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The Right

From Tanks to Think Tanks

(Reuters/Radovan Stoklasa/File Photo)

One can judge the winds of change in foreign policy by the sudden proliferation of think tanks piping up and stating the obvious. There are tanks and think tanks and, despite the commitment of the Leopards, it may be the think tanks that are gaining the upper hand.”

When former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill made his famous “Iron Curtain” address in 1946, it seemed to fit the zeitgeist of the time. Alas, the curtain now swaying across Central Europe, from the Baltic to the Bosporus Straits, and from Bialystok to the Black Sea, is not one of iron. The Cold War of free market vs. communism, the bivalent thinking that symbolized everything from the dawn of Christianity onward, became solidified into good vs. evil. That type of thinking, with liberalism as the successor to Christianity, has continued, though there are several shades of gray now. No more the clarified pure air of Indians and Cowboys, or the honest sun setting on the philanthropic British Empire.

No, the 20th century threw up what the Czech philosopher Jan Patočka called the “polemos” of night, a century of war and horror: a reckoning of Third World nations, of revolutions, of metaphysical solutions. After the Enlightenment reaction to Christian thinking and the sanctification of reason, there sat in opposing camps the sciences and the spirit. The legacy of the French Revolution appeared to show the epic struggle of Church vs. State. Now, in the post-liberal epoch, the bivalent labels are still used to categorize the good and the bad.

The new curtain falling across Europe is a virtual one. It can be moved, reassembled, and realigned. Essentially, it is a curtain of appearances, a simulacrum of reality. Behind the arras of Enlightenment morality, of “just wars,” lurks the spirit of realism. The specter of communism has gone, yet there still stands the Janus-faced China, wearing a mask of capital, beyond the wall. It tells us something different about the weltanschauung of the present. It is the end of ideology in international politics, not the end of history. Realism is back. It comes in three forms: a big Russian bear, a Chinese Silk Road, and a realization that wars of liberal universalism are over.

Realism is an important weathervane, shifting like the frosts of the Eurasian steppe. The new President of the Czech Republic, Petr Pavel, arrived in time for a kind of Prague Spring and, very conveniently, in the midst of an about-face of sorts by the good coalition. While it is a welcome bolstering for the Western alliance against Russia, the weather cock of realism has started crowing. The Czechs are rooted in the earthly, ruby-soil realism of Bohemia, of the Good Soldier Svejk of Jaroslav Hašek. Hašek mocks pointless crusades; he sees through the surreal nightmare of war and loyalty to an empire the Czechs have no allegiance to. This is realism; it is opposed to the “blood and soil” of the Third Reich and the Aleksandr Dugin-type romanticism of the Russian soul. Not for the Czech spirit the existential wonder of war of Ernst Jünger.

Yet, unlike the liberal credo of the West, it also is not enshrined in the moral language of universalism or the correctness of liberal values. It is not bivalent, it is ambivalent. The Czechs sit uncomfortably in this buffer zone of Europe, a culture of resigned despair at the alacrity of its neighbors. Hence, Pavel sits in both camps although, as former Chairman of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Military Committee, he knows the value of realpolitik. It was Otto von Bismarck who anecdotally said, “He who is master of Bohemia, is master of Europe.” 

The liberal method of transposing its values to foreign policy has hit the buffers, despite Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s Sisyphean demands. One can judge the winds of change in foreign policy by the sudden proliferation of think tanks piping up and stating the obvious. There are tanks and think tanks and, despite the commitment of the Leopards, it may be the think tanks that are gaining the upper hand. The RAND Corporation posits in its paper “Avoiding a Long War: U.S. Policy and the Trajectory of the Russia-Ukraine Conflict” that the objective of Kyiv, to push the Russians out of Ukraine, particularly Crimea, is unrealistic. There is a recognition that a likely Russian counteroffensive this spring will push back any Ukrainian gains. The report sees a kind of sliding scale: While Ukrainian territorial gains may appease the media of the West, they come at the price of greater infliction of Russian infrastructure attacks.

A Ukrainian campaign to take Crimea, besides increased loss of life, makes such a move a bridge too far, according to RAND. But most tellingly, it also does not align to the United States’ other priorities and the fact that “duration is the most important” factor for the United States. President Joe Biden seems to be lagging behind; he was quoted in The New York Times last month to be all for striking Crimea, a day before his Central Intelligence Agency chief, William Burns, was hinting to President Zelenskyy in Kyiv that aid would not be unlimited, despite the new tranche of $45 billion sent in December. President Vladimir Putin is manipulating these tendencies, and China is playing the long-term economic game of “Xiangqi,” the ancient Chinese board game whose objective is to surround one’s opponent by attrition, rather than a knockout blow.

The idea of unlimited support, implanted in the minds of Kyiv by politicians like former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, also augurs badly for future peace talks. The Washington Post signals a “post-war military balance that will help Kyiv deter any repetition of Russia’s brutal invasion.” Hence, support is likely to wane. It would seem that the United States is angling for something like the option discussed in Istanbul in March 2022: military backing by the West but a foregoing of NATO membership by Kyiv. 

Boredom and time are ephemeral things. Arthur Schopenhauer, the arch-melancholic who made Jean-Paul Sartre look like a stand-up comedian, opined that “Life swings like a pendulum to and fro between pain and boredom.” Where the pendulum stops will determine whether the short-termism of the West, the drain on cash and weapons, will inflict too much pain on itself. The Russian spirit, accustomed to hardship, to the vast endless plains of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s soul, is used to playing a long game. 

Despite the victory of Pavel in the Czech Republic, the new school of realism is drawing the curtain. The President of Croatia, Zoran Milanović, has said that he is opposed to “sending any lethal arms as it prolongs the war,” describing the war as “deeply immoral.” A just war must be tempered by realism and acknowledgement of suffering. Continued support raises such issues as the fate of ethnic Russians and Ukrainians in the Donbass. 

The Western alliance is not uniform in its outlook. Croatia, Austria, Hungary, and Italy are noticeable “culture” states, opposed to the pastorate-like civilizing missions of the Western powers. Yet the Western alliance is predicated on a liberal worldview that incorporates a globalist economic perspective. This is the petrol in the think tank, the resource-driven contradiction that conflicts with a moral hegemony. The battle between tanks and think tanks continues: The virtual curtain flutters through Bohemia. Meanwhile, President Zelenskyy ushers in a campaign against corruption, no doubt aware of Niccolo Machiavelli’s maxim that “War makes thieves, and peace hangs them.”.

Brian Patrick Bolger studied at the London School of Economics. He has taught political philosophy and applied linguistics at universities across Europe. His articles have appeared in The National Interest, The Montreal Review, The European Conservative, New English Review, and others. His new book Coronavirus and the Strange Death of Truth is available in the United Kingdom and the United States.

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