The arc of history, we are often told, bends toward justice. It’s a warming sentiment, but as the Russian invasion of Ukraine shows, it’s unfounded. History has no arc, progress is not inevitable, and civilization rests on shifting sands.
But the madness about progress and the belief that the future belongs to us remain powerful. Time and again we are stung by our complacency, yet inconvenient old truths—that security rests on strength, liberty on might, laws on the power to uphold them—are routinely ignored.
Whatever advances we may make in technology, commerce, or human knowledge, conflicts of values and interests between states and ethnic and religious groups will always be inevitable. Indeed, it is not only that human achievements cannot prevent such clashes; they can make them more dangerous and violent.
Consider how China uses Internet technologies to control its people, persecute the 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 enabled by a rogue theocratic state or terrorist group gaining knowledge of chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons.
And think of Russia. Global networking should make the world safer. Countries that trade with each other, the theory goes, will not fight each other. But Russia, like China and the Islamists, has figured out how to exploit our open societies and economies. It has used its presence within them to corrupt and weaken us, empower and enrich itself, and evolve postmodern, post-truth offensive hybrid capabilities.
Russia has a smaller economy than Italy and its per capita income is a quarter of Britain’s. But thanks to catastrophic decisions in Europe, especially by Angela Merkel, it has brought about a situation where the European economy is dependent on its energy exports. From personalities like François Fillon and Gerhard Schröder to regional and local politicians further down the food chain, she has bought influence and political power in European democracies.
Britain is scarcely less culpable. London’s property market and the city’s financial markets are awash with dirty Russian money. Russian oligarchs – few of whom have made or keep their vast fortunes without the support of Putin’s murderous regime – go about their lives freely here. As noted by the Intelligence and Security Committee, an entire industry exists in London to “facilitate the expansion of Russian influence, often associated with furthering the nefarious interests of the Russian state.”
Russian agents have assassinated Putin’s political opponents here and in other European countries. Russia is home to criminal groups that commit sophisticated cybercrime and organized child abuse. It undermines news and democratic processes here and elsewhere. Knowingly or not, our politicians, civil servants, lawyers, accountants, public relations professionals, and even real estate agents have supported these activities. Our real strengths – freedom of expression, property rights, the rule of law – have been exploited. And thanks to the income generated, we turned a blind eye.
It’s not just Russia. China has bought into our critical national infrastructure and universities. His companies occupy our telecom network and provide CCTV in ministerial offices. Its media mouthpieces churned out lies in freely available newspapers and 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 run identity politics, manipulate the press regulator and hire the most expensive lawyers to break the scrutiny. As before, self-loathing useful idiots and frightened politicians often do the extremists’ work for them.
The West mistreated Russia after the Cold War, and Britain made appalling mistakes in pursuing a “golden era” in relations with China and appeasing domestic extremists. But there is no excuse for inaction now when we urgently need to overcome our weakness.
It is vital that we prevent our enemies from using our free societies against us. Overwhelmed by threats, our intelligence agencies need more resources. We need greater energy security, which we can achieve with more nuclear power and greater exploitation of our own gas fields. We need stricter laws on foreign ownership of UK assets and companies. We must end the dirty money laundering in London, and we must kick China out of our universities and infrastructure.
Most urgently, we must act against Russian interests. We should remove Russian companies from Western stock exchanges and stop trading their debt and bonds. We should force companies to stop providing services to Russian companies. And if our laws are being used to thwart action against Russian oligarchs in London, those laws notwithstanding, Parliament should pass legislation freezing the assets of 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 electoral wars against weaker states and terrorists. But we must be prepared for peer-to-peer warfare. Russia and China have hypersonic missile technologies superior to our defense and US offensive capabilities. Our strategy is based on aircraft carriers that could be destroyed in a few moments.
We must fight for global influence, resist the corruption of international institutions, and build new factions to foster cooperation among allies. We must keep strategic industrial and technological capabilities away from China and stop giving away what should be used as leverage for free. We must bring Sweden and Finland into NATO and station more troops in Eastern Europe.
Disengaging from states like Russia and China will be difficult, expensive and painful. But the longer we wait, the harder it gets. With weak leaders and internal divisions, it’s easy to think the West is done for, but we’re far stronger, richer, and better than our enemies. With realism and leadership, we can still prevail.