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Is the West worth saving?

No matter the ultimate outcome, a “Darkest Hour” winter beckons for Ukraine amidst questions over western resolve. So, does the Free World really have the stomach to support Ukraine “for as long as it takes (to win)”? And can the West really “mobilize” to this end, as the returning Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk recently demanded?

January 24, 2024 - Dominik Jun - Articles and Commentary

Superman II (1980) – image courtesy of CapedWonder.com. Copyright Warner Bros.

If the end of 2023 was anything to go by, then the West’s role as a beacon for global freedom is in deep, deep trouble. A December 5th US Senate meeting on aid to Ukraine descended into petty squabbling over the US-Mexican border, causing Ukraine’s President Zelenskyy to abruptly cancel a planned televised address to American legislators. All the while, Poland’s fringe pro-Russian (and antisemitic) Konfederacja party engineered a devastating and costly blockade of the Polish-Ukrainian border, predictably inspiring nationalists in Hungary and Slovakia to do the same during “let’s kick Ukraine” season. And if that was not enough, Viktor Orban’s Hungary continued to block a 50-billion-euro EU package for Ukraine as well as a whole range of tough sanctions against Russia (despite begrudgingly abstaining on Ukraine’s EU membership talks), thus effectively crippling the entire functioning of the European Union.

Meanwhile, Russia switched to its latest (inevitably futile) tactic of seeking to simply obliterate frontline cities like Kharkiv, deliberately targeting civilians in apartments, hotels and supermarkets. All while, Iran, and now North Korea, continued sending long-range weapons to Russia to be used against Ukrainian cities – without even the slightest fear of suffering devastating consequences from the West.

Many Ukrainians, already emotionally battered after almost two years of Russia’s genocidal war (including those truck drivers freezing on the border), were naturally left shaking their heads as 2024 began: “These are our friends and allies? This is what we are fighting for?”

In reality, this isn’t Ukraine’s Darkest Hour at all – it is the West’s. Ukraine fights on, while the rest of the western “Free World” – the only truly viable force for “good” in comparison to everything else in the world – remains half-asleep. It is like that chilling scene in Superman II (1980), when Superman has given up his powers and is then beaten up by a bully in a diner. Things only get worse. The TV comes on and the entire world has been taken over by the tyrannical Zod (Putin). “Superman! Where are you?” cries the ousted president from the Oval Office. A bloodied Clark Kent realises what a stupid mistake he has made. No one else can truly stop evil but the forces of Truth, Justice and the American Way. That bloodied, beaten man in the diner, facing a long and sobering walk back, is the West today. Especially America.

Such a sorry state of affairs is certainly a far cry from past examples of the “unshakable resolve” of the West. For example, as demonstrated during the Soviet 1948-49 blockade of Berlin. Back then, western planes flew 160 kilometres over Red Army-controlled territory to prevent the nascent “West Berlin” from being suffocated by the Soviets. Plane after plane after plane. As noted here, 2,326,406 tons of food and supplies were delivered via a staggering 278,228 total flights. “C-47 and C-54 planes together flew in excess of 92 million miles, roughly the same distance as the earth is from the sun. Whilst at the height of the airlift, one plane reached West Berlin every thirty seconds.” Resolve means being inconvenienced. Resolve means hard work. Resolve means sacrifice. Resolve means making the enemy fear you.

During the airlift, children living in West Berlin cheered the arrivals, playing with mock model airplanes under the flight path, idolizing the American and British heroes who were coming to their aid. They even received sweets and chocolates from the sky from American “candy bombers” – a doubly ironic name given recent Nazi history. Yes, westerners even gave their lives (40 Britons and 31 Americans). And in the process, the young Germans of West Berlin developed a life-long appreciation for their new American friends. A Berlin resident recalled: “I can remember the day the airlift was over — we picked all the flowers we could and took them to the Americans. That was our thank you.”

Lack of resolve

Today, children all over Ukraine undoubtedly idolize the Allies the same way. HIMARS, Patriots, M2 Bradleys, German Gepards, British Storm Shadows, Polish Krabs – what Ukrainian kid would not dream of owning a toy model of the weapons that are protecting their country? All of which begs the question: what the hell are such Ukrainians supposed to make of a truckers’ blockade of their western border during a time of war? Or of talk of no longer supplying Ukraine with weapons? Or of talk about simply giving up on Ukraine and forcing it to capitulate to Russia? How does one explain libertarian-nationalist isolationism to Ukraine’s younger generation playing with their toy HIMARS?

So are the Ukrainians our neighbours, friends and brothers or not? Can we finally comprehend that their suffering, by orders of magnitude, exceeds any inconvenience we incur by supporting them? Besides, do we not teach kids to not give in to bullies? In what playground does “Give the bully what he wants and he will go away” work as sage parental advice? Elon Musk-style morality is all very well in the comfortable bubble of an embittered brat’s isolationist ramblings. But it is not so good in the real world.

In this sense, Ukraine’s struggle – where it was supposed to fall in three days, but did not; where the president was supposed to flee into exile like Afghan leader Ashraf Ghani, but did not; where Ukraine was perhaps supposed to liberate something and then sit down and give away the rest, but refused – serves as the cold shower the West has so badly needed for a very long time. 

Yes, the West lost its mojo long ago. It became selfish and pathetic. Step by step. Chinese electronics. Russian oil and dirty money. Crippling introspection. An inability to decisively tackle important issues, from immigration to climate change. A daily narrative of deadlock and “we simply don’t know what to do.” Just how did supposedly ethically-minded western consumers go from insisting on Fairtrade goods to having no qualms whatsoever about posting their personal information on a Chinese-run service like TikTok? Even heroism itself has been outsourced to the ever-more-infantile realm of comic book film adaptations. 

Meanwhile, Iranian drones, North Korean ballistic missiles and Russian artillery rain down on European cities that are being, one by one, reduced to rubble because of a madman’s delusions of Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer – while Hungary and Slovakia and perhaps now the Netherlands talk of capitulation, while others talk of fatigue and self-interest, or that Mexican border (if the Republicans pass border reforms, what exactly will Donald Trump run on in the November elections?). This is the West? This is the model for the rest of the world? At some point, anger at the aggressor evaporates after the umpteenth terror attack; then, all that remains is anger at the good guys – for allowing this to happen; for making excuses; for imposing conditions and restrictions; for getting “tired” and for wanting Ukraine to submit to its own dismemberment.

In such a context, Ukraine is what the West still claims it is, but has long forgotten how to be. Resolve, values, determination, heroism, sacrifice, courage, and an absolute and total refusal to appease or capitulate in the face of pure evil. “Even if we run out of weapons, we’ll fight with shovels,” said Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba recently. Such courage mirrors what we find in our history books about the “Greatest Generation” fighting the Nazis in the Second World War. And just like those all-American superheroes that underscore western mythology’s tenet that good always defeats evil. 

But from today’s perspective, studying the West’s early appeasement of Hitler begins to sound awfully and uncomfortably familiar. Look, there is Hungary, Slovakia, Serbia, “neutral” Austria (of Raiffeisen shame) and Switzerland – not to mention those ultra-conservatives in Poland doing everything possible to turn their country into a laughing stock. The same old actors of empires past, as if nothing has changed for a century. And there are the isolationists in the US, just like Henry Ford. And there are the appeasers. How can the West continue to teach wartime history in its schools with any credibility if it gives up on Ukraine? No – abandoning Ukraine means the end of the West itself. 

Democracy versus autocracy

Should Ukraine surrender territory? Or should Russia be punished with a loss of its territory? Compromise = no one loses territory. 

When did we forget what a tough bargaining position looks like? How did the West become the kind of caricature that Putin, like Hitler before him, so despised? One riddled with half-measures, defeatism, naiveté, selfishness and nonsensical platitudes like Ukraine being “in the strongest possible position at the negotiating table when the time comes [for talks]”. As if rewarding an aggressor with even one square centimetre of territory is not a recipe for World War III down the road, with millions dead and the very future of our planet imperilled. Which parts of Sudeten (majority German-speaking) Czechoslovakia did post-war Germany get to keep? None. Not one single square centimetre. And speaking of Crimea, there is a reason why Danzig is called Gdańsk today. And there is a reason why Austria will always be a separate country from Germany, despite it speaking German.

There are no answers to pre-emptive acts of surrender in the face of Russian aggression, except a fear of the consequences of victory for Ukraine – namely the defeat of Putin’s Russia.Western foot-dragging has created a very obvious dichotomy: the weak, indecisive gruel of liberal democracy versus the black-and-white all-in resolve of autocrats. Indeed, ceding (surrendering) the very notion of decisiveness and resolve to autocrats and populists has plagued appeasing western democracies for years – a far cry from when it was the other way around during, for example, the era of the “good” populist President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Putin’s war economy is now spending a third of its budget to destroy the Ukrainian state. The Russian people, too, are still willingly providing “meat” by the black-bag-load (including Nepalese, Cubans, Somalis and any other form of available slave/serf) to be slaughtered for every inch of additional stolen Ukrainian land.

Meanwhile, American democracy descends ever-deeper into a caricature of endless elections that achieve nothing because the other side is already thinking about the next election and will block everything, thus ensuring it wins next time. Because, like some slogan right out of 1984, Obstruction is Victory! This is Weimar democracy, as existed in Germany from November 1918 to January 1933. Feeble paralysis that awaits the arrival of a strongman to sweep away the humiliation.

Amidst such paralysis, it is no wonder then – no matter how self-defeating and ill-informed – that a sizeable number turn to the myth that populists simply “get things done” or “are the only ones who protect us, not them” or “say it like it really is”. Populists can pretend they will achieve something, but not actually achieve anything at all (why did Trump not “fix the border” when his party controlled every lever of power from 2017-19?). On the other hand, when liberal democrats actually try to achieve something (Obama’s healthcare reforms, Biden’s approach to Ukraine) they look weak in the process for their ineptitude and feeble half-measures. Which would you choose? For many, there is simply no choice – at least populism offers a believable illusion of all-in decisiveness and action versus that hesitant gruel.

Meanwhile, trolling – the ability to shamelessly laugh at what one can thwart and disrupt while paying almost no attention to achieving anything other than annoying your enemies – has become the core of the new populism. It is a juvenile-delinquent philosophy, embraced by the likes of Musk, Trump, Erdoğan, Fico – and, especially Orban – that it is better to be hated and noticed than to be liked and ignored. Trolling also requires no victories. Just an endless “I don’t care” attitude, while those trying to achieve something, in the EU or US Congress, squirm at the other side’s utter shamelessness and mendacity (an unflustered “Who, me?” response is everything, as Putin well knows). Failure does not matter. Facts do not matter. Attention matters. The power to thwart matters.

Imagine if a western leader had delivered the very same results as Putin and his “three-day” invasion of Ukraine. Such a leader would have long ago been ousted as utterly incompetent. But when authoritarians and populists fail, they deny reality. It never happened. This happens in Russia all the time. What Russian failures? Trump does it, too. Insurrection – what insurrection? What fraud? What rape? Many people admire that. They admire leaders capable of such mendacity. Which is precisely why a self-radicalised mass of Republicans will support Trump no matter how many times he is convicted – at least he has that maniacal look of resolve in his eyes.

In contrast, what western democratic leader today has even a hint of such mendacity about them? That sense of they would or could do anything. No, today’s leaders predictably announce aid packages for Ukraine, as if the fight is somehow bureaucratic and technocratic, and not spiritual. But someone always pays the price for western comforts. Today, that price is being paid in Ukrainian blood, right on the eastern frontier between civilisation and utter savagery.

A dark future

And, of course, which side, in the current “Ukrainian conflict” has sought to split the other’s resources? The West, in Belarus, Moldova or Georgia? Or Russia, on Putin’s birthday no less, in an assault on one of the United States’ closest allies, Israel? That says it all. And if Ukraine’s “less bold” summer counteroffensive – as ineptly guided by the West, not Ukraine – is a symbol of the overwhelming and decisive collective western effort, then it’s no surprise that Trump may be heading back to the White House. Biden will either be the man who defeated Trump and Putin, or defeated neither. As the former British prime minister, now foreign secretary, David Cameron recently noted during an early December visit to Washington to lobby the US Congress to support Ukraine: “If you add up the economies of the allies of Ukraine – the United States, the United Kingdom, countries of the European Union – we outmatch Russia 30 to one.” If that really is the case, then the result should be crushingly lopsided in favour of Ukraine. Except, it is in fact 2:1 in the opposite direction. Ukraine has been given no devastating advantage, only drip, drip, drip assistance. And talk is of cutbacks, fatigue and retreat.

Weimar-style democracy can hardly serve as a beacon of light to anyone. Democracy as a caricature of half-measures, or endless paralysis, or legislative blackmail, or razor-thin 49-51 outcomes, or even violent insurrection – hardly a template for the developing world’s supposed inevitable transition towards this form of government, let alone something worth fighting to become.

Indeed, the so-called developing world has been noticing all of this for decades and has largely stopped (and reversed) its drift towards democracy – the phenomenon even has a name – “democratic backsliding”. As a consequence, the entire 20th century narrative of “developing” has been upended by a foreboding sense that the Middle East and Africa and other places are not “developing” at all, but are in fact dying – why else is everyone so desperate to leave, day after day, even drowning in boats illegally entering the EU, or willingly being herded like cattle to freeze at the Russian-Finnish border? Does this sound like “developing”?

While the West has become stuck in navel-gazing, essentially seeing global history through the lens of its own guilt and misdeeds (slavery, colonialism, the Iraq War), others have been busy simply not caring one bit. For example, on November 28th, Russia’s newest African colony, Niger, announced it was repealing a law criminalizing migrant smuggling. The obvious aim for Niger is to enable its new colonial overlords to establish an industrial-scale people trafficking network to assault Europe, which will then in turn vote for even more populists, who will then also seek to cut off aid to Ukraine.

Not everything in the world is the West’s fault. But every single one of the world’s greatest modern-day evils has been based on a seething hatred of the West – from Nazism, to communism, to Islamism, to modern-day Russia’s all-encompassing Axis of Evil. And every single “anti-western” and “anti-American” revolution – from Tehran, to Moscow, to Caracas, to Pyongyang – is pre-destined to be doomed by its own guiding philosophy of destructive hatred. Those Houthis attacking ships in the Red Sea Gulf of Aden? Their slogans are, you guessed it: “God is the Greatest, Death to America, Death to Israel, A Curse Upon the Jews and Victory to Islam.” Not much of a rival to: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights…”

Thankfully, through tireless lobbying by a determined and indefatigable people, Ukraine’s fate is now inseparably tethered to the West. If Ukraine goes down, then the West goes down, too. The West probably never expected that. Even Ukraine’s indefatigable and resourceful community of PR warriors, including the ingenious NAFO, has put modern lobbying to shame. Sure, Ukraine still faces an epic battle against its culture of corruption – but what an incredible addition to the EU and NATO family this country will ultimately be.

Conversely, thwarting Ukraine’s victory will mean that the West would never be trusted by any other country ever again. Taiwan would fall next, possibly followed by South Korea and even Japan, leading to World War III. Such a global conflict would be about fighting the surviving remnants of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact – namely Russia and its anti-western, Soviet-aligned “People’s” (China and North Korea) and “Arab” (Syria) and “Islamic” (Iran) republics. Tens of millions would die. The survival of the Earth itself would be jeopardized (yes, we’re supposed to be busy fighting climate change, in case everyone has forgotten).

Or, Ukraine is liberated. Fully and completely and quickly. And the bad guys are punished and cowed. And the word returns to normal again. But only a strong, clear-eyed and self-confident West can ensure that.

A sober voice of reason, Valerii Zaluzhnyi, commander-in-chief of Ukraine’s armed forces, has stated that Ukraine needs 17 million rounds of ammunition and 350 to 400 billion US dollars to liberate Ukraine. Which just so happens to be close to the amount of Russian assets frozen by the West. Now there is a way for the West to begin to get its mojo back…

Dominik Jun is a British-Czech English editor, translator and the former editor of Eurozine partner journal The New Presence. He previously contributed to publications such as Czech Positionthe Prague Post and E15 Weekly, and for ten years was a regular contributor to Radio Prague. He has also directed a number of documentary films for the Czechoslovak Documentation Centre on the anti-communist resistance movement.

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