Anglo-American diplomacy in Ukraine continued its path toward full-blown surrealism with a contribution from one of America’s most long-standing apostles of providential liberalism, Anne Applebaum. Responding to the recent press conference conducted by UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, Applebaum penned an impassioned diatribe in The Atlantic condemning Truss’ ‘utter failure to make use’ of that press conference.
Applebaum’s concern wasn’t even with Truss’ embarrassing inability to distinguish Russian from Ukrainian territories. It was with her failure to recognise what an irredeemable baddie Russia is, and to wave a big enough stick to get the baddie back into his box.
The Atlantic columnist has long been critical of Russia’s self-dealing oligarchies and authoritarianism. This malign cartoon villain, Applebaum now suggests, has been allowed to rampage long enough. In a remarkable passage, she wrote what reads like (as the Atlantic Council’s Emma Ashford points out) a Liz Truss fan fiction on how British diplomacy should really go.
In Applebaum’s fanfic, Truss announces that Britain has had enough of Russia ignoring international rules and values. So along with taking punitive action by cutting off Russian gas supplies, they’ll be sending troops to defend Ukraine ‘for a decade if need be’. And, should that not make the Putin of Applebaum’s imagination sit up, a threat to bring about regime change in Russia will see Britain ‘get to work on regime change in Russia’.
Really? Few would dispute Putin’s strongman style of leadership. And there’s no shortage of detailed investigative writing on the Russian revolving door between business, politics and violence. But, one might ask, what of it?
Perhaps Applebaum is just (in a narrow sense) very conservative. After all, it’s not so long since everyone was forecasting a world of international interdependence, where global trade would eliminate all international conflict and somehow bring about a single global happy family of democratic consumer capitalists. No wonder those who revelled in that vision are acutely offended by states who stubbornly refuse to comply with divinely ordained progress
As it turned out we didn’t get the happy universal democracy. But we did we get the consumer capitalism, and we now have interconnectedness in spades: a world built on flows of information, money and resources across borders.
And that can be a vulnerability, too. As Edward Luttwak has pointed out, even withdrawing ambassadors and warning of imminent invasion has hit the Ukrainian economy, while no offsetting aid has hitherto been forthcoming from the West. Leaving aside the militiawomen of German media propaganda, who can say how that will be received among ordinary Ukrainians?
Meanwhile, as Yale energy expert Gregory Brew points out, Putin timed his military build-up on the Ukraine border with an already tight international energy market. Russia is the world’s leading gas exporter, and with supplies already scarce Putin holds a strong hand in any serious international face-off; given existing unrest at a projected doubling of UK domestic energy bills, imagine the political fallout of those bills quadrupling, then quadrupling again.
Applebaum appears to live in a world in which ordinary European households are happy to see their already shrinking disposable income wiped out by rocketing energy bills, in the name of high international ideals. I’m not convinced that this is a majority view.
Global trade was meant to be a vector for spreading Western values; it turns out it can also be wielded by others, to curb their reach. And there are two possible responses to that discovery. The first is to adjust one’s high ideals to the actual balance of power — which is what Western diplomats are, in practice, mostly doing. The second is to write fanfic casting (of all people!) Liz Truss as an Aragorn-like saviour of Western democratic idealism no matter what the price.
Fortunately for all of us, such heroic flights of fancy are (at least for now) a luxury mostly indulged by those commentators who still haven’t yet noticed that the End of History is over.