Reprinted from James Rowles, Trenchant Observations (Substack newsletter, December 4, 2022.
As in August 1914 and September 1939, the world has changed. The previous age has ended.
Our era has ended and another has begun, just as fraught with unknown terrors as the those in 1914 and 1939.
Perhaps that is what German Chancellor Olaf Scholz meant when he spoke of a Zaeitenwende or turning point in history.
The 19th century (1815-1914) was one of peace and progress. The latter half of the 20th century and the first part of the 21st century (1945-2022) was a 77-year period of peace and progress, broadly speaking, with cultural decay accelerating toward the end.
Then, Evil, pure unadulterated Evil, reappeared on the stage of human history. As it did in 1933.
Evil. The Devil. The Evil One.
How we had forgotten about Evil, with all of our scientific and technical advances, living we thought in a world of reason!
Yet Unreason was still alive, and lurking in the background to challenge our democracy, our life of reason, and indeed the proposition that Reason would—or could—prevail.
All of our law, our U.N. Charter and U.N. Charter-related institutions developed to govern a planet with eight billion people, were suddenly, violently, called into question.
Relatively few people understood what had happened.
Most did not.
And while extraordinary leadership did appear, while the miracle a Churchillian political leader did occur in Ukraine, the same cannot be said for the leaders of the West.
This is particularly true of President Joe Biden, who theoretically could have been a Churchillian type of leader of the Free World.
But alas Biden had more in common with Neville Chamberlain and his instinct for appeasement than he did with Winston Churchill, whose brilliant and principled leadership had a lot to do with the outcome of the Second World War.
In the West, with notable exceptions in Central and Eastern Europe, our leaders have preferred to ignore the nature of the new era we have entered, and have been far more disposed to follow the path of appeasement of Vladimir Putin than the path of heroic leadership in defense of our civilization.
Biden and the West under Biden’s leadership have pursued two potentially incompatible goals: 1) The defense of Ukraine against the war of aggression carried out by Russia; and 2) To do everything possible not to become engaged in a direct military conflict with Russia.
The second goal has clearly been the dominant goal. For a long time it seemed to many to be compatible with the first goal, though any careful analyst could and did see that the two goals would inevitably come into conflict sooner or later.
Now that that conflict has become acute and manifest, as Putin and Russia have been conducting an all-out attack by missiles and drones on cities and civilian infrastructure throughout Ukraine, the contradictions between these goals have become ever clearer.
NATO countries have done nothing to stop these attacks. Those on the electrical and water supply infrastructure have been devastating, as these are essential for heating and for surviving the harsh Ukrainian winter.
Putin and Russia are attempting, in effect, to impose a medieval siege on the entire nation of Ukraine, by cutting off the electricity and water supply as they did in Mariupol earlier this year.
The U.S. and NATO countries have done nothing, or next to nothing, to stop the attacks on civilians and the civilian infrastructure, to intercept or deflect Putin’s bullets as he is in effect shooting fish in a barrel.
To be sure, the West is beginning to promise and to provide more advanced air defense systems. However, these advanced systems will not become effective in a general way in time to protect the Ukrainian population this winter.
They might have taken steps to ensure these systems were deployed by now, but they didn’t. Instead, they dallied and were hung up on their own self-imposed restrictions on the weapons systems they would supply to Ukraine.
Because of Biden’s fear of Putin, and his giving way to Putin’ s nuclear threats, the second goal has remained the dominant one. Biden continues to refuse to give Ukraine the weapons and the authorizations to use them it needs in order to effectively defend itself, by attacking bases in Russia from which the Russian attacks on Ukraine are being launched, or the invading troops in Ukraine are being supplied.1
What this means is that the imperative of avoiding any measure that in Joe Biden’s imagination might provoke Putin to use nuclear weapons will always trump the goal of effectively defending Ukraine—by defeating the Russian army, and by using military force to expel the last Russian soldier from the last piece of territory within Ukraine’ s internationally recognized borders of 1991.
In short, because of the primacy of the second goal of not provoking Putin, the goal of defeating Putin and Russia will always take second place. While the result is a hybrid form of appeasement, it remains in the end appeasement nonetheless.
This appeasement reflects an adamant refusal to oppose Putin’s military aggression by using force, or even allowing Ukraine to use force against targets in Russia in exercise of its right of self-defense under international law.
President Joe Biden’s thinking is muddled, and as a result so is the thinking of NATO and EU countries, and other members of the coalition supporting Ukraine.
Muddled thinking can lead to a failure to establish and pursue clearly defined goals, mistaken policies, and ultimately the kind of inaction in the face of Putin’s nuclear threats that amounts to appeasement.
The conflict should be conceived of not as merely a conflict between Russia and Ukraine but rather, at a more basic level, as a conflict between Russia and the U.N. Charter, international law, and an our entire civilization based on reason and law, instead of barbarism and military conquest.
Biden and his foreign policy team give every indication of being clueless about the realities of international law and how they sharply limit the kinds of “ concessions” which can be made to Russia without undermining the U.N. Charter and international law.
They urge Ukraine to indicate a willingness to negotiate with Russia, when there are no possibilities of making “territorial concessions” to Russia without abandoning the entire structure of the U.N. Charter-based international legal order.
Vain leaders like French President Emmanuel Macron are allowed to freelance and to hold out to Putin the prospect of peace terms that amount to appeasement. Leaders like German Chancellor Olaf Scholz are allowed to freelance by calling up Putin and talking to him for an hour. U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan is allowed to conduct secret back-channel discussions with Putin’s aides, without providing any public readout of what was discussed. These actions do not seem to be coordinated.
We should not be fooled by the formulaic statements that accompany these freelance operations, such as: 1) “Only Ukraine will decide when negotiations are appropriate”; 2) “We will provide Ukraine with military support as long as it is needed”; 3) “There will be no negotiations without Ukraine at the table”; and 4) “We will not pressure Ukraine to accept any ceasefire or peace settlement provisions.”
Despite these protestations, we should be watching what leaders in the West are doing, and not what they are saying.
Meanwhile, the lack of secondary sanctions allows India to supply Russia with materials that are covered by the U.S. and EU sanctions.
The U.S. has not led a vigorous public effort to get the nations of the “Global South” to condemn Russian aggression and war crimes in Ukraine, and to join the international sanctions regime against Russia. For these nations, the option of sitting on the fence remains cost-free.
The ultimate problem is that neither Biden nor Sholz nor Macron has accepted the fact that the West is engaged in an existential struggle with Russia whose outcome will determine the nature of the world and the international society we live in.
They want to end the war. They can see no logical way it can be ended without standing up to Putin and incurring some risk of military engagement with Russia.
They have not thought the current conflict with Russia through to the end. All they can do is to throw out the illusion that a ceasefire or peace settlement can somehow be reached if the parties will only sit down and negotiate.
In short, they are in denial. They do not yet accept the fact that we have entered a new era.
It is a new era in which fateful decisions for the future of our civilization are being made, every day.
One final thought is extremely sobering The military and economic strategy to defend Ukraine against Russian aggression and barbarism is being led by the same president and the same foreign policy team that gave us the catastrophic Afghanistan withdrawal decision.
We need a new team, with a new Secretary of State and a new National Security Adviser.
1 See Michael R. Gordon and Gordon Lubold, “U.S. Altered Himars Rocket Launchers to Keep Ukraine From Firing Missiles Into Russia; Experts debate whether long-range missiles for Ukraine would deter Putin or widen war,” Wall Street Journal, December 5, 2022 (updated 2:25 p.m. ET).