Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold

Notes from the Western Periphery

TOOTHLESS Perhaps the saddest fall-out from the Ukraine war is the realisation of how toothless the UN Security Council has turned out to be. Pictured is the UN headquarters in Manhattan, New York City.

Could the EU call Putin’s bluff and mount a widely publicised peace and humanitarian mission to Ukraine?

John Bradley

It’s hard to think of anything but Ukraine these days. One lurches from news bulletin to news bulletin, hoping against hope that this horror will cease. But there is no end, and the words of Yeats’ post-WW1 poem The Second Coming resonate: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold . . . The ceremony of innocence is drowned.”
NATO and the EU are frustrated by their inability to intervene decisively. Immediate assistance in the form of defensive weapons slows the advance of Russian land forces. But this has precipitated shelling from afar, reducing Ukraine’s cities to rubble. I do not envy the policy makers who are searching for more effective strategies.
Sanctions have always been part of the armoury of war. In the past these took a very tangible form: a land-based siege enforced by armies; sea blockades enforced by navies; air blockades enforced by no-fly zones. Today they reach out into cyberspace.  
We are led to believe that switches can be thrown that cut-off an enemy from communication with the rest of the world, freezes its commerce and have the potential to bring an enemy economy to its knees. But if the Nazis could not bomb London into submission in 1940, why do we believe that depriving Muscovites of their Big Macs and Dior fashions will help bring Russia to its knees?
The challenges now facing the EU and NATO force us to acknowledge the differences between democratic and totalitarian states. The Dictator does not have to worry about opinion polls or elections.  He (and it is always a ‘he’) can manipulate the truth and suppress open debate. Dictatorial regimes can fall, but usually only after a long and bloody process.
Democratic states, however, function in a more complex environment. The unwillingness of the German government to terminate gas purchases from Russia is because the gas needed to run their economy cannot be got quickly from other sources. Here in Ireland we expect our government to cushion the blows of sanction-related energy and other prices, and people will become very annoyed if they do not.

A world where the forces of nationalism are not contained can become very dangerous. The 20th century showed us how placing the interests of one’s own nation above all others to the exclusion or detriment of the interests of other nations led to two world wars. And asserting that the ‘other’ is not really a nation (as the Nazis did about Poland and the Russians now do about Ukraine) is a particularly virulent form of nationalism.
Perhaps the saddest fall-out from the Ukraine war is the realisation of how toothless the UN Security Council has turned out to be. How useful would a GAA referee be if his or her decisions could be arbitrarily vetoed by any one of the top five county teams? Remove that sanction and sport would descend into chaos. Just as the League of Nations in the 1930s failed to restrain Germany, Italy and Japan, the UN is failing in the 2020s to restrain Russia.  
On a brighter note, the European Union has confounded its many critics by refuting the accusation that it is sclerotic and ineffectual. With little fuss it has opened its borders to millions of Ukrainians who are fleeing the war. The EU, an organisation in which every member, big or small, effectively has a veto, managed to reach unanimity on refugees and aid. I dread to think what might have happened if the UK were still an EU member!

Changed thinking
The EU, an organisation that is often criticised (including in this newspaper) for interfering in the sovereign rights of its member states has never succeeded in formulating an agreed military strategy. Defence of the EU devolves to the armed forces of the individual member states, many of them acting within the framework of NATO. But the horror of an aggressive war on Europe’s own doorstep has changed thinking on EU defence. Under such a threat, Germany - already a NATO member - reluctantly reversed its policy on rearming, a stance driven by historical legacy.  Will Ireland continue to be a free-rider on an EU defence policy from which it stands aloof?
So, the EU must rely on NATO to supply any military response to Russian aggression.  Anticipating this, President Putin raised the threat of all-out nuclear war should NATO interfere directly. By first invading a non-NATO member using conventional weapons, Russia cleverly used the old nuclear doctrine of mutually assured destruction (MAD) to its advantage. Under the ‘protection’ of MAD, Russia prevents NATO from acting in Ukraine provided NATO believes that Putin is ruthless enough to start a nuclear war.
The recent decision of three ‘front line’ prime Ministers of Poland, Slovenia and the Czech Republic to visit President Zelenskiy in Kyiv took courage, was not universally approved by the EU, but points to a possible way forward. Could the EU call Putin’s bluff and mount a widely publicised peace and humanitarian mission to Ukraine, led at the highest political level? Any attack on a peaceful EU mission would call down the wrath of retribution. If NATO cannot use force, all that remains is the moral authority of the EU. Surely it ought to be tried?

John Bradley was a professor at the ESRI and has published on the island economy of Ireland, EU development policy, industrial strategy and economic modelling.