America’s internal argument about whether or not it still wants to be the global policeman is producing some curious side-effects. This apparently now includes liberal internationalist propaganda representing Ukraine’s volunteer defence force as a battalion of middle-aged women.
The video is produced in English and features an English-speaking heroine. Like the English-language placards that appear at (for example) pro-abortion rallies in Poland, its implied target is not a domestic audience but virality on the liberal Anglophone — thus, overwhelmingly, American — internet.
51-year-old Marta has volunteered to join Ukraine's military to send a message to Russia: Invasion would be costly. pic.twitter.com/VlGj9SHGmJ
— DW News (@dwnews) February 5, 2022
At stake in current tensions with Russia is Ukraine’s putative membership of NATO, a body principally funded and resourced by the US and founded to project American interests and values under the banner of ‘rules-based international order’. That international order, today, is an increasingly explicitly progressive one, which flies the rainbow flag and has an ‘Office of the Gender Advisor’ whose mission is to ‘integrate a gender perspective into all aspects of NATO operations’.
Not everyone is convinced by this turn, or indeed by the prospect of continued military adventures under the NATO banner full stop. One of the leaders of the newly muscular realist faction in US foreign policy, Senator Josh Hawley, recently called on the US to drop support for Ukrainian NATO membership, arguing that, from a pragmatic rather than an idealistic perspective, antagonising Russia is worse than foolish when the real US rival lies further east, in China.
Against this stands the still-powerful perspective that views US-led, military-backed global enforcement of democracy and gender rights as a moral obligation. If that’s you, then even if you’d find images of white men shouldering guns to protect their border bit ‘nationalist’ or even redolent of ‘toxic masculinity’, you might nonetheless be touched by the tale of a 51-year-old woman doing so to protect her way of life.
As a formula, it brings together both the 20th-century internationalist ideal — Woodrow Wilson style ‘national self-determination’ — and the 21st century one of individual self-determination under the banner of ‘gender’. Strikingly, though, this stirring message doesn’t come from within that American ecosystem at all. Its origin is Germany: a nation potentially more directly affected than the USA by Russian revanchism, both in terms of geography and also resources.
First among these German vulnerabilities is the decision to shut down the last three German nuclear plants, in the process leaving Germany acutely dependent on Russian gas to keep the lights on. Germany presumably felt able to embrace this risk thanks to the reliable presence of a US-backed international order, both able and willing to keep Putin in check. It’s thus unsurprising to find German media outlets contributing enthusiastically to an internal American debate about the ongoing wisdom of continuing to act as Europe’s policeman – and doing so in terms calculated to stir the souls of those Americans still committed to that worldview.
In other words: whether emotively oppressed under a burqa or pluckily wielding a gun, 21st century geopolitical propaganda enthusiastically centres women. But while the visuals may tilt at gender stereotypes, and the talk focus on international values, the real stakes are, as ever, national interests.