The arc of history, we are often told, leans toward justice. It’s a warming sentiment, but as the Russian invasion of Ukraine shows, it’s unfounded. There is no arc of history, progress is not inevitable, and civilization rests on quicksand.
Yet the illusion of progress and the belief that the future is ours remain powerful. Time and time again we are stung by our complacency, but old inconvenient truths – that security depends on strength, freedom depends on force, laws depend on the power to enforce them – are routinely ignored.
No matter how much progress we may achieve in technology, commerce or human knowledge, conflicts of values and interests between states and between ethnic and religious groups will always be inevitable. Indeed, it is not only that human achievements will fail to prevent such clashes; they can make them more dangerous and violent.
Consider how China uses Internet technologies to control its population, persecute Uyghurs, and steal industrial and security secrets from the West. And how social media enables the radicalization and recruitment of young Muslims into jihadist organizations. Imagine the devastation made possible by a theocratic rogue state or terrorist group becoming aware of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons.
And think of Russia. Global interconnection was supposed to make the world safer. According to the theory, countries that trade with each other will not fight each other. But Russia, like China and the Islamists, has figured out how to exploit our open societies and economies. He has used his presence within them to corrupt and weaken us, to empower and enrich himself, and to develop hybrid offensive post-modern and post-truth capabilities.
Russia has a smaller economy than Italy and its per capita income is a quarter of that of Britain. But, thanks to catastrophic decisions in Europe, taken in particular by Angela Merkel, it has created a situation in which the European economy is dependent on its energy exports. From figures like François Fillon and Gerhard Schröder to regional and local politicians further down the food chain, he has gained influence and political power within European democracies.
Britain is hardly less culpable. The London property market and the City’s financial markets are flooded with dirty Russian money. Russian oligarchs – few of whom have made or kept their immense fortunes without some support for Putin’s murderous regime – lead their lives here freely. As the Intelligence and Security Committee noted, a whole industry exists in London to enable “the extension of Russian influence which is often linked to the promotion of the nefarious interests of the Russian state”.
Russian agents have murdered political opponents of Putin here and in other European countries. Russia hosts criminal groups that commit sophisticated cybercrimes and organized child abuse. It undermines information and democratic processes here and elsewhere. Consciously or not, our politicians, civil servants, lawyers, accountants, public relations professionals and even real estate agents have facilitated these activities. Our very strengths – freedom of expression, property rights, rule of law – have been exploited. And thanks to the income collected, we closed our eyes.
It’s not just Russia. China has bought its place in our critical national infrastructure and our universities. Its companies occupy our telecommunications network and provide video surveillance inside ministerial offices. Its media spokespersons hide in newspapers and freely accessible social media accounts.
Islamists are the same. Foreign governments that fund organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood fund media outlets that employ British journalists. Hate preachers and extremist organizations engage in identity politics, manipulate the press regulator, and hire the most expensive lawyers to shut down the scrutiny. As always, self-hating useful idiots and scared politicians often do the work of extremists for them.
The West mishandled Russia after the Cold War, and Britain made appalling mistakes in pursuing a “golden era” of relations with China and appeasement of local extremists. But there is no longer any excuse for inaction when we urgently need to overcome our weakness.
It is vital that we prevent our enemies from using our free societies against us. Our intelligence services, overwhelmed by threats, need more resources. We need greater energy security, which we can achieve with more nuclear energy and greater exploitation of our own gas fields. We need tougher laws on foreign ownership of UK assets and businesses. We must put an end to the laundering of dirty money in London and we must expel China from our universities and our infrastructures.
In the immediate term, we must act against Russian interests. We should remove Russian companies from Western stock exchanges and stop trading their debts and bonds. We should force companies to stop serving Russian companies. And if our laws are used to thwart action against Russian oligarchs in London, Parliament should pass a law, notwithstanding those laws, freezing the assets of the named oligarchs and their families, and expelling them from the country.
We must strengthen our military capabilities. Our defense policies and budgets assume that future wars will be elective and against weaker states and terrorists. But we must be prepared for war between peers. Russia and China have hypersonic missile technologies superior to our defenses and to US offensive capabilities. Our strategy is based on aircraft carriers that could be destroyed in moments.
We must compete for global influence, resist the corruption of international institutions, and build new groupings to promote cooperation among allies. We need to take strategic industrial and technological capabilities away from China and stop giving away what should be leveraged. We must bring Sweden and Finland into NATO and deploy more troops in Eastern Europe.
Decoupling from states like Russia and China will be difficult, costly and painful. But the longer we wait, the harder it will be. With weak leaders and national divisions, it’s easy to think the West is screwed, but we are much stronger, richer and better than our enemies. With realism and leadership, we can still win.