Goodbye to the Western world. We’ll all be sorry when it disappears

published In Comment Central February 8, 2022 – before the Ukrainian resistance astonished Putin and the world

I have just lost a night’s sleep thinking about the threats to Ukraine and Taiwan and the choice that each may impose on the Western world between surrender and war.

I cannot remember losing any sleep over the similar dilemma posed by the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. Mind you, I was then fourteen and at boarding school. One can say many things about English boarding schools in the Sixties, but they certainly knew how to fill up inmates’ time. A packed routine of lessons, games, household chores, homework, cadet force, bursts of compulsory religion, choir/concert/school play/societies, scrounging food and drink, spreading rumour and gossip, mild rule-breaking and rebellion and occasional serious scandal blotted out home life let alone events in the outside world. I cannot remember any interruption of this routine for the Cuban missile crisis and the brink of nuclear war. There might have been an extra chapel service.

We kept calm and carried on, conditioned by years of comics, movies and television in which the good guys (whether cowboys, detectives, space pilots or World War Two fighters) always won despite impossible odds. We still believed that the United States and the Western world in which we lived were the good guys. The young American President was the marshal facing down the bad guys. Our country and the rest of the Western world fell in behind him as his posse. Eight years later this world view would be memorably satirized in alternative theatre as “John Ford’s Cuban Missile Crisis” but it was not challenged at the time.

Our faith in the marshal was eventually justified. Kennedy found a course between war and surrender. Nothing in the current crises suggests a repeat of his success.

There was no pandemic in 1962 and its impact is still with us. Cuba was a single crisis, now there are two, widely spaced with very different adversaries. If the current American President has a policy for either event his collapsing poll ratings and his bitterly divided country, still not far from civil war, give him no domestic strength to carry it through. The American people (with plenty of reasons) have lost the habit of rallying around their President in a time of crisis.


The United States has virtually no reliable allies. At the moment when it might actually need and value a “special relationship” with Britain, we are about to lose our Prime Minister over a wine-and-cheese party and endure a caretaker government in a messy process to choose a successor. The EU is of no value to the United States over Taiwan and a hindrance to it over Ukraine. Too many of its members have been suborned or intimidated by Russia. France, its would-be leader, is determined to pursue its pretensions of independent great power status.

For all that millions of people still yearn to live there or enjoy its way of life, the United States has lost its moral status as leader of the free world and guardian of universally cherished values. It was lost and never regained in the Vietnam war. For the first time in history, that war made global protestors willing to accept the United States being defeated by its enemies, regardless of what they might do to their conquests.

Ever since the United States became a global superpower there have been voices on the Left which regard American capitalism and militarism as the prime or even only source of the world’s troubles. Until Vietnam, they were a shrill minority even within the Left. After Vietnam, their view seeped into the mainstream of liberal and progressive opinion. Each decade afterwards provided some evidence of the failings of American policy and of American society itself. Liberals and progressives were given more and more pretexts to abandon faith in the United States and its allies, especially the second Iraq war and the excesses of the “war on terror” and their recent experience of Donald Trump. Patriotism and the defence of Western values fell into the hands of neo-conservatives and the far Right, which of course accelerated their abandonment by everyone else on the political spectrum.

Compared to the Cuban missile crisis it has become very much harder for any American administration to form an intellectual and moral “coalition of the willing” at home or overseas in support of any use of American power, especially, of course, if it involves casualties.

I now believe that the United States and the Western world are going to acquiesce in open or de facto Russian control over all of Ukraine. I also believe that mainland China will view this as a perfect opportunity to seize Taiwan by force. I also believe that these events will end the world in which I have lived my life, whose conditions and assumptions were ultimately guaranteed by American strength.

That world gave me and my family and friends elections which meant something, public administration which was generally honest and fair and a legal system which offered remedy when it was not, rising living standards, diverse sources of information and entertainment, and the right to speak and live virtually as we pleased. It gave us immense opportunity to discover how we wanted to live and what we wanted to say. For those outside it, that world offered ideals to aspire to and cause to challenge those who denied them.

Now anything that survives from it will be on sufferance from mainland China and (in western Europe) from Russia. Surrender of Ukraine would accept the Putin doctrine that no country on his borders or with any Russian population can be better governed than his Russia, in case it gives ideas to the Russian people. Surrender of Taiwan, as with the subjugation of Hong Kong, will acknowledge the similar Xi doctrine that no country with Chinese people can be better governed than his China. Surrender of both will convince millions of people elsewhere that the West will never defend its adherents and its values: they will scramble to come to terms with the victors.

The defeat and eclipse of the Western world will not disturb the shrill Leftists who have always hated it. But I fear that it will also be accepted passively by too many other people: those who have taken issue so often, and often so rightly, with the Western world’s failings that they have lost the habit of defending it and comparing it to its challengers. They never acknowledge that the Western world is simply a better place than Putin’s Russia, a state built on lies, corruption and violence or Xi’s China, a colossal electronic prison camp, exercising unprecedented powers of surveillance and control over its people, the world’s greatest violator of human rights, the world’s greatest user of forced labour. They never acknowledge that reform, redress of grievance, decent government are possible in the Western world in ways which are unimaginable to Putin’s subjects and Xi’s – or those of the Taleban in another country where the West has been defeated.

Such people always have an excuse not to make a stand for Western values. Afghanistan? Too backward, too corrupt, Western values never suited them anyway. Ukraine? Also too corrupt, not really part of the West, Russia has legitimate interests there. Taiwan? Too far away and it’s really part of mainland China even when it votes not to be. If and when Putin turns on the Baltic states, no doubt they’ll find some excuse to desert them as well.

Of course we’ll also have to put up sooner or later with the calls from “old hands” and experts, especially those who have tried to make money from Russia and China, for a “re-set” in relations with them. A re-set will mean accepting all their conquests and destroying any fear of a penalty if they pursue new ones.

My family was forced to leave the United States, the leader of the free world, during the McCarthy era. In the years after, I have taken part in many protests against American policies and leaders, and indeed British ones. Yet I remain sleepless and depressed at the prospective collapse of American power and Western influence. Everything which normally occupied waking life now seems pointless and trivial. Louis MacNeice put my feelings better than I can in his “Autumn Journal” at the time of Munich:
“But did you see
The latest? You mean whether Cobb has bust the record
Or do you mean the Australians have lost their last by ten
Wickets or do you mean that the autumn fashions —
No, we don’t mean anything like that again.”


29. April 2022 by rkh
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