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Wanted: A rallying cry to hold back the coming ‘Dark Time’ — and someone to write it

A high-rise apartment block hit by shelling in Kyiv, Ukraine, 26 February 2022. (EPA-EFE / Sergey Donzhenko)

With the death of a more benign post-Cold War world due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, pundits, public intellectuals and government veterans are struggling to define our new age, and especially the role of the US and Europe in a suddenly not-so-brave new world. So far, however, no one has clearly articulated what the larger Western strategy must be in response to events that point to still more trouble ahead.

In the first months after World War 2, the taste of victory was still palpable for many in the Allied nations. There was a celebratory sense that despite its cost, the Allies’ coalition was about to remake the world into a better, safer place, including the new international body, the United Nations. 

In those months just after the war, two Georges — one a studious American career diplomat and the other a British essayist, novelist, and increasingly disillusioned socialist — each offered starkly different views about the shape of the future for the West. But between them, in what they had written, and despite their differences, they created a major share of the mental landscape of the post-war world, populating that landscape with defining and enduring images — and fears about the future.

By the end of the war, the Soviet Union had conquered much of Eastern Europe from the Nazi regime (including all those capitals now behind what Winston Churchill would soon label the “Iron Curtain”). Nonetheless, it was still not yet certain those Soviet military victories would become a decades-long military occupation and establishment in those states of the Stalinist model already in place in the Soviet Union. 

That Stalinist model came with economic and political decision-making centralism, the inevitable purges and round-ups of “undesirables”, and everything else emanating from such rule. As the shape of this world was just becoming clearer, a few individuals were trying to determine what the global politics of a new world would — or should — look like after the end of World War 2.

On top of everything happening in Europe, the stirrings of independence by then-colonised peoples of Asia and Africa were coming into sharper focus. First was the break-up of British India, then rebellion in French Indochina, and struggles over the fate of China and other Southeast Asian colonies such as the Dutch East Indies, now freed from Japanese occupation. Societies frozen in political, economic or social amber for many years were now changing in the aftermath of World War 2.

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Ukrainian serviceman cross a destroyed bridge on 1 March 2022 in Irpin, Ukraine. (Photo: Anastasia Vlasova / Getty Images)

Demands were also beginning to be made on the leadership of more established nations in the aftermath of the recent war. Moreover, new technologies — ranging from television, antibiotics and jet aircraft, to atomic weapons — were washing over nations. Then, too, a massive new population cohort — the Baby Boomers — was about to come on to the scene and in the coming years would deeply affect the politics of their respective nations.

Even as these developments were happening, some were trying to absorb the recent experiences to understand a sense of what was coming next. Early on, one of these was George Orwell. A highly admired and respected British journalist, essayist, novelist and political activist who had lived his convictions fighting in the Spanish Civil War, Orwell had hit the global big time with a new novel, Animal Farm. This political fantasy was a warning shot, a premonition issued by an increasingly disillusioned socialist, published just days after the war ended. 

Then, two months later, he published an essay, “You and the Atomic Bomb” in the British left-wing periodical, The Tribune. In that essay, Orwell became the first person to offer the profoundly disturbing prediction encapsulated within the phrase, “the Cold War”, in its post-World War 2 meaning. 

Orwell argued the world would be divided into three great blocs — one led by the US and its junior partner Great Britain, a second on the Eurasian landmass dominated by the Soviet Union, and a third guided by a resurgent China. Each would be bolstered by the power of the new atomic weapons, but held partially in check via the “balance of terror”. His prediction soon seemed to be coming true once the Soviet Union acquired nuclear weapons a few years after the Americans had first constructed them. Readers can see in this essay, the germ of what became the political landscape of Orwell’s most famous novel, the dystopian classic that is 1984.

Summing up his baleful predictions, just weeks after the end of the war, Orwell had written, “More and more obviously the surface of the Earth is being parcelled off into three great empires, each self-contained and cut off from contact with the outer world, and each ruled, under one disguise or another, by a self-elected oligarchy. The haggling as to where the frontiers are to be drawn is still going on, and will continue for some years, and the third of the three super-states — East Asia, dominated by China — is still potential rather than actual. But the general drift is unmistakable, and every scientific discovery of recent years has accelerated it…

“For forty or fifty years past, Mr HG Wells and others have been warning us that man is in danger of destroying himself with his own weapons, leaving the ants or some other gregarious species to take over. Anyone who has seen the ruined cities of Germany will find this notion at least thinkable. Nevertheless, looking at the world as a whole, the drift for many decades has been not towards anarchy but towards the reimposition of slavery. We may be heading not for general breakdown but for an epoch as horribly stable as the slave empires of antiquity. James Burnham’s theory [regarding the political rise of a professional managerial class by another then-influential writer] has been much discussed, but few people have yet considered its ideological implications — that is, the kind of world view, the kind of beliefs, and the social structure that would probably prevail in a state which was at once unconquerable and in a permanent state of ‘cold war’ with its neighbours….” [Italics and boldface added]. 

Anyone who has read 1984 can recall the militarised world of Airstrip One (formerly Britain). In fact, the book’s shape was already in Orwell’s thinking by the time the war had ended. Prophetically, his depiction of the incoming international order foreshadowed the strategic balance between the Soviet Union and America right until the end of the Cold War. (Moreover, following the American-China rapprochement after 1973, a balance between three great states actually came true, similar to what Orwell had predicted in his 1945 article. 

Nevertheless, with the fall of the Soviet Union, many — even several US presidents — fell under the sway of Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History thesis, with its bold but reassuring prediction about the inexorable expansion of the liberal democratic order and a concomitant open global economic regime. The governmental and political leadership in the US and much of the West generally — effectively assumed that the new Russia was about to join the march. The Cold War’s containment was yesterday’s news.

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George Orwell, English novelist, essayist, journalist and critic. (Photo: / Wikipedia)

True, Orwell missed predicting one element of the post-war world. From his understanding of nuclear technology in 1945, he assumed nuclear weapons would be so expensive and difficult to create that only very large and very rich nations could afford them, rather than what has become one of the most important fears of today’s world. Instead of Orwell’s surmise, now some 10 nations have nuclear capabilities, and at least that many more could readily go nuclear. 

In our world, beyond the horrific possibilities of a nuclear war between major nuclear powers (on the minds of many after Putin’s public announcement his nuclear forces had been put on a heightened state of readiness), a great fear is such weapons — or the wherewithal to create them — could fall into the hands of a terrorist or an irredentist non-state actor. That could effectively destroy the nuclear balance of terror — MADD, mutually assured destruction deterrence — in force, so far, among nuclear nations.

Coincidentally, at the same time Orwell was offering his glimpse of “the shape of things to come” (with its deliberate nod to HG Wells and his novel by that title), another George, in this case, an American, George Kennan, was analysing the nature and origins of the Soviet Union’s conduct of its foreign policies. His task was to identify how much of that behaviour evolved out of traditional, historical Russian ideas and values, and how much derived from the Soviet Union’s official communist ideology. His answer to that question became the lodestar to determine what the US should do in response to the threats coming into clearer view.

Kennan was a distinguished career foreign service officer with decades of experience in, or in neighbouring countries to, the Soviet Union. He had studied the country, its history, language and literature for decades. Then, in the beginning of the Cold War, Kennan was chargé d’affaires of the US embassy in Moscow, effectively the acting ambassador. At the end of 1945, he was asked by the State Department for a comprehensive analysis of his views about the Soviet Union and its relationship with the US. In the late 1940s, given the technical limitations on classified telegraphic transmissions, State Department cables had to be terse, eschewing words like “the”, “a”, or “an”. 

In response, in February of 1946, he wrote the longest cable ever sent by an American diplomat, coming in at over 7,000 words. After it had been digested by senior officials in Washington, Kennan reshaped it slightly and it was published in Foreign Affairs magazine, America’s apex journal of international affairs. Retitled The Sources of Soviet Conduct, and while the author was identified as “X”, most figured out Kennan was the author. 

Kennan’s “Long Telegram” quickly became the ur-document for dealing with the country that was becoming the key antagonist of the US and as a roadmap for policymakers in addressing that Soviet challenge. Kennan had defined the core principle of how to deal with the Soviet Union through his defining use of the term “containment.”

In fact, Kennan wrote his telegram even as fear of domestic communist subversion (presumably directed by the Soviet Union) was seizing governmental and public attention. But Kennan was less than totally convinced the Soviet challenge was primarily derived from the ideology of communism and that, instead, it was rooted much more in Russia’s historical traditions, its historical experiences and the psychological makeup of leaders steeped in that mix. 

Kennan began by arguing, “At [the] bottom of Kremlin’s neurotic view of world affairs is [a] traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity. Originally, this was insecurity of a peaceful agricultural people trying to live on [a] vast exposed plain in [the] neighborhood of fierce nomadic peoples. To this was added, as Russia came into contact with [the] economically advanced West, fear of more competent, more powerful, more highly organized societies in that area. But this latter type of insecurity was one which afflicted rather Russian rulers than Russian people; for Russian rulers have invariably sensed that their rule was relatively archaic in form, fragile and artificial in its psychological foundation, unable to stand comparison or contact with political systems of Western countries. For this reason they have always feared foreign penetration, feared direct contact between [the] Western world and their own, [and] feared what would happen if Russians learned [the] truth about the world without or if foreigners learned [the] truth about [the] world within. And they have learned to seek security only in [a] patient but deadly struggle for total destruction of rival power, never in compacts and compromises with it…”

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A Territorial Defence fighter at a checkpoint in Kyiv, Ukraine, 27 February 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Mikhail Palinchak)

In offering his policy advice, Kennan concluded, “…We must formulate and put forward for other nations a much more positive and constructive picture of [the] sort of world we would like to see than we have put forward in [the] past. It is not enough to urge people to develop political processes similar to our own. Many foreign peoples, in Europe at least, are tired and frightened by [the] experiences of the past, and are less interested in abstract freedom than in security. They are seeking guidance rather than responsibilities. We should be better able than Russians to give them this. And unless we do, Russians certainly will. 

“Finally we must have courage and self-confidence to cling to our own methods and conceptions of human society. After all, the greatest danger that can befall us in coping with this problem of Soviet communism, is that we shall allow ourselves to become like those with whom we are coping.”

Nevertheless, despite Kennan’s advice about marshalling a wide range of strengths and influences, over the years, containment became an increasingly militarised policy, bound up largely with military pacts and alliances. Kennan increasingly became an opponent of that transformation, stressing he had always meant containment was a strategy drawing on a wide array of tools, including economics, culture and more traditional diplomatic means rather than simply military strength. 

The debate about containment became more about whether it should be based on traditional “realpolitik” concepts plus the marshalling of national ideals and the use of new tools, measures, and sustained pressures, or would it, instead, be imbued with the fervour of an increasingly militarised, anti-communist crusade. That crucial divide ultimately drove Kennan to oppose Nato expansion, seeing in that development a version of the triumphalism in Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and its view of an inevitable, irrevocable expansion of democratic ideals, following the Soviet Union’s collapse.

Given the still-ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine and the consequent rupture of the broader post-war European settlement, let alone the post-Cold War balance, virtually all American leaders (save for those inhabiting the wilder and nuttier fringes of the Republican Party) have now abandoned any illusions Russia can become — a “normal” democratic nation led by rational actors. Instead, American leadership is coming to the realisation that Vladimir Putin holds near-mystic aspirations of reconstructing the third Rome and the maximal Russian world under his leadership — including military invasions of neighbours, if necessary to make the dream come true. 

Given this realisation, the challenge now becomes: What kind of responses are appropriate and necessary for today’s circumstances? Moreover, how will the US — and the West more generally — shape a set of principles to replace the policies that had been shaped for the post-Cold War world, but without automatically falling back on the old policy of containment of the Cold War? Further, who will (or can) articulate that new approach, complete with the phrasing that makes convincing, coherent sense?

In the rapidly evolving crisis, so far, the Western response has largely been a series of ad hoc decisions, including ratcheting up economic and financial pressures, national and personal sanctions, and other restrictions — and shipping in defensive weaponry useful in halting the Russian advance. These measures are important and they carry real impact, but they likely will be insufficient to save Ukraine from conquest — even if the Russians may well find that beating the Ukrainian military is one thing, but holding on to the country and enforcing their will on that vast region is something entirely different. 

So far, the underlying principles from the West seem built on a refusal to accept border and territorial changes by virtue of military force in Europe; an insistence all nations have the right to elect their own leaders; that nations have the right to join multinational and international bodies of their choice; and that military actions by belligerents must take into full account the generally accepted laws of war, standing international agreements, and an avoidance of attacks on civilians, schools, hospitals and refugee columns. The Russians fail on all these counts, even while a broader, definitive statement of fundamental principles from the West remains less than fully clear. 

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Russian armoured vehicles at a railway station in the Rostov region, Russia, 23 February 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Stringer)

Needed now is a synthesis that acknowledges the requirement for a new form of containment to address a Cold War v.2.0, even as it prevents unravelling the strategic balance such that it opens the door to nuclear, chemical or biological warfare, or creates the unending tripartite balance of power and terror predicted by Orwell. Any new containment must also take into account the full panoply of economic measures that can be employed by governments, individual businesses and NGOs, as well as a vigorous enunciation of why such policies are necessary now.

Any such message (and the policies carrying it out) must be one that governments and citizens alike can embrace on the basis of the force of its logic, even as it is congruent with America’s national interest and its fundamental national principles and traditions. This new contest will not simply be one of weapons and military alliances, although they will obviously be important. This new confrontation will also be about ideas, just as Kennan had urged upon the government back in 1946. But achieving such a new synthesis will require the original insights of both Georges harnessed to new and creative thinking in order to deliver this new message clearly and convincingly, and for it to be one appropriate for the dangerous age we now find ourselves in the midst of exploring. DM


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