Sean Speer: Will Putin’s invasion of Ukraine finally wake the decadent West?

We must start by seeing these recent developments with a clear eye
FILE - President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin, arrive to meet at the 'Villa la Grange', June 16, 2021, in Geneva, Switzerland. Patrick Semansky/AP Photo.

I wrote a column late last year for the National Post marking the thirtieth anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union. My main point was that the West’s combination of liberal democracy and market capitalism had been too powerful for the soullessness and inefficiencies of the Soviet system to ultimately keep up. 

But I also warned that it wasn’t self-evident that we still have the collective energy, resolve, and sense of purpose to respond to new and emerging threats. Western decadence may be materially plentiful, but it also makes us increasingly vulnerable to confident, focused, and strong-willed foes.  

I was writing mainly with China in mind. I didn’t anticipate that the foe would be our old Cold War rival, Russia, which as Boris Rassin recently outlined at The Hub, dominated Eastern Europe for several decades through its combination of authoritarian tactics, mechanistic collectivism, and totalizing ideology. 

There’s something striking that Russia’s invasion of neighbouring Ukraine was launched so soon after the major anniversary of the Soviet Union’s demise. It’s as if while we were writing columns commemorating the end of the Cold War, Russian President Vladimir Putin was systematically planning to relitigate its outcomes. 

A revanchist Russia will be alien to those for whom the Cold War is mostly an abstraction. As the passing of time creates growing distance from that tense era, younger generations in Canada and other Western countries have come to lose a sense of both the inherent tyranny of communism and a world marked by conflict and struggle.

Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper warned about this historical innocence in a 2014 speech to a Tribute to Liberty fundraiser. As he put it: “My fear is, as we move further into the 21st century, Canadians, especially new generations, will forget or will not be taught the lessons hard-learned and the victories hard-earned over the last 100 years.”

Harper’s concern is well-founded. After all, more than 40 percent of Canadians were barely born before the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989. Our collective memory and understanding of what he described as a “poisonous ideology” will fade away as older generations pass on. There’s no reason to think that provincial education curricula, which these days seem more focused on faddish ideas than foundational facts, or the broader culture, which has succumbed so much to frivolousness, will reverse these worrying cultural and intellectual trends. 

But the problem isn’t merely about our lack of historical awareness. It’s the deeper drift into decadence that undermines our capacity to withstand major challenges and defend our ideas, interests, and values. The COVID-19 pandemic is a good (or bad) example. 

There was a time early in the pandemic when it seemed like our collective survival instinct would kick in. There was a fleeting moment of national unity, political solemnity, and innovation and dynamism. Early polling in Canada and elsewhere showed that people were prepared to set aside differences, make sacrifices, and do big things. 

Although the extraordinary progress on the vaccines is the most obvious expression of this momentary burst of anti-decadence, it also manifested itself in simple acts like the clanging of pots and pans for health-care workers, a global surge in volunteerism, and a renewed appreciation of the contributions of so-called “essential workers” like grocery clerks, delivery drivers, and long-term care staff. 

The departure from decadence however wasn’t lasting. We soon fell back into the destructive habits of identity politics, sclerotic state action, and cultural shallowness. The persistent yet highly-debatable public health restrictions in Canada and poor vaccination numbers in the United States were a case of our societies snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. 

It now seems clear that the outcome of the pandemic experience won’t be to galvanize our societies out of our collective stupor, but instead to exacerbate the socio-political pathologies that have wrought it. We are bound to emerge from the pandemic more attenuated, more divided, and in turn less capable of confronting future challenges like the next pandemic or responding to geopolitical threats including Russia and China. 

Where do we go from here? We must start by seeing these recent developments with a clear eye. Putin’s excursion into Ukraine is a bet that the West no longer has the wherewithal to stand up to his provocation. There’s no doubt that China is watching closely to see if his bet is right.

If there was ever an action-inducing event, one would think that the first instance of a major power trying to conquer a sovereign nation in 80 years ought to be it. Yet early pronouncements from Western leaders aren’t promising. That the Italians reportedly sought the exclusion of luxury goods from European sanctions is symptomatic of the West’s cultural malaise. 

Let me end with another anniversary of sorts. Late last month, neoconservative thinker Irving Kristol, who passed away in 2009, would have celebrated his 102nd birthday. Kristol used to define the intellectual movement which he helped to found as a group of idealists “who had been mugged by reality.” Western societies must similarly face reality sooner rather than later or risk sliding irreversibly into decline. 

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I take issue with using decadence (loss of moral strength), where mere complacency (false confidence that a historic problem will not recur) is accurate enough. There is also a danger of living as if it’s 1980 vs. living in the present and continually reassessing historical lessons and renewing preparation and resources based on living in 2022+.

I would also suggest “persistent yet highly-debatable public health restrictions in Canada” is neither a sign of decadence or complacency, but current public health best practice. One that has been effective for Canadians. By contrast, the US practice of far fewer restrictions, while it debatably may have resulted in less economic impact, has persistently had as high as 2.5 higher per capita death rates than Canada and shows every sign of continuing.

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