The world is going crazy – and what are we doing?

English version of  "Die Welt ist verrückt – und was machen wir"

At some point those in charge at the Kremlin must have lost patience. In any case, on a cold Sunday in January troops and tanks were sent to Vilnius to squash any spectre of Lithuanian independence. Fourteen people died that day: Some were run over by tanks and more than a thousand were injured.

This wasn’t a dystopia, a gloomy preview of where Vladmir Putin’s aggressive polices might end. That so-called ‘Bloody Sunday’ in Vilnius took place, however, twenty-three years ago, and the man who gave the order to put down the Lithuanian freedom movement was Mikhail Gorbachev. Yes, the very same man who to this day is celebrated as the West’s best friend and the man who made German unification possible. In Berlin today there are many politicians who think back and ask themselves: if Gorbachev was in a position to do such a thing, what can we expect from Putin?

The question appears completely plausible – because the Russian president has achieved everything one could realistically expect in the Ukraine from his "Forward Strategy" of Russian interests. Although the West will not ratify annexing the Crimea under international law, he did it anyway without much difficulty; it looks increasingly unlikely that the Ukraine will become a member of Nato for the foreseeable future; the Ukraine will be able to work with the EU as well as the dominant Russian customs union and what’s more, a federal Ukrainian state with self-determination for Russian minorities is already being mooted. Putin already has this in his grasp and knows it. So why does he continue to send heavy arms into eastern Ukraine?

The optimists say he wants to save face by not accepting the military defeat of his separatists and as such he has to continue without a strategic goal.

Conversely, the pessimists believe the Kremlin chief does indeed have a strategic goal, which doesn’t involve weakening and destabilising the Ukraine but rather the weakening and destabilising of the West and Nato in particular.

The West – weaker than ever before

It’s hardly surprising that the competing powers would come to such a conclusion these days, given that the USA and Europe find themselves in a deep international crisis of values. The strategic uncertainty in the western capitals is palpable. The three-way crisis – in the Ukraine, the Arabic-speaking world and again in the Middle East – is proving mentally, politically and militarily overwhelming. This is all too obvious and any attempt to deny it, so as not to encourage their opponents further, seems pointless. We must now try to get to the heart of the matter even if the conflicts continue at such a pace, not least because Putin’s ideological and military offensive looks to bring the West into turmoil.

Bringing the west into turmoil? Why? The Baltic states with their Russian minority play a significant part here as Nato’s Achilles heel. In view of the fact the Russian leadership will exploit the Ukraine scenario in other areas – Russian minorities call for aid, soldiers without any obvious national markings appear as well as Russian arms, then a civil war and so on – what can the West do?

Not much. The Baltic states from a military perspective are very difficult to defend and even harder to win back. (Unless you stationed so many western soldiers and heavy arms in the region that Russia would feel provoked and Nato would be viewed as the aggressor.) Winning back the Baltic states would indeed lead to a direct conflict between Nato and Russia and thus an escalation in the threat of nuclear action. The older people among us, probably including Vladimir Putin, recall the basic rules of nuclear confrontations, whereby the madman is the strongest. They state in such a conflict that the one who gains dominance is the one who is prepared to suffer more casualties and who is willing and mad enough to escalate the situation to the next level. This role will not be played by Nato - the West is not crazy enough; nor is the Nato-General Secretary. However, if Nato were to shy away from a confrontation with Russia after a direct attack on the Baltic states, albeit on the far edge of its territory, Nato would to all intents and purposes "be dead" according to the German Defence Minister in DIE ZEIT last week. Ursula von der Leyen speaks with a certain openness of a foreign policy newcomer; others simply murmur about the new vulnerability of the West.

Sanctions are Nato’s version of "Forward Strategy"

Whether it will ever come to it in the Baltic states is not the burning issue right now. Merely the fact that such a scenario is imaginable, where dark threats take effect and presumably influence those involved, displays the bold and new ability of the Kremlin to provoke – as is happening in the conflict in the Ukraine today. Some criticise sanctions against Russia by arguing they may work in the long term but in the current situation they are simply ineffective or even counter-productive. Initially, that may well be the case but the argument is misconceived. These sanctions are an implicit warning to Putin that he should not dare put one foot further than on Ukrainian soil. The message goes: We know that you know that we won’t intervene militarily but you should also know that we are strong, unified, willing to make sacrifices and determined enough to fight together, albeit only economically (if that is the case).

"No war is winnable nowadays"

Although these sanctions point to a rejection of military action, it has to concern the West that Putin dares to proceed in such a bold and aggressive way. In addition, the fact that Ursula von der Leyen sees the end of Nato as a distinct possibility is not due to the absence of dangerous enemies but is the result of it being impacted militarily and by power politics – this shows the current state of Western foreign policy. You could say it’s never been at such a weak point. All the more surprising given that the alleged high point of Western power was just a quarter of a century ago. Even more astonishing is how America and the EU are as dominant, both economically and militarily, as ever. The problems don’t lie with the money or arms at their disposal but rather in their minds.

Interventions have failed and so have non-interventions

In the last two centuries the West by its own standards has caused devastation such as their enemies would never have been able to manage. Many say that the wars started by the USA were at fault and the West is hardly capable of acting in a military-moral way. Peter Scholl-Latour declared just before his death, "No war is winnable nowadays". You only have to take a look at Afghanistan and Iraq to agree with him because then the solution would simply be: no more wars.

Unfortunately, his grand thesis is incorrect on two counts. Firstly, there certainly are winnable wars, for example the Kosovo war and the second to last Iraq war, where the illegal annexation of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein was annulled. Secondly - and here we come to the crux of the current tragedy - the West has had very little success with non-military solutions outside of Europe. In the Middle East nearly every tactic and strategy has been tried in the last 12 years: the regular war with ground troops in risky and ridiculous variations (Afghanistan and Iraq); the short term, heavy aerial bombardments to avoid a massacre (Libya); the peaceful division of a country through a UN-moderated process (Sudan); the non-intervention despite countless casualties (Syria). In addition, in no particular order: toppling dictators through intervention; supporting dictators to stabilise the region; supporting rebels against dictators to bring about democracy; withdrawing support for rebels; renewing original support for the new and old dictators. None of which have really worked out effectively.

In the years after September 11 the discourse, for Western geo-politicians realising their own power, came straight out of the "foreign policy tool box", from which the correct tools were used as circumstances dictated. Today the tool box is fairly empty.

It’s not only the sovereignty that is being called into question but the idea of statehood itself

The result of all of these experiments: in the Middle East they are not fighting as before with all their might for power in the individual states as state structures dissolve all by themselves. This applies to Iraq and Syria but also to Libya and as a rule to the whole of the Sahara and Sub-Sahara. The terrorist fallout of the Middle East has grown and when radicalised Islam appeared in a more barbaric form as Al-Quaeda in 2001, Western surprise turned to consternation.

The lack of clear-sightedness cannot be overlooked. Western partners are currently quickly becoming opponents, the opponents are becoming enemies who are in turn becoming partners again. This means moral policy as well as Realpolitik is to a large extent in ruins. Just taking the current situation, which has to be seen to be believed: the West, including Germany, is essentially delivering arms directly to the Kurdish PKK, who were until recently viewed as a terrorist organisation, in order to push back the IS terrorists. If you ask the German politicians responsible where the Islamists are being pushed back to, they will answer sheepishly, to North East Syria where they will hopefully fight against the main enemy Baschar al-Assad, who is being helped by a certain Vladimir Putin - and Assad is now, in effect, serving as a partner to the West in the fight against IS.

Through these German arms deliveries responsibility comes along with desperation. If an immoral policy is fairly successful, it’s accepted to an extent. If a moral policy is not very successful, that is also accepted. However, an immoral policy which is also unsuccessful is not accepted in the long run.

Obama’s hesitant foreign policy is not a character trait

We could hope that a Western leader is at fault for all this, preferably from the USA, either the militant George W. Bush or the not militant enough Barack Obama, or both together. In reality, the current president caused harm to Western credibility when he drew a red line in the sand for Assad – no chemical weapon attacks – and when Assad crossed that line with a chemical attack, he didn’t intervene. The reason for this was not because he’s a wimp but because he believed he wouldn’t receive political support for intervention in the long run. There’s evidence to support this as he correctly realised that his people were tired of war campaigns. Even British Prime Minister David Cameron got egg on his face when the House of Commons rejected his proposal for military action against Assad. The hesitation doesn’t come just from the top but from below too.

And it is not unfounded. When humanitarian interventionist Hilary Clinton accused Obama of aiding IS through his timid support of the Syrian rebels, he answered in the New York Times, "This idea that we could provide some light arms or even more sophisticated arms to what was essentially an opposition made up of former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth, and that they were going to be able to battle not only a well-armed state but also a well-armed state backed by Russia, backed by Iran, a battle-hardened Hezbollah, that was never in the cards." The moral mandate seems to be militarily impossible.

We need a new foreign policy rulebook

If you were to express it in a very friendly way, you would say, ‘the Atlantic-European policy is currently in a post-strategic, post-principle phase. It’s about time interventionists and isolationists, realists and idealists, Americans and Europeans look each other in the eye and confess: we don’t know everything at the moment, we need to rethink, discuss issues in a different way, we need a new foreign policy rulebook, where we can argue constructively again.’

With a new form of honesty comes the admission that the West needs to face up to unforeseen developments which they have underestimated or simply haven’t understood yet. Although you can and should criticise yourself, it’s also clear that the West is unfortunately not the only party at fault as it is not capable of improving the world simply through self-improvement.

Russia and the Muslim states have a problem with God

The conflicts in Russia and the Middle East appear to be internal conflicts for which the USA and Europe are catalysts, projecting and attacking areas, but they are not the spark. Orthodox-led Russia and the Islamic states have a century old problem with globalisation which puts their own culture into context and exposes their economy. In addition, they have, in a completely different way, a cardinal problem with secularisation, lacking separation of church and state or belief and politics. The victim myth and sacred mission – actually religious topoi and tolerated therein – are political there and therefore severe. Solutions are only possible through inner developments in Russia and the Middle East, which the West cannot force.

Western societies cannot avoid the religious-ideological attacks against their own character. For instance, "Euro-Atlantic countries (...) denying moral principles and all traditional identities: national, cultural, religious and even sexual. They are implementing policies that equate large families with same-sex partnerships, belief in God with the belief in Satan". This quote could come from any Islamist but was actually said by Vladimir Putin and on 20th September 2013 at that, long before the escalation in the Ukraine. His moral and cultural sense of superiority is not a result of the Ukraine conflict but his own reasoning.

Russian and Islamic fundamentalism are attacking the West in an effective way

Russian and Islamic fundamentalists feel provoked to the core by the West in its current state. So gay, so libertarian, so secular, which makes it even harder for them to understand how the West is economically as successful as ever. The idea that Western societies are so successful despite their tolerance, plurality and indeed their effeminate posturing or even because of it, is completely alien to their nature. Mistakenly, therefore, they believe it is worth going all out to attack the West. The two worlds are, in effect, colliding into each other.

Authoritarian states like China and Russia have further developed their propaganda strategy. Not only do they efficiently control their national media, they influence Western public with TV programmes, blogs and social media. This is an important change in tactics, given that self criticism is part of Western societies’ nature, which is one of its great strengths, this self-criticism is now being viciously strengthened from somewhere else and as a result it is suffering a self-destructive slide.

The fundamental criticism of the West is not always presented in an absolutely fundamental way but often intelligently and in detail. The authoritarian regimes have developed a simple but effective passepartout which works like this: for all the democratic deficiencies, all the different ways of suppression, for corruption and censorship which are part of the systems in authoritarian states, there are naturally always reference examples. The fact that they go against their own principles are already known by most and the features of the political systems are skilfully blurred. Vladamir Putin is a master of this type of criticism and has caught out many a western journalist or politician. You cannot really say that leading politicians this side of the Russian border have found good or even effective answers. Moreover, the new Western weakness doesn’t mean that his old arrogance has been permanently put to one side and that makes him appear even more convincing to the rest of the world. It has been quite breathtaking to watch how the Western leaders have bent international law in recent years, even breaking it at times, depending on the reasons they have given for going to war or the changes in allegiances that have taken place. This hypothesis has to finally be said and accepted - the West will become capable of acting only if they can keep this guilt in mind, not when they try to cover it up.

Western influence is disappearing in East Asia to the detriment of East Asia

The World has changed fundamentally for the West in recent years and in recent months this change has accelerated. These conclusions would generally be incomplete without the changes in East Asia which have been put on the back burner given the three-way crisis in Europe’s cordon "insanitaire".

In 2011 Barack Obama announced the so-called Pivot to Asia, the strategic move by America towards the Pacific region. The European reaction, in particular from Germany, was anxious if not offended. Is Europe being marginalised? Would the transatlantic partnership soon be resigned to history? It didn’t come to anything in the end as, in reality and certainly not militarily, there was no serious Pivot to Asia but rather a stronger emphasis on themselves. America has reduced their military influence in every region. This is a side effect of over-stretching themselves militarily in the Middle East as well as the consequent bitterness towards military action and, on the other hand, the logical result of the growing power of China. The peoples of East Asia believe less and less that in the face of a threat from an increasingly power-conscious China that America can quickly come to the aid of their little neighbours.

Cold War is making a comeback

The USA’s East Asian power projection is declining rapidly which is far from ideal for the region. Firstly, it has led to an increase in nationalism in nearly all the states in the region in the midst of border quarrels. This retreat by the USA has further enforced the geopolitical constellation where China is bigger and soon will be stronger than all other neighbours combined. (India is slightly different in that they are more inward-looking.) If you imagine how Europe would look if current Germany were five times bigger and more powerful, then you have an insight into the future of Asia. A future which will be hard for the West to have any say in, especially through White House policies regarding strategic changes and prevention.

A ghost is circling; it’s the ghost of history

We are learning the painful way these days that borders are a piece of history frozen in time. If these borders are damaged, the old monster will come back. Everyone can find a time in history when their own country, people or tribe was done an injustice and often have an old map to hand to point to their claim to Russian land, Chinese islands or holy places. Borders divide and protect not only countries from each other; they shield the present from the past. The recognition, though, that borders, however unfair or falsely drawn, are always better than none or disputed ones, doesn’t seem to be widespread.

A ghost is circling; it’s the ghost of history. In the Middle East borders are being questioned which were drawn randomly by the Europeans and for their own ends. We can think back to the start of the twentieth century or the days of religiously motivated conflicts in that area and their brutality as well as the Thirty Years War. The Cold War is making a comeback in the Ukraine and in East Asia an unsaturated and over-powerful central power in the shape of China is forming a constellation similar to that of Europe before the First World War.

This present chaos with its hard-hitting images overwhelm politics, commentators, professors as well as Western citizens. Nobody should be ashamed of it and admitting your weaknesses is part of our post-theoretical culture. In addition, the fact that Western democracies are proud to have fewer slaves than other countries can be used to our advantage in conflicts with all-powerful authoritarian societies.

We cannot stand still and the West cannot stay out of it as it’s already deeply involved. It must plan strategically and re-establish its principles. The conditions are favourable. As before, the GDP of Western countries is more than double that of Russia and China put together, so we have the resources. As before, open dialogues and discussions take place here more than anywhere else in the world, so we will find the solutions.

Therefore, die ZEIT is starting an international debate in the coming weeks about the altered world political situation, the question whether, and if yes, how, Germany should deal with its rapidly growing responsibility in Europe, for Europe and the countries around the EU? Which Western principles still apply in today’s society and which have been worn out? What can a Realpolitik look like, which has earned this name and which is not yet outdated by reality? Are there interests without ideals?

Last but not least, what value does the word have, which has deliberately not been used in this text because it has been abused so much in foreign policy: Freedom?

Übersetzung: Jonathan Bracket