13 March 2022
It has all happened very, very quickly. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a little over two weeks ago, it has suddenly become painfully clear that the end of the Cold War did not mark the beginning of an era of permanent peace after all.
For too long we have deceived ourselves that this was a new era. That the past could be left behind. But no more. The tragic events in Ukraine remind us that history cannot be unmade and that sooner or later we have to come to terms with its inescapable truth. Back in 2014, when I published First World War: Still No End In Sight, many commentators sniggered at the suggestion that this bloody conflict still exercised any influence over our lives. They pointed to the end of the Cold War and presented it as the end of history. Up to now, this has been a widespread sentiment. As the historian Mark Mazower once put it, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 brought an end to ‘the whole era of ideological rivalries which began in 1917′ (1).
This sense that history, replete with national conflict and political struggle, has ended is reflected in the proliferation of the prefix ‘post-’. Alongside terms like post-industrial and postmodern, we now have post-historical, post-national and post-border. This prefix serves a profound purpose – it separates the present from history itself. As literature professor Brook Thomas put it, ‘post-’ denotes ‘an age in which everything has always already occurred’ (2). Since the Covid pandemic this ‘post-‘ sensibility has been most systematically expressed through the idea of the New Normal. For advocates of the New Normal, Covid marked the beginning of a fundamentally different era. As Jennifer Ashton, author of The New Normal (2021), says, ‘We will never be the same again’. She assumes that life as we have known it in the past has come to an end. Such a view projects a sense of historical closure and terminus. The old ways have become redundant in the new world of the New Normal.
Yet, as is now clear, the old normal has not gone away. The present is not free of the past. And history has not ended. The kind of war that many Europeans believed would no longer blight their continent has suddenly erupted with a vengeance.
Some have interpreted Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as the end of the ‘old world order’. But this view reflects an illusion about the stability of the globalist post-Cold War era. The war in Ukraine shows that we are never done with the past. The very difficult questions raised and re-raised during a succession of violent conflicts are still in search of satisfactory answers. As the war is now demonstrating, history has the capacity to remind us that, unless we take it seriously, humanity will be in big trouble.
No end in sight
The war in Ukraine and the confusions about geopolitical matters sweeping the Western world today have not come out of nowhere. They are connected to the forces of history unleashed during the early decades of the 20th century. They show that the chain of events that followed in the wake of the First World War continues to disrupt life in the 21st century. It is important to remember that the great wars of the 20th century were not simply motivated by geopolitical concerns; they were also informed by issues and ideological commitments internal to nations (3). Many of those who fought in the wars were motivated by values and idealism. And it was precisely the failure to realise these ideals that intensified the kind of moral, intellectual and political disorientation that pervades society today.
The moral and political outlook of the Western world has been thoroughly shaped by the geopolitical conflicts of the 20th century in three key ways. First, the outcome of the Second World War eroded the moral authority of the right. The horrors of fascism forced the right on to the defensive, and seriously undermined its intellectual and political credibility. Secondly, the ideals and practices of the left were discredited during the Cold War, largely through their proximity to Stalinism. As a result, since the 1980s, those who perceive themselves as right or left have often struggled to give meaning to their political outlook. Neither side has succeeded in recovering the idealism and intellectual conviction that motivated their political ancestors.
This erosion of the ideologies of left and right has been widely discussed by proponents of the ‘end of ideology’ thesis. But these commentaries ignore the third way in which the great conflicts of the 20th century impact on today – namely, through the culture war, which has been raging for more than a century.
This culture war, at root, is about society’s relationship to its past. Indeed, it has been waged principally against the legacy of the past. Over time, this war has severely diminished the capacity of Western culture to think historically, as if history can be bypassed or suppressed. And it was this that led many experts and commentators to draw the conclusion that the Western world had become more or less a war-free zone. Bloody conflicts continued, of course, but in places like Syria or Afghanistan. The West, it seemed, had left all that behind.
But not anymore. This fantasy of a post-historical world has been cruelly exposed by events in Ukraine.
The loss of historical memory
This culture war – this turn against the legacy of the past – originated in the climate of moral disorientation that prevailed at the end of the First World War. The subsequent interwar era was full of doom-laden accounts of European decline. As sociologist Louis Wirth noted in 1936, there was an ‘extensive literature’ which spoke of the ‘end’, the ‘crisis’, the ‘decay’ or the ‘death’ of Western civilisation. European elites were so afflicted by this sense of decline that many abandoned the values into which they had been socialised.
Take the example of Britain. Its ruling elite effectively abandoned its commitment to what had hitherto been its imperial mission. Henceforth Britain’s authority as the head of a benevolent Empire stood discredited. It became increasingly fashionable for members of this elite, and particularly the intelligentsia, to boast about the irrelevance of Britain’s past and values. This was strikingly expressed by Lord Eustace Perry, when he observed in 1934 that there was ‘no natural idea in which we any longer believe’. He added that ‘we have lost the easy self-confidence which distinguished our Victorian grandfathers, and still distinguishes our American contemporaries’.
In 1930, Winston Churchill also reflected on a present that he struggled to recognise. ‘I wonder often whether any other generation has seen such astounding revolutions of data and values as those through which we have lived’, he wrote. ‘Scarcely anything, material or established, which I was brought up to believe was permanent and vital, has lasted. Everything I was sure, or was taught to be sure, was impossible, has happened.’
To his credit, Churchill recognised the importance of not giving up on the values that underpinned European civilisation without a fight. Other members of Europe’s ruling classes did not. They sought instead to self-consciously distance themselves from these values and to attempt to detach the present from the past.
As the German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies pointed out in the 1920s, the modern technocratic state tended to regard the customs and traditions of community life with ‘veiled hatred and contempt’. Since the Second World War, and especially since the 1960s, this elite reaction against tradition, and the desire to purge the present of the past, has intensified. Indeed, over the past 60 years at least, the past has not only frequently been portrayed as an obstacle to progress, but also as a malevolent influence on the present.
Today, Western political and cultural elites actively renounce any sense of historical continuity. Many of the institutions of Western society now consider breaking with the past to be a cultural imperative. One of the regrettable consequences of this crusade is that it has fostered a culture of historical amnesia among Western elites. And this amnesia has influenced Western elites’ approach to geopolitical and military issues.
Indeed, they had concluded – until now – that in an era of globalisation, conflicts between nation states had lost much of their significance. Conventional wars, as they saw it, were fast becoming an endangered species. This meant that the role and authority of the military could be downsized. So-called security experts claimed that the main threats would come from Islamist or cyber terrorism and other non-state actors.
Such historical amnesia didn’t just lead to the devaluation of the military – it also led to the estrangement of national elites from their own nations. And, as I have written previously, ‘when leaders lose their faith in the nation, geopolitics becomes more unstable’. After all, how can the US State Department or the British Foreign Office think geopolitically if they have little sense of the national interest? The answer is arbitrarily and chaotically. All too often they have imagined themselves living in a post-national world, in which other nations’ leaders all share similar cosmopolitan values. That is why, for some time, what appeared to exercise Western leaders most about Putin was not his geopolitical ambitions, but his failure to sign up to their woke values.
Former US president Barack Obama personified the geopolitical illiteracy dominating Western diplomacy. He interpreted the US’s relationship with Russia through the prism of America’s culture war. In his address to the youth of Europe in March 2014, he likened his opposition to Russia, after it had annexed Crimea, to his opposition to apparently ‘backward’ cultural values in the US. Obama effortlessly jumped from Russia’s seizure of Crimea to a celebration of identity politics. In doing so, he revealed the extent to which America’s leadership had lost all sense of clarity about geopolitical matters.
History cannot be undone
The devaluation of the nation and the national interest is closely linked to the diminishing status of patriotic values, such as duty and responsibility. Little wonder many Western commentators find the heroism and resistance of the Ukrainian people difficult to grasp. Some of them are probably asking, what if we were attacked – would our people put up such a fight?
Things were very different in 1914. Then the idea of fighting for a cause and even risking death attracted millions of young people to their nation’s cause. Indeed, some Romantic intellectuals even celebrated heroic death during the Great War. Today it is unthinkable that a significant section of society could find meaning in war. Likewise, dying in combat is no longer deemed heroic – it is seen as a futile waste. As Christopher Coker explained in his book Waging War Without Warriors?, wars have become detached from the values that inform everyday life.
Little wonder that the ethos of safety, rather than heroism, now prevails among Western militaries themselves. British Army commanders now have to draw up risk assessments for every aspect of their soldiers’ training. In 2007, General Sir Michael Rose, former head of the SAS, spoke out about the destructive impact the ethos of safety was having on the morale of the British military. He said that ‘moral cowardice’ had encouraged the ‘most catastrophic collapse’ of the military ethos in recent history.
In 2018, the then chief of the defence staff, General Sir Nick Carter, said he was concerned that young people no longer understood ‘the notion of service’. Pondering whether young people could be relied on to support the military in the future, he suggested that something had gone seriously wrong in the way the young are educated and socialised. And he was right. Something has gone seriously wrong if society can no longer cultivate in the young any sense of loyalty and duty.
In the past, the ideals of loyalty, duty and patriotism infused the British state. Today they have given way to values associated with identity politics. Even sober, hard-minded institutions like the Ministry of Defence have fallen prey to woke dogma. MoD staff are advised to be careful about using the word ‘female’ in case it offends members of the trans community. And MoD staff have been encouraged to publicise their preferred pronouns.
As Russia invaded Ukraine, sections of the MoD appeared to be more interested in exploring their sexuality and gender identity than in devising a strategy for containing military aggression. Indeed, at the very moment Russian tanks began rolling across the Ukrainian border, the MoD’s blue-tick verified ‘LGBT+ Network’ Twitter account proceeded to explain the meaning of the terms ‘lesbian’, ‘gay’, ‘bisexual’, ‘transgender’, ‘queer’ and ‘questioning’ – which, according to the MoD, is ‘the process of exploring your own sexual orientation and / or gender identity’. In the days that followed, British soldiers were busily calling for the introduction of vegan uniforms. Seeing such infantile behaviour, one was reminded of Roman philosopher Cicero’s warning that ‘to remain ignorant of history is to remain forever a child’.
The issue at stake here is not simply that such concerns about pronouns distract from geopolitical realities. It’s that Western nations, in the absence of history, have difficulty giving meaning to their interests. Indeed, one of the consequences of the decades-long tendency to devalue historical consciousness is that values associated with the past, such as patriotism, courage and loyalty, have been thrown overboard. And it is precisely these values that are necessary for preparing society to deal with a world in which conflict and now war remains integral.
A sense of history is also essential for understanding the issues at stake in the invasion of Ukraine. It is clear that in recent decades Western diplomacy has failed to grasp the historical influences that have shaped the leaders of Russia. And that inability to understand Russian leaders’ outlook has led to an underestimation of the threat posed by an unresolved balance of power, especially for Ukraine. Western politicians’ and diplomats’ ignorance and confusion here is the indirect result of their flight from history.
Western elites have been morally disarmed. They may have economic power and sophisticated weapons systems but they lack the moral resources required to uphold their national interest. And now they are confronted by the very real prospect of war. There are some very difficult decisions to be made. Taking history seriously is essential for understanding the issues at stake. The West must recover the historical ideals that underpin a culture of democracy. Otherwise, while it is playing with pronouns, its own Rome will burn.