History isn’t malicious, just instructive. It tells us that progress isn’t inevitable; that justice isn’t always done; that good won’t always win; and that danger always lurks.
Above all, it tells us that individual and collective choice matters: that our beliefs drive our actions, and that havoc can be wreaked, or stopped, because people decide to make a stand.
Few things have been more telling than the reaction of key countries to the Russian army poised on Ukraine’s borders.
Britain and America have sent anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles but no troops. Germany has been reluctant even to threaten sanctions, should Russia invade. And in shades of Munich, France has championed a peace deal based on changing the Ukrainian constitution to meet Russia’s demands.
In trying to extract a pledge from his smaller neighbour that it will never join NATO, the Russian president is exploiting the universal fear of war in an attempt to dictate the policy of NATO and to smash the independence of Ukraine.
He’s relying on everyone’s unwillingness to take risks for someone else. And so far, he’s succeeding; the Europeans and the Americans are divided and the West looks impotent.
The only ones to emerge with much credit are the Ukrainians themselves, who’ve manned their defences and insisted on their right to conduct an independent foreign policy, including joining NATO and the EU.
But regardless of how this particular episode plays out, let’s be under no illusion. Vladimir Putin sees himself as the new Tsar, a ruler for life, determined to restore greater Russia.
To that end, he’s invaded Georgia, annexed the Crimea, occupied the Donbas, killed-without-compunction opponents at home and abroad, and restored Russia as a military superpower despite an economy smaller than Italy’s.
Ukraine is but his present target, because it persists in looking west not east; and because the 1994 Anglo-American security assurance, named for this very city, in return for the surrender of Soviet-era nuclear weapons, failed to replicate the one-in, all-in provision of Article 5 of the NATO Charter.
However the current stand-off ends, we can be confident that Putin’s campaign will continue, remorseless, relentless, by all means up to and including all-out-war, until Ukraine becomes a Russian colony.
And then his attention will turn to the Baltic States, and then to Poland, and then to the other former Soviet satellites, until Russia is again the overlord of Eastern Europe.
I fear the only thing that will stop him is death, defeat, or the conviction that he would lose.
On what do I base that?
Well, after a Russian missile battery shot down MH17 over the eastern Ukraine, killing 38 Australians, I promised to “shirtfront” the Russian president – it’s an Australian sporting term for a rough tackle.
I had that very robust conversation with him on the sidelines of the APEC summit in Beijing in 2014. With rare intensity, he insisted that Ukraine was really Russian and that their government was fascist or worse – and that provocateurs had brought down the plane.
And then he grabbed me with both hands and said something both strange and revealing: “you are not a native Australian”, he said, “but I am a native Russian”.
It’s this passion for blood and soil and sacred mission that drives my sense that he’s ready to take big risks, to restore the Russia of his dreams, especially against weakness and vulnerability.
Of course, Putin is not Hitler, and Ukraine is not Czechoslovakia, and these are not the 1930s, but there are plenty of disturbing parallels, including a new “axis” of great powers ready to disturb the peace to get what they want.
A fortnight back, the Russian dictator and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, issued a declaration on “International Relations Entering a New Era”. We know the type of new era they have in mind from their preposterous claim that both Russia and China enjoy “long-standing traditions of democracy”.
This would be news to the gaoled Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, and to the gaoled Australian news anchor Cheng Lei, and to the tennis star Peng Shuai now doomed to life in a cage.
For Beijing, ”democracy with Chinese characteristics” obviously covers the internment of more than a million Uighurs, the strangulation of Hong Kong despite the solemn promise of one country, two systems, and the near daily intimidation of Taiwan, a genuine democracy that proves there’s no totalitarian gene in the Chinese DNA.
Not for nothing has China built what’s already the world’s largest navy, plus a militarised coast guard, plus a maritime militia, and achieved what many defence planners think is military superiority over the United States in the Western Pacific.
The main purpose of this joint declaration, this Moscow-Beijing axis, is to bury, they say, the “political and military alliances of the Cold War era” – so no more NATO, no US troops in Japan and South Korea, and ultimately an end to the Pax Americana – through a dictators’ partnership that has, they say, “no limits” and no “forbidden areas of cooperation”.
The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, maybe it’s not; but it’s definitely a free hand from each, for the other to do its worst.
At heart, what they both reject is the American-backed world order, a liberal and humane set of understandings and arrangements, that’s enabled the very best time in human history; with the world’s people more free, more safe and more prosperous than ever before.
Even though they’ve both befitted from it, with half a billion Chinese moving from the third world to the middle class in scarcely a generation, after President Clinton bent the rules to admit China to the WTO; and with Russia becoming a petro-power that can turn Europe’s energy on-and-off like a tap.
For years, American officialdom ignored the Chinese leadership’s much- stated intention to be the world’s top country by mid-century; only for the secretary of state, just a week ago in Melbourne, belatedly to declare that China’s goal was indeed global domination.
So, with these latter-day dictators clearly on the march, as Lenin once asked: what is to be done?
In his celebrated speech attacking the Munich sell-out as a “defeat without a war”, Winston Churchill declared that this was but “the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year, unless by a supreme recovery of moral health” – let’s underline that – “moral health” he said, “and martial vigour, we arise again and take our stand for freedom, as in the olden time”.
A response to the dictators starts with appreciating that just because war is unthinkable to us, doesn’t make it unthinkable to them.
Since the beginning of time, the strong have always been tempted to take advantage of the weak; and the tough and the hungry have always sought to usurp the indolent and the soft.
Throw in what [British philosopher David] Hume recognised, that passions drive reason, and what’s unthinkable to most can become entirely reasonable to some, especially those on a quest for national glory.
Last week, the German chancellor proclaimed that “war has become unthinkable in Europe and we have to make sure it stays that way” – even though he must know, that up against someone who thinks differently, and who routinely uses war to achieve his ends, the only way to avoid war is to surrender.
Is Germany so ashamed of its past, and so enervated by its wealth, that it can no longer stand up to those set on taking advantage of it, including a Russian president bent on economic and military blackmail?
We must hope that events don’t give us the wrong answer.
That’s the baleful side of 1989: this notion that the fall of the Berlin Wall marked the “end of history” and the era of universal peace based on the triumph of liberal capitalism.
Rather than a new beginning, 1989 was simply one brief shining moment in time, when liberal nations were clearly ascendant over illiberal ones.
But that was soon squandered, through misplaced idealism: by bloody, expensive and largely futile nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan, that’s sapped the West’s strength and self-confidence; and by welcoming China and Russia into global markets, that’s increased their wealth and strength but not their goodwill.
As their current adventurism shows, both countries’ exceptionalism still includes the conviction that they should dominate their regions, if not the wider world.
All that’s lingered from those heady days, three decades back, is the conviction of Western elites that their obsessions with climate change and identity politics are widely shared; coupled with their strange unwillingness to call-out in other cultures what they condemn in their own.
As the five decades after 1945 show, the only way to keep aggressors at bay is collective security; otherwise, the strong do what they will, and the weak suffer what they must.
Take Eastern Europe: if it’s Russia against Ukraine, sooner or later, Russia will prevail; as Russia ultimately did against Finland in 1940.
Take East Asia: if it’s China against Taiwan, China will inevitably prevail.
But if it’s Russia or China versus the democracies, one for all and all for one, that’s an entirely different matter.
Perhaps this military crisis might awaken the people of Western countries, so recently discombobulated by a virus, and so unaccustomed to sacrifice, to how readily a freedom that’s not cherished and defended can be lost.
We have to make the war that’s unthinkable to us, for moral reasons, unthinkable to them for prudential reasons. We who shrink from war because it’s morally wrong have to make others shrink from war because they’d likely lose.
Of course, our instinctive initial reaction is to avoid entirely “quarrels in faraway countries between people of whom we know nothing”.
Yet what other countries’ freedom might be dispensable, if theirs is? And who would we fight alongside, if not them? And if others’ fights aren’t ours, who might help us, when our turn comes?
This is where moral health is indeed called for, as much as martial vigour, in any contest between nations.
We can’t forget Churchill’s other observation that “jaw-jaw is better than war-war”, provided we remember that the point of diplomacy with dictators is to deliver a stern message that their demands are unacceptable.
It would be shameful were any pressure to be put on Ukraine to accept Putin’s demands because concessions would just embolden a bully.
Even now, I’m not sure how widely it’s grasped what’s at stake in this confrontation between democracy and autocracy, between sovereignty and subservience – and how the whole trajectory of history could change.
Meanwhile, comrades Putin and Xi watch the scuttle from Kabul, because a long-term military presence was judged to be too hard; the toppling of statues, because yesterday’s heroes have to be damned by today’s standards; and our self-flagellation over race and identity, even though there’s never been less racism, and minorities have never had a fairer go, and conclude that a decadent West is unlikely to defend itself with vigour, let alone stand up for others.
They see America in retreat, and no other country or collection of countries with strength and goodwill sufficient to be the guardian of peace with freedom.
For all of us as individuals and for each of our countries, the challenge is to prove them wrong. As long there are millions who would seek a better life in Western countries, we need to accept that vote of confidence in ourselves, and never weaken on what’s made us great.