The Brookings Institute recently hosted Thomas Gomart, Fiona Hill, and ambassador Philippe Étienne to a discussion of France’s path forward since Europe lost its most important strategic advantage: living in peace. Has the West lost global relevance? How can the West regain or retain a strategic advantage?
Increased Russian aggression is likely a sign that the world is accelerating toward a state characterized by war. In Russia itself, Gomart noted, WWII is the “state religion” and in part drives its push to return to a pre-1991 integration. The attack on Ukraine is in a very real sense an attack on the West itself. Putin is “historian in chief” with a much larger sense of grievance that informs his mission. In Putin’s annexation of Crimea address, he cried:
[T]he people could not reconcile themselves to this outrageous historical injustice…Time and time again attempts were made to deprive Russians of their historical memory, even of their language and to subject them to forced assimilation. Moreover, Russians, just as other citizens of Ukraine, are suffering from the constant political and state crisis that has been rocking the country for over 20 years.
Many argue that Russia is free in its recent aggression because it does not think the EU is viable. If true, Hill questioned, does this mean that Russia does not see the EU as an institution as viable, Europe as a whole, or the entirety of the West? Finland and Sweden, both EU member states, applied to join NATO in part because they see it as the only viable security institution. But does Russia view NATO as more viable than the EU? Moreover, has the West as a whole lost the confidence of the rest of the world? Hill answered that it is a “warning of what might happen. I don’t think that we’ve lost the world at this particular juncture, but it’s a pretty hard sell.”
Europe faces an enemy with an existential hatred of the West with an unprepared military, teetering energy security, and lagging confidence displayed by the rest of the world.
Despite exposing the unpreparedness of the West, the Ukrainian invasion also exposed the continued existence of a shared love, the shared love of peace. It exposed the perseverance of ideals and values that fell out of popular rhetoric. The brutality of the Kremlin shocked the West into re-remembering that there really do exist a set of first principles which bind and guide it. In short, the overpowering presence of evil brought the nature of good into sharp focus.
“Before the war, liberal democracies appeared at times uncertain of their focus and future,” James Landale at the BBC comments, “But the conflict has reminded the West of what it represents – freedom, sovereignty and the rule of law. This in turn has produced a united response to Russia’s aggression.” In the words of Kori Schake for The Atlantic, “Although we in the West sometimes lose faith that our values are universal, Putin certainly believes they are. Otherwise, why attempt to conquer a country to prevent it from succeeding?”
Yet the West must be vigilant. The West cannot take the perseverance of its ideals as given and it must understand the nature and pursuance of peace correctly if it is to see their constancy.
The West must not root its unity in shared terror. If it does, fear rather than the love of peace or freedom becomes the universal human good binding countries together. If fear is the common coagulate, the West no longer has a universal good which it can collectively uphold or a defining characteristic which distinguishes it from other empires. The West cannot condemn Russia as evil because it has not defined good. The West can only condemn out of fear because that becomes the only metric of wrong, thus losing the ability to condemn other unjust actions which it does not fear but remain evil.
The West must root its unity in a shared love for peace and accordingly a shared love for freedom. St. Augustine tells us that “there is no man…who does not wish to have peace.” Consequently, “The earthly city, which does not live by faith, seeks an earthly peace, and the end it proposes, in the well-ordered concord of civic obedience and rule, is the combination of men’s wills to attain the things which are helpful to this life.”
In this way does the earthly city reflect the heavenly one: the heavenly city affirms that the highest good is eternal life (or total peace between God and man and thus between man and man) rather than merely acknowledging that the greatest ill is eternal death. Likewise, the earthly city unites in the affirmation that the highest good attainable is earthly peace rather than uniting in its shared fear of death–as Hobbesian thinkers might want to argue. The heavenly city unifies people without vilifying diversity or obliterating individuality. The heavenly city:
[C]alls citizens out of all nations, and gathers together a society of pilgrims of all languages, not scrupling about diversities in the manners, laws, and institutions whereby earthly peace is secured and maintained, but recognizing that, however various these are, they all tend to one and the same end of earthly peace. It therefore is so far from rescinding and abolishing these diversities, that it even preserves and adapts them, so long only as no hindrance to the worship of the one supreme and true God is thus introduced.
A shared pursuit of peace may seem like a fanciful pipedream, but remember that it was St. Augustine who shaped the original founding of the Western, liberal order—not Hobbes. One need not be an idealist to strive for peace. Christian realism balances the understanding that utopia will never be achieved or violence eliminated with the “belief that goodness is the chief point upon which the pursuit of everything hinges and by which it is motivated” (Boethius, 103).
Nor does advocating a shared love of peace mean promoting international “happy talk” to the detriment of decisive action. Readers should remember that St. Augustine also helped found the just war tradition, and the West must be ready and willing to engage in conflict while advocating for its love of freedom. If the West hopes to retain its global relevance, it must both define and promote its values, maintaining a position of strategic strength.
Boethius. The Consolation of Philosophy (London: Penguin Books, 1969).