Ever-more shocking atrocities committed by Russia in Ukraine are awakening Western consciences and exposing fault lines in the Western worldview. With crimes against humanity now on NATO’s doorstep, Westerners are focusing on human rights with concern and alarm not seen since the Cold War. As we do, we must admit that the West’s post-Cold War precepts and priorities downplayed human dignity and human suffering. The moral relativism, economic globalism, self-centeredness, and agnosticism of our time and place all provided excuses for ignoring human rights. They allowed us to view indifference as tolerance, silence as civility, and neutrality as peace. Me First identity politics on the Left and America First isolationist impulses on the Right fostered disregard for the “lives of others,” and devaluation of our common humanity. Aversion to “boots on the ground” provided both political sides a simplistic rationale for breaking the post-World War II commitment to “never again” surrender compassion or neglect deterrence.
As complacency regarding national and collective security reinforced the West’s moral and strategic inertia, threats to the way of life we took for granted grew. Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Xi Jinping’s China, Ali Khamenei’s Iran, and resurgent Islamic extremism are among the major challenges free people and free nations face. It turns out that neither an idealistic philosophy of “co-existence” nor a narrow focus on material existence is enough to ward off the problems of good and evil that we thought we’d left behind. Indeed, propaganda that insists we adhere to our own relativistic multilateralism, and corruption that exploits our own lust for profit are tools today’s dictators use to undermine modern democracies. But the horrors Russia is inflicting upon Ukraine lays that propaganda and that corruption bare; with sanctions against the Russian regime multiplying, and Western governments, banks, and institutions that enable the regime under pressure, there are few places for Putin’s cohorts to hide. Making energy, arms, and financial deals with anti-democratic aggressors—which the aggressors then use to amass power, prove legitimacy to their subjects, and fund hostilities against their neighbors—is now, transparently, wrong.
It is not just that Ukraine is geographically and politically closer and that its fate will have a more direct effect on the West than, say, Syria or North Korea. It is that we know we could have done much more to prevent this war and these horrors. Most Europeans and Americans are heartbroken over Russia’s cruel devastation of Ukraine. The targeting, killing, and disappearances of civilians including children; the bombing of cities including hospitals, schools, and homes; and the torture, rape, and starvation sieges are impossible to comprehend. But perhaps our hearts are the more broken because of guilt over our own hard-heartedness until now. A lesson of World War II, Peter Viereck wrote, was that we lacked not just strong enough defenses but also soft enough hearts. With indifference to suffering underlying Nazi successes, Viereck insisted that we needed not just the “realism” but also the “softmindedness” that would compel us to respond decisively to escalating hostilities and atrocities. Indeed, those who built a US-oriented world order out of the ashes of the war—with defensive alliances, rights-based international institutions, and passion for democracy—believed this. They knew the Free World could succeed in outdoing the world of oppression and aggression only when it emphasized the difference between the two and made sacrifices to keep the one world safe from the other.
When the Cold War ended with the Soviet empire and communist dictatorships collapsing, this was a victory not just for our military and material power, but also for the idea of universal rights that the Free World, at its best, embodies. Yet, in part because the West “won” the Cold War, it has lacked the moral-democratic clarity and strategic-military resolve that allowed it to win and gave it the upper hand. With adversaries that had threatened our very freedom supposedly out of the way, the in-vogue worldview placed a premium on domestic gratification and convenience, global harmony and profit, and insisted we could have them if only we stopped insulting others with our “standards” and “values.” Instead, we were to stress “common interests”—even with authoritarian regimes that, we assumed, might oppress their own people or create havoc in their own neighborhoods, but could never really threaten us. We thereby forgot other World War II lessons: Aggressors use the West’s longing for peace and ease to lull us into dangerous passivity, often through disingenuous “peace talks.” They use the West’s tolerance and equivalence to evade judgment and ward off penalties for terrible transgressions.
They know that relativistic Westerners—who have discarded the Platonic idea of “the good,” the religious contrast between sin and virtue, and the rationalist conception of truth—often deem things estimable or accurate simply because they would like them to be so. They know Westerners want to believe them when they say they’re committed to the “diplomatic process,” “multilateral solutions,” “anti-imperialism,” and “de-proliferation.”
Witness Xi Jinping last fall appealing to audiences at the United Nations, the European Union, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization for “true multilateralism,” “consensus and cooperation,” “the path of peaceful development,” and an “open world economy.” At the very time Xi expressed these pleasant concepts, China was, threatening to invade Taiwan, oppressing ethnic and religious minorities, crushing dissent, committing genocide against Uyghurs, using “island-building” and naval bases to militarize the South China Sea, strong-arming countries across the globe with the economic and political coercion inherent in its “Belt and Road” project, and seeking, in general, to supplant Western influence. Witness Vladimir Putin and Sergei Lavrov last December insisting they wanted “constructive, meaningful talks” about Ukraine and “equal security for all,” and did not want “armed conflicts or bloodshed;” that it was the West that had “lost the culture of dialogue, the culture of diplomatic negotiations (and) reaching consensus.” At the very time Putin and Lavrov articulated this amenable position, Russia was brazenly violating treaties, using cyberwar and energy blackmail to destabilize democracies, forcefully backing murderous dictators, ramping up domestic oppression, and planning all-out war on Ukraine. It was, in reality, the Biden administration, the EU, and NATO that repeatedly and naively prioritized “talks” with Russia over strong deterrent measures.
Indeed, wishful thinking, ambivalence regarding principles, reliance on diplomacy even after it was clear Western negotiators were being played, and unwillingness to face realities of hard power had long been evident in the West’s minimalist approach to Putin’s ever-worsening transgressions. Even though Russia emerged from the Cold War weakened and divided, the United States and NATO failed to arrest or contain Putin’s relentless military buildup and geopolitical advances, and growing bellicosity and human rights violations. Russia’s cruel wars in Chechnya, Georgia, Syria, and the Donbas area of Ukraine along with its forceful annexation of Crimea were met with few significant costs, morally neutral calls for an end to “violence,” and “peace talks” that worked to Russia’s advantage. Putin and Lavrov haven’t just routinely violated diplomatic agreements; they’ve repeatedly used diplomacy to buy time and cover for further aggression.
Nor did the West respond seriously to Russia’s steadily growing alliance with anti-democratic powers China and Iran or its successful efforts to cultivate and subordinate anti-Western authoritarians. Even when it came to Russia’s propping up of dictatorships in Europe and the Western Hemisphere (i.e., Belarus and Venezuela) and use of subterfuge and disinformation to destabilize European and American democracies, the Western response was tepid. Cold War-esque grand strategy to deal with the formidable combined threat of these countries was conspicuously absent. So too was Truman-esque, Reagan-esque advocacy of the rights of individuals and the sovereignty of nations. Almost never heard from Western politicos and pundits were soaring words for freedom or impassioned calls for action. Although entities such as the US House Foreign Affairs Committee, Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) were strong human rights advocates, Westerners generally behaved as a people no longer sure what they stood for or why.
What better example of the West’s debility than Ukraine, where the West must acknowledge moral and strategic failure of historic proportions. For, everything the West did in face of Russia’s sinister threat of all-out war upon that innocent nation was too little, too late. Even when a major Russian offensive was imminent, Western politicians procrastinated on penalties for Russian aggression and weaponry for Ukraine. Unwarranted hope for a “diplomatic offramp” from war was the languid excuse for not imposing real costs or engaging in serious deterrence. Thus, as Russia mobilized legions and convoys of troops, artillery, and missiles along Ukraine’s border—then mobilized more, backing every move with vicious threats and anti-NATO propaganda—the West did little more than express deep concern and call for more dialogue. Joe Biden and his European counterparts warned of major sanctions “if” Russia “further invaded” Ukraine, instead of for Russia’s already-escalating aggression. Making matters worse, the Biden administration “paused” military aid to Ukraine last summer, supposedly to soften Putin’s attitude toward negotiations, and didn’t lift the pause until January. Moreover, the administration suspended US sanctions on the Russia-aggrandizing, Europe-threatening Nord Stream 2 pipeline, thus removing one of the West’s best levers. Worse still, Germany doubled down on its commitment to the pipeline, refused to meet NATO defense commitments, and thwarted key European efforts to help Ukraine and pressure Russia.
In spite of urgent Eastern and Central European entreaties and warnings, Western Europe and the United States were biding their time while Russia was seizing the day. Opportunities for preemption were squandered. It is devastatingly consequential that the US did not deliver Ukraine desperately needed Stinger anti-aircraft missiles and did not give NATO countries the “green light” to send Ukraine fighter jets until March, well after Russia had begun bombing Ukrainian cities. Even the green light was provisional, as the US stipulated it did not support the Polish transfer of MiG fighter jets to Ukraine “at this time.” Although the United States finally banned Russian energy imports (with the EU finally considering it), and has steadily increased major sanctions on Russia, and although the US and certain allies aside from Germany have begun to send Ukraine some of the heavy weaponry it has requested for months, the West’s hesitancy and lack of timely, decisive action have been painful to watch.
It seems that it has taken new atrocities to elicit new action. Another horror leads to another belated delivery of weapons to Ukraine or belated sanctions on Russia. We are meting out aid Ukraine should have received and consequences Russia should have incurred long ago.
At least once Russia launched its merciless war upon Ukraine, Western leaders, horrified by the atrocities, became more willing than usual to speak up for human rights. UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss’s speeches stand out for their moral clarity and clarion call for preemption. The speech, as well as the failure to speak, of US presidents and other democratic leaders reverberates far and wide. Their words have the potential to affect everything from political freedom to geopolitics to national priorities and policies. Speaking out against the world’s worst regimes gives dissidents and prisoners courage and hope, while failing to speak gives dictators and aggressors confidence and momentum. Now that Ukraine has inspired us to rediscover our voice, we should also speak up for people in North Korea, Syria, China, Iran, Ethiopia, and other places beset by extreme repression or violence. With Russia and China attempting to undermine and divide the West with information operations and cyberwars, the West should revive and update Voice of America-type programs for the digital age and re-focus on disseminating democratic ideals. Incredibly, certain Western elites still lean toward normalizing relations with the likes of Bashar al-Assad and Kim Jung Un. But normalization lends legitimacy to genocidal rulers, who instead deserve international condemnation.
It would be nice to believe crimes against humanity and crimes against children in Ukraine have woken us from our slumber. We all “Stand for Ukraine” now. Yet, even in April, Western sanctions on Russia were not comprehensive. The West froze assets of some corrupt, Putin-backing oligarchs, and froze Russia partially, but not entirely, out of SWIFT. The West did not close all bank accounts with which Russia launders and hides money. The West shut Russia out of some international organizations, but kept the door open in others, such as Interpol and, of course, the UN Security Council—ironically formed in the aftermath of World War II to prevent the kind of war and atrocities Russia commits. The international community did, at least, kick Russia out of the UN Human Rights Council; other atrocity-committing Council members should be kicked out as well. Most telling, America and Europe still aren’t giving Ukraine all the weaponry and aircraft it urgently requests and requires to win the war—a war that, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky rightly points out, Ukraine is fighting on behalf of our democratic way of life.
NATO’s reason for not joining Ukraine’s military operation—that it could lead to Russian use of nuclear weapons and escalation—is understandable (although it dangerously incentivizes adversaries to become nuclear powers). But not fully sanctioning Russia, fully banning Russian energy, and fully arming Ukraine—even after Russia’s devastation of entire cities, use of banned weapons and widespread atrocities—is unforgivable. The incrementalism even now indicates the West still hasn’t really rediscovered its moral-democratic core. Even though it is clear the devastation will (not might) get worse, that more towns will be bombed to a pulp, more women raped, more children traumatized, more starvation sieges committed, more innocent people tortured or “disappeared,” we tell ourselves the help we’re giving Ukraine is impressive. We have our excuse, always the excuse, for not doing more: Ukraine is winning the war; look how they’ve pushed some Russian armies back and exposed Russia’s weakness! While hopefully true, that assessment looks awfully convenient when issued with our other assessment: Russia is committing genocide.
If China, North Korea, Iran, and terror networks, as well as Russia, are emboldened by our lack of boldness, there may come a day when we’re in the larger war we’ve tried so hard to avoid. For yet another World War II lesson is that when we bury our heads in the sand in face of escalating hostilities and atrocities, we’re more likely to be forced into war by events spiraling out of control.
Aside from the effect our moral, strategic, and military prevarication ultimately has on our own security and comfort, it’s time to ask what effect it has on the “lives of others.” Might countless lives be better if we’d expressed more opposition to extremist ideologies and dictators? Might the world’s oppressed be better off if we’d put more human rights conditions into our economic, political, security, and “peace” deals with atrocity-committing regimes? Are we to look at nations as hard shells, à la realism? Or should we value the inherent, God-given dignity of every human being within every country? Although America has certainly not always lived up to its ideals, our Republic was founded upon the powerful idea that rights are God-given and universal. They cannot be granted by government, nor is it any government’s right to take them away. But, as cultural relativists, we’ve convinced ourselves others are not “ready” for the rights we have, as if the vast majority of people the world over would rather not fear being thrown into prison or denied any say in the societies they live in.
The West had hoped global trade and economic interaction would help bypass the problem of tyranny and aggression. Surely once China saw the profits and benefits of opening up to the West, sympathy for Western political freedom would follow. Economic globalism is obviously beneficial insofar as it counteracts isolationism and protectionism, and enables citizens of divergent countries to interact. It is advantageous from a standpoint of mutual prosperity and learning. But we failed to consider that in lieu of human rights or rule of law requirements, dictators could game the system, reaping economic spoils while increasing oppression, putting profits into big governments, state-dominated companies, and war machines. One need only look at how Russia’s post-Cold War invitation to join the democratic world order paralleled the rise of an utterly corrupt and obscenely rich kleptocracy. One need only look at how China’s dramatic economic rise and domination of manufacturing paralleled surging imperial ambitions and return to Maoist-level repression.
Can we find the ardor for freedom and human rights we had after World War II, during the Cold War? President Harry Truman repeatedly emphasized the universal desire to be free. When he argued that the rights and struggles of all peoples transcended the superficial divisions of the Cold War, he suggested that we could never “win” that war through strength alone. The only true victory, the only one that would have the stability that comes from the people’s satisfaction, was a victory of moral-democratic principles over oppression. Truman insisted, “Our ultimate strength lies, not alone in arms, but in the sense of moral values and moral truths that give meaning and vitality to the purposes of free people. These values are our faith, our inspiration, the source of our strength and our indomitable determination.”