The war in Ukraine poses a palpable threat to Western democracies, but this has little to do with Russia posing an inherent strategic threat to the United States or its European allies. No — more so than the Russian state, the threat to the West comes from within, a consequence of our congealing perceptions towards the conflict.
Bombs are not raining down on our cities; instead, what we are experiencing is the psychological weaponisation of war — and its exploitation as a tool of indoctrination and statecraft in the hands of the establishment.
The Ukraine crisis is undoubtedly a tragedy, but it is merely the latest in a series of geopolitical events stretching back at least 20 years in which the media coverage has been biased, one-sided, and ideological. All of these instances — Iraq, Libya, Syria, and the Afghanistan Withdrawal — were riddled with “structural information traps” that we ignored at our peril.
With each of these conflicts, the coverage gets worse, and the traps become ever more luring and incendiary. In each case, a narrative is constructed and transposed over the reporting, reinforced by sensationalist imagery that could rationalise an intervention and perhaps military action. But none compares to Ukraine. Here, we have witnessed the media of the Free World disseminating dishonest or otherwise uncritical coverage, fake news, Ukrainian disinformation, and propaganda aimed at conditioning the public to internalise the establishment’s Manichean narrative of a deranged madman’s random war of aggression.
Not only has the Ukraine coverage been highly charged, morally self-righteous, and plainly political, it actively demands a collective suspension of disbelief as it cultivates and redirects a natural reaction of sympathy felt by all into a moral outrage that insists on certain retaliation. Some, such as the former US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, have irresponsibly vilified the entire Russian population. Others, such as The Atlantic’s Anne Applebaum, have begun to senselessly demonise prescient realist American academics for daring to shed light on Russia’s basic national security interests and the possibility of a confrontation if they go unrecognised.
So far as the Western legacy media is concerned, we really do live in the post-historical age Francis Fukuyama triumphantly proclaimed in 1989, with liberal internationalism the only acceptable paradigm through which to understand the world. Alternative views are now tantamount to championing tyranny. In each instance, the dictator comes to personify internationally Hegel’s thymotic, if savage, primitive man — the inhumane antithesis of the “last man” — fighting maniacally against liberal democracy, the march of modernity, and progress itself. Assad, Ghaddafi, the Taliban, and Vladimir Putin all fit this archetype as reactionary actors par excellence necessitating a holy alliance to confront and civilise.
Such a melioristic framing of international politics justifies and indeed privileges a Manichean narrative of good and evil. In this context, rationality itself is bound to the good, defined as effective conformity with liberal hegemony.
This is how the permanent members of the ruling class view the world. The former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, for instance, has made the enlightening observation that the years-brewing war in Ukraine was a result of Putin simply becoming “unhinged”, suggesting he might be suffering from neurological problems. Not to be outdone, Condoleezza Rice, one of the architects of the Iraq War and the ill-advised 2008 Bucharest declaration (which affirmed Nato’s “open door” towards Ukraine and therefore helped to spark this most recent conflict), bemoaned Putin’s “delusional rendering of history” and “erratic” behaviour.
Perhaps, given the profound crisis of meaning in the West and the gap in solidarity and social cohesion, we should not be surprised. Living under the conditions of rootlessness, spiritual emptiness, and angst, every crisis is an opportunity for mythopoesis. Tragedy is reborn, and we are easily enthralled by the periodic cycles of worship and hero-making. Our faith in the cult of expertise, meanwhile, blinds and lulls us to the potential dangers of such black and white thinking.
As good Straussians, American neoconservatives were among the first to intuit this fact: that owing to disenchantment and the dissolution of our “sacred canopy”, the myth — or the Platonic “noble lie” — can be used to strengthen the Regime. Through their co-option, they would ensure the inherent power of the “noble lie” would be harnessed to regularly generate casus belli for global liberal imperialism. After all, what better unifying force than the “grand American project” of war to energise one’s desire for national greatness and the need for the regimentation of life in a disordered, chaotic Zeitgeist. Led by America, the grand mission of the Anglosphere would therefore have to be “to advance civilisation itself”. Not to mention, heroes also need villains, and it does help that in the Ukrainian archetype, ‘evil’ is not an intangible virus but can be personified onto an ‘other’ — in this case, Vladimir Putin.
This is the fake, performative, and internationalist nationalism of the American elite class: they use emotional triggers to rally the people behind the flag of the state in the name of lofty humanitarian causes which mask their own self-importance and narcissistic greatness. In fact, the systematic and periodic milking of tragedy to sow mass hysteria and manufacture support for the liberal imperium and its rulers has become the modus operandi in Washington. The consequence is not only further empowerment of the martial state, but also the enabling and even the ennobling of America’s war machine.
But so what? So what if our information ecosystem in the West is substantively flawed and prejudiced? Is this kind of systemic information bias, unbalanced coverage, and outright favouritism not endemic to all culture-complexes, prevalent also across state-run media in China, Iran, and Russia? The answer is certainly yes, but with an important qualification: the latter are not liberal democracies.
Some might say the foreign policy hawks have not learned from their catastrophic regime-change wars in the Middle East. But they have. They learned the importance of narrative control and information warfare targeting domestic audiences: consolidating the media, tightening their hold on information, marginalising the few investigative journalists that remain, and nullifying scepticism as examples of appeasement or Putinism. Undoubtedly, the situation seriously endangers civil liberties and freedom of thought in the Anglosphere, undermining the very foundation of Western democracy.
But wedded to a disturbing, yet ascendant, neo-McCarthyism, the homogenisation of the Western media environment could ultimately prove more ominous than simple government censorship à la North Korea or Iran. At its core, the phenomenon aims to condition public opinion into “correct” acceptable speech patterns in the service of the “noble lie” — using the good heart of most ordinary citizens and their repulsion at human suffering as bait.
This noxious development, unless fully defanged and neutralised, could yet tear the very fabric of Western society, unleashing the dystopia of internalised totalitarianism, wherein the public-private boundaries disappear and citizens — even informed ones — can hardly distinguish between planted or socially-reinforced information and their own views. In such a world, the only choice is to virtue signal and self-censor.
Gone unchecked, it could amount to mass indoctrination around key national security questions and spell the end of democracy — in spirit if not procedurally. This is the ultimate fog of war.
Despite their litany of failures, the lesson drawn by the foreign policy establishment from their calamitous interventionism under the banner of democracy and freedom (“democratism“) was not to abandon their evangelical crusades for empire and to affirm restraint, moderation, and prudence. It was, instead, a desire not to be caught in the lie, as they were with their patently false claim about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD). To achieve this, the military-industrial-congressional complex and the professional-managerial class that runs it had to dominate a new battlespace: information. Not for foreign audiences, in which Western intelligence has had a long track record, but to domesticate, intellectually sterilise, and effectively neutralise their own citizens.
To guarantee the continuation of its globalist misadventurism, the establishment had to control and limit the political discourse at home. It has done so largely in two ways. The first was to claim monopoly over ‘truth’, and to discredit anyone who might not go along with the endorsed narrative by doubting their patriotism and brandishing them as appeasers, apologists, and/or outright traitors. The second was to ensure a total consolidation of national security narratives — so that even when instances of falsehood and misinformation are discovered, this would not receive much exposure but be shunned to the darkest corners of the internet.
Any war is a tragedy. We should work to de-escalate and see it end in Ukraine. But there are always at least two sides to a conflict: two agendas, not counting the designs of external actors. War does not occur in a vacuum. It often betrays (and is the culmination of) a long history of grievances and distrust.
Having claimed over 14,000 lives since 2014, the conflict in Ukraine is not about Vladimir Putin and his character but realpolitik, national interest, and great power rivalry. Countries have genuine security interests, some of them existential. They have real red lines.
“No Russian leader could stand idly by,” Putin told William Burns, now the director of the CIA, and accept Nato membership for Ukraine, Georgia, or Belarus, or allow Western weapons systems into these countries. As one of American greatest strategists and the architect of “containment” against the Soviet Union, George Kennan’s reaction to the Clinton administration’s insistence on Nato’s enlargement is particularly telling: “I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anybody else. This expansion would make the founding fathers of this country turn over in their graves.”
Almost 25 years on, such sober-minded analysis is increasingly rare. And this sidelining of neutral, dispassionate scrutiny in the Russo-Ukrainian War is particularly alarming because this is not America’s war. The North Atlantic has little vital geostrategic interest in Ukraine other than in trying to avoid a refugee or energy crisis. Yet many in Washington, London, or Brussels have goaded and encouraged, and are now revelling in, the conflict — convinced as they are that an extended quagmire there could become the kind of vulnerability for Russia that Afghanistan was for the Soviet Union, a malignant tumour metastasising to the whole of the Russian body politic and instigating regime change.
While diehards may desire a West-East clash packaged under the tired rubric of Democracy versus Autocracy to prove their machismo, the situation in Ukraine is boiling over — and it is still early days. Things are about to get far more dreadful. Ukraine is a small state neighbouring a great power, a historical buffer and bridge between Russia and the West. “To Russia, Ukraine can never be just a foreign country,” wrote Henry Kissinger in 2014. “Russian history began in what was called Kievan-Rus,”. The sooner we heed and accept this fact, the sooner we can sensibly gauge the situation as is and review our commitment critically.
Statesmanship is the art of not letting emotions drive policy. Sentimentality is the enemy of reason, all sense of proportion, and limits: in short, it kills realism and breeds wishful thinking. Such utopianism is senseless and dangerous: it will prolong the conflict and get lots of innocent civilians needlessly killed. Meanwhile, fomenting false hope in the public domain could further fan the flames of war, entangling Europe and the US in a confrontation with nuclear Russia — an Armageddon the tale of which we will likely not live to tell.
War is not sports-betting, where one can feel good about siding with the underdog from the comfort of a couch or a bar. It is geopolitics in its most visceral, existential form: wagers have real costs involving human lives, and they are settled only with power and political will.
The point is that this tragedy was entirely predictable and avoidable. We invited (if not compelled) conflict with our politics of intrigue and meddling in Eastern Europe, our disregard for Moscow’s security interests, and our moral grandstanding over items like Nato’s eastward expansion, Ukrainian neutrality, and demilitarisation. Any seasoned diplomat of the Cold War would be left utterly mystified. This was and remains political and strategic malpractice.
The question now is whether we want to put millions of Ukrainian lives in jeopardy simply to keep it as a Western Bulwark on Russia’s frontier and a dagger at Moscow’s throat. The Russo-Ukrainian War must be condemned and brought to an end using diplomacy, but the West must accept a degree of culpability for leading the Ukrainians “down the primrose path” and egging on their showdown with their giant neighbour to the east. Any attempt to escalate and prolong this conflict by giving false hope to the Ukrainian people with tough rhetoric, moralistic bluster, lethal arms, and economic sanctions, the brunt of which will be felt by civilians on both sides, is irresponsible and callous. It would only ensure more death and suffering.
As former US Army Colonel Douglas Macgregor contended in a recent television interview: “I see no reason why we should fight with the Russians over something that they have been talking about for years, [and] we simply chose to ignore… We will not send our forces to fight, but we are urging Ukrainians to die pointlessly in a fight they can’t win. We’re going to create a far greater humanitarian crisis than anything you’ve ever seen if it doesn’t stop.” Only this time, our liberal conceit and messianic delusion could potentially spiral a regional conflict into a global maelstrom that would exterminate humanity in a nuclear apocalypse.
The road to hell, as the wise aphorism has it, is paved with good intentions. Unless we course-correct now, we could soon find ourselves in a Huxleyan Brave New World that exploits the illusion of freedom while normalising the sophistic manipulation of public discourse to manufacture consent around the establishment’s liberal internationalist foreign policy.
When all roads lead to interventionism and war, pause, think, and consider how we got to where we are. Ask yourself who designed this dystopian city of lies and to what purpose — before it is too late.