wasn’t brought up in those years. … Another issue we brought up was discussed: making sure that NATO’s military structures would not advance and that additional armed forces would not be deployed on the territory of the then-GDR after German reunification. Baker’s statement was made in that context… Everything that could have been and needed to be done to solidify that political obligation was done. And fulfilled”.
What’s particularly striking about isolationist “conservatives” recycling this particular claim is that they are peddling propaganda against the west. They are promoting it merely because it supports their point of view.
Yet these are precisely the charges that they rightly level against the left. They are now doing precisely what the left does — substituting ideology for evidence by making the facts fit their governing idea.
In the US, a number of prominent “conservative” commentators who fight the left over identity politics and the onslaught from within against American and western values have been cheering Putin on. They say he’s is an ally in the war against the “woke”, that he’s therefore on the side of freedom, tolerance and fairness, and that the Ukrainians are warmongers. Given what Putin is doing in Ukraine — and has done to his own dissidents, not to mention those political opponents he has had murdered or attacked in Britain with radioactive poison and nerve agents — this is grotesque and nauseating.
It is also undermining the battle that so desperately needs to be waged against the anti-west, totalitarian left. Outlets embodying this left-wing mindset, such as Rolling Stone or The New Republic, are turning these appalling remarks by “conservative” Putin apologists into weapons against those trying to defend western values in the culture wars.
Western conservatism emerged in the 18th century when the Anglo-Irish thinker Edmund Burke articulated the defence of freedom and the core moral precepts of western civilisation against the French revolutionaries who were in the process of destroying them.
The French Revolutionary Terror eventually morphed into Soviet communism, Hitlerian fascism and today’s cultural totalitarianism.
Conservatives have not only proved useless in fighting the latter — but as the Ukraine crisis is demonstrating, they no longer even appear to understand the difference between their own culture and its nemesis.
Ukraine should wake the west up from some of its most cherished illusions. For a significant number of conservatives, however, it appears instead to be deepening them — and along with them the crisis of conservatism itself.
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