Europe Looks for Its Soul in the Ukraine-Russia Conflict

German philosopher Jurgen Habermas sees the war as a moral crusade that can help the continent redeem itself; for America, it’s an opportunity to reclaim its power and deter China

Europe Looks for Its Soul in the Ukraine-Russia Conflict
Ukrainian first lady Olena Zelenska delivers remarks to members of Congress at the U.S. Capitol on Jul. 20, 2022 in Washington, DC / Photo by Jabin Botsford / Pool / Getty Images

In a public letter to the Süddeutsche Zeitung a few months after Vladimir Putin’s botched bid to sack Kyiv, noted German philosopher Jürgen Habermas declared that the goal of European policy was that “Ukraine ‘must not lose’ this war,” even as he defended German caution and suspicion of military power. In Habermas’ view, the crisis in Ukraine simply reinforced his belief that the EU needed its own independent militarily capabilities, separate and apart from the unreliable Americans. In a significant sign of Franco-German comity, the philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy had also rhapsodically declared Volodymyr Zelenskyy “a new, young and magnificent founding father” of a “Europe of principles” and that the “free world” itself was at stake in Ukraine.

Determined Ukrainian resistance and a shambolic Russian military effort might seem to vindicate the optimism of these continental “philosophes,” despite all the various catastrophes of the past decade, climaxing in the disastrous American exit from Kabul last year. Has nemesis finally come for Putin, who has played spoiler to the liberal international order for decades and wreaked havoc in diverse climes ranging from the Central African Republic to Syria to Ukraine? Will this be the historic “Zeitenwende” (turning point), to use German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s term, that finally vindicates Lévy’s and Habermas’ vision? Or will it reinforce how despite high-minded philosophical talk of new international order, the new post-liberal order’s foundations rest on American military dominance in Europe and a rising tide of nationalist rearmament in Europe, constrained only by the chronic indecisiveness created by the proliferation of inexpensive precision munitions?

We live in a “post-liberal” moment amid obvious imperial decline, punctuated most spectacularly by America’s botched retrograde in Kabul last summer. That disaster capped decades of systemic governance failures — ranging from 9/11 and its associated wars to the 2008 financial crisis and COVID policy — that all taint the entire American policy elite, be they Republican or Democrat, military or civilian. However, for the likes of Habermas, a successful Ukraine still holds out hope for a post-heroic Europe with just enough military capacity to fend off wicked external actors like Putin (or Trump) while avoiding the dread nationalism of the 19th- and 20th-century nation in arms. In contrast, for American foreign policy elites in both parties, the war in Ukraine is not so much an opportunity for European utopianism as a post-Kabul vindication of American power where at little cost to itself, the United States can savagely bleed the military power of a traditional rival, warn Beijing of the potential costs of an incursion against Taiwan, and support a telegenic and social-media-savvy statesman all at the same time.

Various parties continue to search for a decisive outcome to the recent conflagration in Ukraine. The Kremlin may not realize it, but Kyiv and Odesa are now secure, while Zelenskyy and some of his American allies in the foreign policy establishment talk in public about liberating Crimea from Russian rule. Nevertheless, the Ukrainians continue to struggle to mass the forces necessary for the combined arms operations necessary to liberate Kherson, much less expelling Russian forces from the Crimea. The continued provision of NATO heavy weapons and attrition of Russian forces may enable such operations in the near to medium term, but so far, the conflict has aspects of the chronic indecisiveness seen in other conflicts where both combatants can field serious conventional military forces — the Iran-Iraq War, the Israeli-Hezbollah standoff in Lebanon and the Tigray War in Ethiopia. Even a fairly ramshackle state can now obtain relatively low-cost weapons of such lethality (e.g. portable anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons) that offensive operations now require massive advantage in equipment, resources and accompanying organizational skill. In the past 40 or so years, only the United States has been able to shatter another conventional army in the field (in Iraq twice over), while irregulars and insurgents have given American troops endless fits.

Much to the chagrin of a figure like Habermas, if there is one obvious outcome of the current war in Ukraine, it is to impress upon the world the superiority of American conventional military power. When combined with the competence and fighting spirit of Ukrainian military forces, an influx of mostly American infantry-borne anti-tank weapons, tube artillery and rocket systems has forced the “near peer” Russian military into a grinding stalemate. The military side of the American effort to aid Ukraine has proved to be fearsomely effective while barely breaking a sweat, even as the sanction regime so laboriously built by the Biden Administration’s careful diplomacy may end up backfiring if it triggers an economic crisis in NATO countries (including the United States itself). Indeed, American policymakers may soon regret their unwillingness to accelerate deliveries of heavy weapons earlier this spring. Whatever the dividing line between East and West Ukraine ends up being, a Kyiv-controlled Ukraine as a viable state will survive with or without a formal NATO security guarantee, just as the Federal Republic of Germany and the Republic of Korea both prospered under an American-led security umbrella. The utter humiliation of the Russian military in Ukraine leaves only Chinese naval power as a potential rival to conventional American military might in what remains a hypothetical Taiwan Strait scenario. Ukraine thus looks to be a tactically successful example of the “by-with-through” approach used during the American war against ISIS where local partners led operations with U.S. forces providing support but avoiding direct combat.

“By-with-through,” in contrast, failed in a catastrophic manner last year. The juxtaposition between images of desperate Afghans falling to their deaths from the landing gear of a C-17 and the same types of aircraft delivering critical munitions to Ukraine with devastating effect highlights the paradoxical combination of American military might with political paralysis. American involvement in the Syrian civil war foreshadowed many of these issues — the reliance on by-with-through as an operating approach, the presence of Putin’s military forces as malignant actors and the juxtaposition of overwhelming American military might (e.g., the destruction of the Islamic State group and a battalion-sized Russian Wagner element at Khasham at little direct cost to the U.S.) with complete policy paralysis leading to victory for the Assad regime. With sometimes catastrophic consequences for civilians caught in conflict zones, the plebeians of the American Empire remain distracted by bread and circuses, but its legions still remember enough from its past glories to crush barbarian challengers without too much effort.

Faced with the crass realities of American military might, commanded by Trump only a few years ago, Habermas defended German caution while claiming to support the Ukrainian cause by distinguishing between the two nations’ stages of development — the former now in a post-heroic and post-national age, terrified of the historical shadows cast by its Nazi past and the Cold War, while the latter possessed the “perspective of a nation fighting for its freedom, liberty and life.” Habermas acknowledges that the “post-heroic mentality was able to develop in Western Europe . . . during the second half of the 20th century under the nuclear umbrella provided by the United States,” but for the most part he avoids the question of American influence outside a brief reference to “trans-Atlantic uncertainties” — a thinly veiled reference to the trauma of Trump’s election.

In both Habermas’ and the historian Adam Tooze’s view, the crisis in Ukraine and the ensuing end of the end of history remain a dangerous moment but one pregnant with possibilities for a European Union (EU) to present a progressive vision of global order separate and apart from the nationalists they loathe — whether in Washington or Moscow — or the despotic party-state in Beijing. Indeed, amid the circus surrounding Trump holding the imperial throne, the German philosopher signed an open letter in the fall of 2018 calling for “an army for Europe” that would help “overcome the small-scale defense policies of nation states. . . . And since Europe’s armed forces are not directed against anyone, the creation of a European military should be combined with arms control and disarmament initiatives.” In Habermas’ view, the crisis in Ukraine only further reinforces the notion that the EU project needs its own independent military capacity, because “a European Union unwilling to see its social and political way of life destabilized from the outside or undermined from within will only gain the necessary political agency if it can also stand on its own two feet militarily.” Nevertheless, the tortured German response to the crisis in Ukraine leaves little room for optimism regarding the fate of this project — at least in the short term.

Indeed, despite the conflict in Ukraine reinforcing American military dominance in many ways, it also highlights weaknesses in the American military-industrial complex, especially since it remains on a peacetime footing. It seems probable that one of the reasons for the slow-drip provision of systems such as rockets are concerns about expending limited American stocks of munitions. This echoes problems with shortages of precision guided munitions (PGMs) during the height of the anti-ISIS campaign in Iraq and Syria, and among NATO allies during the early state of the air campaign in Libya to overthrow Gaddafi. If the war in Ukraine has shown the American arsenal for democracy to be stretched, it has also shown its NATO partners to be virtually broken. Yet, where the Russian Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov’s recent and previously hailed reforms have proven only to produce a Potemkin army, for all its flaws, the American colossus remains unmatched in Europe.

Narratives of American imperial decline for the past 20 years have usually not focused on Europe, of course, but center on the rise of China. On occasion the narrative streams merge—for example, in growing Taiwanese interest in civil defense issues after Putin’s invasion. And as with Ukraine, Taiwan’s status as a flashpoint stems in part from past leaders’ decisions to forgo nuclear weapons in exchange for ambiguous assurances from the United States. Indeed, the Doha peace agreement between the United States and the Taliban represented in some sense the logical conclusion of this trend or at least a strategic rationalization for the American disaster in Kabul last summer. But the current crisis in Ukraine reinforces the enduring importance of Europe to the American imperium and the residual congruence between some of the ends of Habermas and his ilk with a broad bipartisan swathe of the American foreign policy establishment. Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas may consider dreams of an EU Army fighting for disarmament as plausible as police abolition, but he fundamentally supports Habermas’ bedrock assertion that “Ukraine ‘must not lose’ this war.”

The recent assassination of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, however, highlights what is in some ways a deeper challenge to the sort of liberal order envisioned by European theorists such as Habermas and their American pupils. Abe’s rise and significance revealed in many ways the weakness of the liberal vision of Habermas et al as the former sought successfully to move Japan away from foreign policy premises grounded in post-World War II pacifism. His assassin appears to have resented Abe’s links to the controversial Unification Church of Korea, with its deep anti-communist roots, while Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s notable eulogy for Abe as a founder of “The Quad” — a strategic alliance including Australia, India, Japan and the United States — reveals the alignment of nationalist political forces with democratic defiance of the Chinese communist power. One sees this especially in Taiwan, where Tsai Ing-wen — who in theory should be a larger feminist icon than Ruth Bader Ginsburg — cultivated close links to the rightist Abe due to complex historical connections to Imperial Japan and hard-headed geopolitical calculation. Furthermore, whether its resourcing and prioritization will prove sufficient, Taiwan’s current government has also shown increasing interest in the sort of rearmament that Abe pioneered in Japan, which was exemplified by the return of fixed-wing Japanese carrier aviation to the Pacific in the form of F-35Bs embarked on Izumo-class light carriers.

Pacific rearmament will not necessarily lead to the “end of the end of military history,” to use Tooze’s formulation. U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s recent visit to Taiwan might have created countless memes, but war has yet to materialize. Even a Chinese naval blockade of Taiwan, much less a full-blown invasion, would have to surmount the increasing vulnerability of expensive platforms such as surface combatants to a plethora of cheap and deadly anti-ship missiles, and in the event of American and/or Japanese intervention, submarines. During the last major near peer naval conflict at sea — the Falklands War — one Royal Navy submarine inflicted grievous losses on the Argentinian Navy, while an Argentinian air force equipped with five Exocet missiles and defective bombs came close to defeating the Royal Navy’s expeditionary force. Overwhelming American naval supremacy in the Pacific is a thing of the past, but the notion that that translates into Chinese hegemony over the so-called “first island chain” assumes the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) can overcome decades of technomilitary trends that favor the defender, amplified in the case of Taiwan by the geographic barrier of the Taiwan Strait. Indeed, the CCP’s inability to escape from its self-inflicted swamp of increasingly irrational COVID policies shows that it is hardly immune to the larger end-of-history malaise of declining state capacity in the face of complex and globalized challenges.

For Americans a chronic — even desperate — search of meaning has accompanied the end of history. Habermas and his ilk might fantasize about his EU-topia, but what overarching narrative could unify the American polity? Not 9/11 and its aftermath or the coming of Obama or Trump’s “Make America Great Again” movement or battling fascist misinformation or fighting off the pandemic or, for that matter, aiding the Ukrainians in their war of nationalist survival. Liberals declare their support for Ukraine, the post-liberal right grumbles about wokeness, realists lecture about nuclear weapons and geopolitics — all while sharing different memes and videos and social media products, some even providing firsthand evidence of this or that narrative of the war. With Americans physically secure in their borders, guarded by oceans and the world’s most lethal kill chain, it is hardly surprising that confusion reigns in the mediatized realm of U.S. culture. But the harsh realities of anti-tank weapons, howitzers and rocket systems remain, to be used for good or ill, channeled into the fight with more or less wisdom by American centurions in the empire’s far-flung marches.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author in his private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of the U.S. Naval Academy, U.S. Navy or the Department of Defense.

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