On February 10, 2007, Vladimir Putin made a speech in Munich signalling a significant shift in Russia’s posture towards to West.
Prior to the address, Russian relations with the United States had been largely formed by the events of September 11, when the two found common ground on the issues of Islamic extremism and nuclear disarmament. In his now famous speech, Putin placed thawing relations on ice by accusing the Bush administration of what he described as an “almost uncontained use of military force in international relations”. Force, he added, that was “plunging the world into an abyss of permanent conflicts”.
Nearly four years into a bloody conflict in Iraq and still bogged down in Afghanistan, with hundreds of thousands of civilians either dead, injured or displaced (and no WMDs in sight), Putin’s speech appeared to be addressing the elephant in the room. In Munich, he cleverly assumed the role of an agitator, speaking truth to Western power in an age of spin and disinformation. A maverick who told it like it was while our politicians and media haplessly spun our military blunders into glib, moral narratives that rarely intersected with reality.
Prior to the Munich speech, Putin had been underestimated by Western leaders. No surprise why: eight years earlier, when he was named as Boris Yeltsin’s successor in the Kremlin the big question on everyone’s lips – in Russia and in Europe – was, “who?”.
Since then, we’ve had ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and a revolution in Tunisia, which triggered the Arab Spring as well as civil wars raging in both Syria and Ukraine. Putin has used these events as opportunities to throw increasing amounts of weight around, whether at home – where he suppressed dissent on the streets of Moscow – or calling our bluff in both Crimea and Damascus.
With so many chickens coming home to roost in the West at once, we cling desperately to moral arguments about freedom, democracy and respecting international law as justification for whatever action we reason will help us get a foot back in the door. But in the age of social media, these claims to any moral plane whatsoever (never mind the high ground) seem so cynical and illusory that many people are losing the ability to care about what is true. And that’s not just down to conspiracy websites or Russian bots, but also the result of there being no discernible moral continuity in how the United States and the UK behave on the global stage. The only consistent thread throughout is the increasingly vacuous moral overtures Western leaders make to their disillusioned citizens.
The faulty logic is always the same. Our societies are more prosperous and liberal in the West so yada yada yada. Our societies are more democratic, and we enjoy more rights and personal freedoms so, yada yada yada, Indeed, we do but are those rights and freedoms we enjoy as a result of the benevolent wisdom of powerful politicians in the mould of Theresa May or Donald Trump? Tony Blair or George W Bush? Don’t be ridiculous. The freedoms so often cited by Western leaders as justification for “spreading democracy” or “upholding international law” or “defending our values” were not won by political establishments – they were won despite them.
In many cases, political establishments in the UK and US were the biggest impediments to the freedoms and rights we now consider fundamental and basic. The progressive advances so often cited as evidence of the West’s ethical primacy, whether it be the right to vote, workers’ and housing rights, the empowerment of women, ethnic minorities or the LGBT community, were won by the very movements that consistently oppose military conflicts of this typically ambiguous nature. To acquire even the most basic freedom and dignity, ordinary citizens risked their reputations, freedom and even their own lives, to wage war on the same political establishments who now have the gall to drape themselves in the veil of that very liberty and democracy they once resisted. And all so they can hastily superimpose a warm cosy, comforting bedtime story on what is clearly reactionary military action taken from a position of weakness, in the naked, morally rudderless national interest. A national interest which is less about protecting norms around chemical weapons or protecting human life and more about remaining tethered to the United States – and the senile sociopath residing in the White House.
It is abundantly clear that we are simply making things up as we go along as far as our foreign policy is concerned. The ethical elasticity and short-term memory of those who would bomb first and ask later, without so much as batting an eyelid is utterly baffling. I accept the need for military intervention in Syria on the grounds of cold, hard military necessity in an age of elevated global tensions, but the claim to any sort of moral high ground is both tenuous and deeply delusional. So much so, that one must assume it’s a cynical fabrication, conjured for political reasons, deployed with all the moral surety of a drunken roulette fiend kissing his hand before carelessly throwing the dice.
Let’s not pretend there is some deeper ideological drama playing out on the global stage, as fun as that must be for many of you. Let’s not entertain the hubris that military decisions are being taken based on some complex ethical calculation. This is about two bullies, arguing about the difference between stabbing someone in the front or stabbing them in the back. Two bullies pulling rank, trying to save face as they square up to each other in a war-torn playground, so afflicted by their own hubris neither of them will admit they can’t stomach a fight.