The annexation of Crimea by Russia has stimulated my imagination. So have the writers who suggest that we ought to move NATO forces hundreds of miles closer to Russia. So has Vladimir Putin when he says, "If you press the spring too hard, it will snap back. You must always remember this."
These suggestive lines, coupled with all the abstract talk about democracy, authoritarianism, ethno-nationalism, and aggression, have my mind traveling to some pretty dark places.
I cannot help but imagine the worst-case scenario. I know it almost certainly will not happen. Mutually assured destruction is a powerful deterrent, and it's hard to see a global nuclear war breaking out over a regional territorial dispute. And yet... I'm also fully aware that at least dozens of nuclear missiles are currently programmed to crash down on the metropolis just next door to where I live in Westchester, N.Y.
I have sometimes imagined the aftermath of a full nuclear attack in my own hometown. I can see thousands of the wretched living walking north through town, coming up from the middle of the county. Most of the people are quiet, but some of them are wailing. Nearly all of them will be dead within days, depending on the wind. I think about what decisions I would make, knowing that the food I have is spoiling, that I need to move to survive, that even if civil order is maintained somewhere (Canada?) for now, nobody has an obligation or capacity to take us in, and that such order has little chance of surviving for long when nearly the entire continent's food supply and internal trading routes have been destroyed. Starvation, murder, radiation poisoning, the new realities.
I know that I am probably only drifting into these dark places because when I was young and impressionable, I watched a VHS copy of the extremely upsetting TV movie The Day After.
Unlikely as it is, considering the nightmare scenario is sobering. It gives a certain clarity. In the face of that nuclear terror, frankly, I don't give a rip about the territorial integrity of Ukraine, or our NATO allies. Weighed against the scenario where my family looks at me helplessly as we realize we're all going to die miserably and everyone we know will too, I'd accept just about any breach of international norms. I guess I'm just selfish that way.
So I'm inclined to seek ways of understanding Russia's actions. I see a nation and dictator that suffered a humiliation when the pro-Russian government in Kiev fell, and has sought to recover it through a quick, illegal annexation, abetted by a rigged referendum. I'm inclined to understand their anxiety to maintain access to their Black Sea military resources. Yes, I'm inclined this way, partly, because of fear. Because years after the Berlin Wall came down, there is still a loaded gun pointed at our heads.
Our country and its political class used to share this fear. During the Cold War the threat of war with the Soviet Union was paralyzing. We did nothing in 1956 when the Red Army killed 50,000 in Hungary. Nothing again in Prague in 1968. America's interests came before America's ideals and ideology, before the lives of others. Compare Russian violence in the Cold War to the violence in Crimea. Beyond the redrawing of borders, and the offense to international norms, the result of this annexation is one Ukrainian soldier killed. I've also seen footage of Vice's news crew being threatened and arrested. By comparison, the mere existence of regimes like those in North Korea produce worse injustices every day.
I know that this dread is what causes nations to appease dictators, to rationalize the subversion of elections far beyond Russia's borders in order to keep the Kremlin feeling at ease. I know it makes me regret the expansion of NATO after the Cold War.
Freedom depends on not being intimidated. But if the only way to live in freedom is to live without fear, then contemplating the worst occasions radical thoughts for a conservative. Can national sovereignty and political freedom really exist in an age of nuclear superpowers? What if preserving those political achievements really does require their complete abolition?
These days the press is gleefully churning out headlines about a renewed Cold War. Our political thinkers seem enlivened by the re-emergence of a real geo-strategic foe.
I don't want a new Cold War. The first was bad enough. But if our political class is determined to clash with Russia, we ought to learn to fear them as well.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- How our botched understanding of 'science' ruins everything
- California's epic drought
- 6 things the happiest families all have in common
- What would a U.S.-Russia war look like?
- The science of sex: 4 harsh truths about dating and mating
- Obama knows he can't really 'defeat' ISIS. Americans need to wake up to that reality, too.
- Why so many Christians won't back down on gay marriage
- How Scotland's independence movement lost the vote and still won everything
Subscribe to the Week