Our generation’s historic challenge

Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 25 February 2022

‘Historic’ is a word we tend to use too much, but there is no doubt the 24th of February 2022 is a turning point in European and world history. With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the post-1989 era has come to an end.

Up until yesterday, I had thought a full Russian invasion was unlikely. This was not because I had any sympathies for Vladimir Putin – I do not. But because we had seen so far a Russian President equally ruthless and calculating. The price of making Russia a pariah and crippling its economy under sanctions seemed deterrent enough.

But Putin has left any such rationality behind – as indeed he has left any semblance of legality, integrity or humanity.

An unprovoked attack on a peaceful, democratic neighbour has not happened in Europe since World War II. It is a barbaric act that could take us into a dark age. It shakes the foundations of the international order and the world economy.

With the fall of Communism, there was hope for a new, liberal world order. Globalisation was spreading, as was democracy. There was a peace dividend in the form of reduced military spending and less need for autarky, especially in energy. It was the supposed ‘end of history’.

But history restarted with 9/11, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Global Financial Crisis, the annexation of Crimea, and China’s new authoritarian posturing. Putin’s war on Ukraine is the awful culmination of this development.

If the West needed a final wake-up call, this is it. If those who believe in liberal democracy, civil liberties, free markets and the rule of law still care about their values, this is the time to defend them.

Talk of solidarity with Ukraine is good, but it can only be hollow. There is no way to come to Ukraine’s military defence without provoking an even bigger war.

What the free and democratic world must do urgently is to reconnect with its own fundamental values. That requires a reality check.

As Ukrainians seek refuge in underground stations, it makes the concept of ‘safe spaces’ appear decadent. Similarly, with Ukrainians under artillery fire concerns about ‘microaggressions’ are dwarfed by the spectre of battlefield aggressions. More important matters need our attention.

We must rediscover the cultural and political foundations of our civilisation. It is the Enlightenment values of freedom and peace that we must defend against illiberalism, both at home and abroad.

It is a historic moment. But it is our choice how to respond to it.

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