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Putin and the Ineffectual West

Putin and the Ineffectual West Jewel Samad

Jewel Samad/AFP

Adrian Reimers - published on 03/23/14 - updated on 06/08/17

Now that Putin has waltzed into Crimea, where should we be looking for guidance and inspiration?

Russia has annexed Crimea. Distorting the truth about conditions in Ukraine and relying on the power of his troops, Vladimir Putin has annexed part of another nation. His expansionist rhetoric and his meddling in Ukrainian politics in the past decade or so make it clear that Russia intends to make Ukraine part of his new empire, the successor empire to the Soviet Union. In response, the United States and its NATO allies have slapped meaningless sanctions on Vladimir Putin’s inner circle. More important, they have refused Ukraine’s urgent request for arms. The “arsenal of democracy” is out of business. In the meantime, the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, with their large ethnic Russian populations (put there by Stalin), as well as Poland, Slovakia, and the rest of central Europe look nervously across their eastern borders. They belong to NATO. Will NATO protect them from being reabsorbed into the Russian sphere?

Much has been made of President Obama’s ‘weakness’ and the fecklessness of our allies in the face of Putin’s manifest ambitions. Perhaps this is warranted. The forces of freedom, the defenders of democracy, appear not ready to risk serious economic dislocation or expenditure of substance to restrain Russia. But does the problem lie only with our leaders? Let us look at history.

Seventy-eight years ago a resentful and avowedly expansionist Germany moved its forces into the demilitarized Rhineland, and France did nothing. Two years later England and France acquiesced as the Third Reich swallowed part of Czechoslovakia and all of Austria. But Poland was safe. They enjoyed the protection of a defense treaty with England. On September 1, 1939, Hitler’s forces swarmed into Poland, and England declared war. She did not, however, deploy a single unit to come to Poland’s aid. Hitler gambled and was proved right. How could this happen? One may blame the leaders, but the French and English people had no stomach for war. And the Americans sat happily in splendid isolation. Their leaders were weak indeed, but so were the free peoples they governed.

Now Russia is threatening to expand, and our leaders reluctantly protest with ineffective sanctions against a few government officials. But what of the rest of us? We are free, prosperous, and at peace, and so we may remain for many years to come. But listen to W.H. Auden’s lines from “September 1, 1939”: “Faces along the bar/ cling to their average day: / The lights must never go out, / The music must always play/ …/ Lest we should see where we are, / Lost in a haunted wood,/ Children afraid of the night,/ Who have never been happy or good.” Will America come to the aid of Estonia? Don’t bet on it. More to the point, Vladimir Putin may well bet against it.

The West is not that strong. We are not that brave. When attacked, Americans can be ferocious, but we offer little that Tallinn, Vilnius, or even Warsaw can rely on. When we look at the US and its western European allies we see weakness of character. The democratic “free world” is not committed to the freedom of others. But perhaps we err by looking to Washington, London, Paris and Berlin. Let us look to Rome.

As we consider the line of popes since World War II, we find only two who have not yet been seriously considered for canonization. Pius XII and Paul VI are “Venerable,” John Paul I is “Servant of God,” and both John XXIII and John Paul II will soon be canonized. One might ask whether this counts as “wretched excess,” Catholics going overboard celebrating their own. Or we might better acknowledge that in this time when the world believes that all is well, Christ has blessed his Church with a remarkable string of holy leaders. If this is true, then we do well to pay close attention. Indeed—and this is my point—we may consider ourselves wise to despair of our secular leaders and the structures they lead and turn our full attention to the guidance we are receiving from the Successors of Peter.

I do not deny that we need to pay attention to civic affairs, even if they are focused more than ever on protecting wide varieties of sexual expression. The economy is of concern, but do we really need domed stadiums, enclosed shopping malls, and unlimited electronic gadgetry? My point is that we ordinary non-leaders find ourselves immersed in our consumerist lives, distracted from what is central: “lost in the haunted wood, children afraid of the night who have never been happy or good.” The Church can be courageous and wise. The Church (I mean you and me, by the way) can speak the truth.

What to do? For starters, let us read Evangelii Gaudium with an eye to taking seriously what it means for my life, for our life, and then take it from there.

Adrian Reimersteaches philosophy at the University of Notre Dame.

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