Matt Gurney: The world didn't change. We just lied to ourselves about it
Declaring that the world has changed posits that what we were doing before was right, smart and prudent. It very obviously was not.
By: Matt Gurney
Russia's invasion of Ukraine will have big ramifications militarily, politically and economically. Possibly culturally as well. This is, to state the blindingly obvious, especially true for the victims of the war — those killed, maimed, raped, tortured, robbed or made refugees. It's important to state that right here at the outset. Nothing that follows below refers to those directly affected by this conflict. Thousands of them have lost their lives or suffered tremendous personal loss, and that should be remembered at all times.
That's a necessary bit of preface here because the point I want to make today would read oddly if I left that out. Since the war began, there's been a strange habit among Canadian officials and commentators (and others around the world) of describing the war as having "changed the world" or words to that effect. Mélanie Joly said as much a few weeks ago, but it's unfair to pick on her, because the sentiment is widespread and oft-expressed. I've no doubt that you've all seen variations of this argument: Putin changed the world when he invaded Ukraine. (In fact, dear reader, as I was indulging in the mandatory pre-work procrastination before writing this column, I was amused to see an article by Commentary magazine editor Eli Lake pop up in my Twitter feed. Note the headline.)
But ... no. This isn't correct. Joly is wrong. So is Lake. With the aforementioned exception of those directly affected, the world really, really hasn't changed, and we should stop saying that it has. It's not just wrong. It's counterproductive. And it lets us off the hook, when the collective Western “we” deserve to be dangling. The world hasn't changed. We were just wrong about it, and we shouldn't have been. The writing was pretty starkly on the wall.
This may sound more snarky and small beer than usual for my columns. It sounds like semantics, right? Jumping on someone for saying "the world has changed" after a tragedy seems petty and cheap because it's a pretty common turn of phrase. I haven't had the courage to go checking my own column archive, but there's little doubt someone so inclined could find examples of my having used those words or something close enough in the same way somewhere along the way. I am likely guilty of hypocrisy here.
But here's a deeper truth that lies underneath the words, and it's the truth I was getting at when I wrote here, some months ago, that our expectations are a problem. If you're surprised because Russia invaded Ukraine, that's not about the world changing, it's about you not understanding the world, of being wrong in your assessment of what the world was. We have run out of excuses or ways to deny the inconvenient truth of both geopolitics and human nature still being nasty things we have to contend with. The difference between a changed world and a changed understanding of the world is a profound difference indeed, and it's a difference we're going to have to wrap our minds around if we're going to properly adjust our foreign policy, our security policy, and yeah, our expectations.
In a way, it might have been easier for us all if the world had changed in some sudden and profound way. It happens! There are things that occur that fundamentally change the game. This isn’t one of them. If Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the accompanying risk of catastrophic escalation was something that genuinely came like a bolt from the blue, we'd have been shocked, of course, but honestly and fairly so. The world would have changed, and the scramble to adapt would have been on.
Alas, that's not what happened. The ongoing war is simply an expansion of Russia's 2014 annexation of other parts of Ukraine, and its brutal tactics are entirely in line with its war-fighting experiences in Syria, Georgia and Chechnya. This was all very well known. We had months of specific strategic warning that Russia was mobilizing forces on Ukraine’s borders, including several weeks when final preparations were being made and it was really extremely obvious that there was about to be a war. More broadly, Putin has been increasingly vicious and unchecked for years, which is why he felt comfortable sending kill teams with radioactive compounds or nerve agents after rivals in Western countries.
These aren't sudden changes that were thrust on us in February, these are all warning signs that we saw, analyzed and then either reached a wrong conclusion about … or honestly, just chose to ignore. Acceptance would have imposed a hassle and who needs that?
But, really, folks, who are we kidding? This didn’t sneak up on us. Like, what, the guy who'd irradiate a rival or whack some people with a chemical weapon on British soil would shirk from levelling a few Ukrainian cities to prove a point, or launch a war of territorial expansion just because he thought he could get away with it? Really? Putin's just too nice a guy for that? Too cautious? Too enamoured of international peace and harmony? Worried that we’d think ill of him, and he couldn’t stand to disappoint us?
We could make the argument even more broadly, of course, by simply noting that Putin's behaviour is pretty recognizable for anyone who's read any history. It's out of place in 21st-century Europe because it's retro, not because it's unprecedented. Direct military confrontations in that region of the world had become rare enough that an entire generation (or more) of Western political leaders and foreign policy experts convinced themselves the world had changed into a place where this sort of thing wouldn't happen. If there's been any change these last six weeks, it's honestly just that we're seeing things snapping back to a more familiar historical status quo.
And that's what worries me. Normalcy bias is a hell of a drug, and there are very powerful and successful men and women today in positions of influence or authority who are so stunned by Putin's actions that their only way of making it all make sense is to declare that the world has changed. They haven't yet been able to grasp that it was their understanding that was broken. And that raises the question of what else their understanding is wrong about.
There have been others who have been shouting warnings about Putin (and China, for that matter) for years, and those voices have traditionally been treated as paranoid war mongers. And then there's the guys like me, who've been warning that maybe we shouldn't allow our military to fall into uselessness not out of any particular fear of Putin specifically, but because it's better to not rest your entire national defence strategy on a hope and a prayer?
What a bunch of weirdos, us Putin paranoids and defence hawks, eh?
Declaring that the world has changed and we now need a military, or a cyber security plan, or an energy policy that doesn't depend on dictators, is a dodge. It's a self-serving excuse that absolves too many decision-makers and thought leaders. It posits that what we were doing before was smart and right and prudent and now, because of some wildly unforeseen — maybe even unforeseeable — event, we need to change course.
That's nonsense. The folly of European dependence on Russian energy has been obvious, and often remarked upon, for years. The recklessness of allowing our defence capabilities to erode into near-nothingness has been equally obvious and equally obviously remarked upon, and I've got the bylines to prove it. Our vulnerability to cyber threats is so obvious that every time I write about it I break into a cold sweat, worrying I'm going to give the wrong hacker the wrong idea. All these things were true the day before Putin invaded, and the week before, and the month before, the year before and even the decade before.
There's a variation of this wishful thinking that might be more familiar to you, of course. Canadian provinces were running their health-care systems at the very limit of their capacities for years, even decades, before anyone heard of some weird new flu in Wuhan. Reports had been written. Politicians warned. The public alarm sounded. We didn't listen, and then Canada spent two years throttling its economy up and then down using health-care-system capacity as almost the only metric that mattered, because the capacity was decidedly lacking. Even so, when this thing is finally over, you all know full well that politicians across the land will claim that they could never have known, that it was a shock, that they were as surprised as anyone, and so on.
Sure. No one could have known that the virus we call COVID-19 was going to strike when and where it did. But anyone who was paying attention knew we were taking a chance running the system right up against the red line. COVID-19 was a shock, but something like COVID-19 was inevitable.
It's the same deal here. Putin is responsible for what his military is doing to Ukraine. We are responsible for how far we'll have to go to get ourselves into a proper defensive posture in case this marks simply the latest in a series of crises. Not because the world has changed but instead because we've run out of ways to ignore the ugly truth about what it's always been.
And now we'll see how long it takes to begin convincing ourselves that this is all a blip we can safely ignore. Until the next time something happens that "changes the world" again.
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