The strong gods and the Ukraine

The Russian invasion of the Ukraine has preoccupied not only political leaders around the world but also the world’s media. Whether it is President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s stirring speeches from an embattled Kiev, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s strange, socially distanced meetings and speeches from Moscow, or combat footage, there has been nearly around-the-clock coverage of the war. Obviously there has been no shortage of commentary about what the war means.

One thread of such commentary seeks to fight the war on the home front. The argument, repeated in magazines, on blogs, and on Twitter, is that Vladimir Putin’s actions in the Ukraine reflect poorly on postliberal conservatives and populists. Some have gone so far as to proclaim that the postliberal, populist moment is dead as a result. Instead, the valiant defense of the Ukraine by Ukrainians, supported by western forces, has awakened—and will revitalize—western liberal democracy.

Certainly there has been a crisis of confidence in western liberal democracy in recent years. The rise of credible nationalist, populist politicians in the United States and Europe, alongside a vibrant intellectual scene, has left liberals feeling apparently embattled. The election of Donald Trump in the United States was the most serious political event, but the rise of European populists like Hungary’s Viktor Orbán have caused much anxiety among the liberal intelligentsia. And while the forces of a postliberal right have been consolidating and advancing, liberalism itself seems to have lost its way.

R.R. Reno puts it like this in a 2017 First Things essay: “Our political establishments have inherited the postwar imperative of disenchantment.” Liberal democracy has done without such concepts as faith and nationality for a long time, but in recent years things seem to have gotten weirder and nastier. All traditional institutions and concepts must be disenchanted—and dissolved. The unbounded self is freed from any claims from any concepts and institutions that might impose a meaning or restriction that is not freely accepted. (Charles de Koninck explains why in his Principle of the New Order.) Reno was especially prescient when he predicted, “In the place of the strong gods of traditional culture, the globalized future will be governed by the hearth gods of health, wealth, and pleasure. Our high priests will be medical experts, central bankers, and celebrity chefs.”

The idea one finds lurking around the edges of some commentary—though some, like Francis Fukuyama, have said it outright—is that the civilizational conflict between the liberal democratic west and authoritarian Russia playing out in the Ukraine will revitalize western liberal democracy. To put it in Reno’s terms: western liberal democracy will rediscover its strong gods. We will stop the endless process of disenchantment and dissolution, we will recover our faith in certain metaphysical and moral concepts that kept liberalism on track. The detour into woke politics—what some for lack of a more precise term call “cultural Marxism”—will finally end.

At the same time, liberals have chosen this moment to attack prominent postliberal and populist voices on the right. From the overheated commentary on the internet, one might think that Tucker Carlson, J.D. Vance, and Sohrab Ahmari have invaded the Ukraine, not Vladimir Putin. As near as I can tell, their great crime is thinking that western involvement in the Ukraine poses unacceptable risks of direct military conflict between NATO countries and Russian forces. Given Putin’s bellicose rhetoric—he started the war by threatening the use of nuclear weapons and nothing so far indicates he has been kidding in his public statements—there is some chance that such direct conflict would involve nuclear weapons. (Moreover, elite voices have not exactly proved that they’ve got a great grasp of events over the past two years. Why should they start being right now?)

The eminent Thomist Edward Feser lays out a careful argument on his blog that the Russian invasion of the Ukraine is an unjust war and so too would be involvement by NATO. The risk of escalation to nuclear weapons is simply too great, even with respect to proposals for things like a no-fly zone or limited presence of NATO forces. The great Cardinal Ottaviani saw clearly that scientific weapons fundamentally changed the calculus of just-war doctrine, even defensive war against unjust aggression. The days of two armies facing off in a field, even in a particularly horrible manner, as in the Great War, are over. The risks of modern, scientific warfare are too great to justify war except in extremely rare circumstances. The voices opposed to NATO involvement cannot be condemned, therefore, except on grounds altogether secondary to the question of justice.

At any rate, the broad outlines of the narrative are fairly obvious. Leading skeptics of liberalism are skeptical of greater western military involvement in the Ukraine. The play is to tar them as dupes—or worse—for Vladimir Putin. After all, we already know that postliberals aren’t on board with the current state of liberalism, the liberalism of endless disenchantment and dissolution. They must be on Putin’s side altogether. And at this moment, there are few places less popular than Vladimir Putin’s side. Reno himself predicted this discourse in 2017: “The postwar consensus now tells me that I must choose between pornographic transgression and Putinism, just as it is telling the young French woman to choose between multicultural utopianism and fascism.”

But in all of this there is a consistent refusal, especially in western political and media discourse, to grapple with the Ukrainians’ concept of their defense against Russia. While liberal elites in Washington, Paris, and Brussels have treated the Ukraine like a laboratory for NATO’s grand strategy and civil-society NGOs, it is far from clear that Ukrainians see their conflict in terms of the defense of 2020s liberalism. Indeed, the Ukrainians’ concept of the war seems likely to awaken strong gods—but not the liberal democrats’ strong gods.

President Zelenskyy’s appeals to and on behalf of the Ukrainian nation have been broadcast in the West regularly since the Russian invasion. Indeed, well before the Russian tanks started rolling, President Zelenskyy seems to have pondered what it means to be Ukrainian. Since the invasion, he has given widely admired speeches couched in terms of a united Ukrainian people fighting for its right to exist peacefully. Some have been surprised that a former actor has made such a turn, though no one familiar with Ronald Reagan or indeed Donald Trump could be too surprised by it.

He is far from alone in seeing the conflict in fundamentally national terms. Patriarch Sviatoslav of Kiev, the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, the successor to the great Josyf Slipyj, put the matter in these terms on February 24: “It is our natural right and sacred duty to defend our land and our people, our state and all that is dearest to us: family, language and culture, history and the spiritual world!” Sviatoslav echoed President Zelenskyy’s statements about a peaceful Ukraine that did not seek to antagonize Russia, but by the same token would not bow down to any aggression.

There is, unfortunately, a darker side to Ukrainian nationalism, which has been cynically exploited at times by western powers. Groups like Right Sector and the Azov Battalion have strong currents of extreme right-wing ideology, but, in the days of the 2013 Euromaidan protests, the 2014 “Revolution of Dignity” against the Moscow-aligned Viktor Yanukovych, and the battles over the Donbass separatist regions, these far-right movements were useful. The Azov Battalion has been fighting Russian forces during the present war, especially on the southeastern front.

But it is unnecessary to dwell on the dark side of Ukrainian nationalism. Ukrainians—and people around the world—have been inspired by President Zelenskyy and men and women like Patriarch Sviatoslav, calling their fellow Ukrainians to defend their land, their people, their unique culture, and their history. These calls, of course, lead me to wonder whether the war in the Ukraine is a real struggle for liberal democracy against postliberal, populist voices.

If an American or Western European politician invoked “our natural right and sacred duty to defend our land and our people, our state and all that is dearest to us: family, language and culture, history and the spiritual world,” one doubts that he or she would be greeted with the same enthusiasm that has welcomed the Ukrainian resistance to the Russian onslaught. Again Reno: “We are socialized to believe that we have a fundamental moral duty to resist populist calls for a more nationalist politics.” He goes on to say, “A politician or public figure who stands for something strong, whether it’s nationalism or even traditional morality, invariably gets described as ‘authoritarian.’”

Indeed, there are plans afoot in the European Union to punish Hungary and Poland financially under the guise of rule-of-law standards. Certainly Viktor Orbán and Andrzej Duda have long given liberal democrats heartburn, but it is impossible to see that their forthright populism is really all that different than the patriotic nationalism coming from the Ukraine. No doubt the Hungarians and the Poles have noticed. President Zelenskyy is the idol of Europe—President Emmanuel Macron of France released a batch of photos showing him dressed down, just like Zelenskyy—and the EU is hitting Hungary and Poland in the checkbook.

President Zelenskyy is certainly winning the information war in the west. And this leads me to wonder if the liberal voices are right, if the war for the Ukraine will result in western liberal democracies being revitalized with liberal-democratic values. Or will the calls for a united Ukrainian nation be taken up in countries that have seen the complete disenchantment and dissolution of concepts like “nation” and “unity.” It is often said (and often attributed to Alasdair MacIntyre—though I have been told subsequently it actually comes from Stanley Hauerwas) that no one dies for the telephone company, yet, as Reno noted going on five years ago, that is exactly what liberalism has asked. The bravery of the people of the Ukraine points toward a different way.

The defense of the Ukraine—so far from serving as a cudgel for liberals to beat postliberals and populists with—may well provide a rallying cry not for liberalism but for populism and nationalism. The ideas and values being defended against Russian aggression are not necessarily the values of liberal democracy in 2022. But they are being defended valiantly. The liberals who point toward the Ukraine as an example of all that is best and noblest about the west may well find that people agree with them.