The Course of Empire: Destruction, by Thomas Cole. Picture Credit: New York Historical Society/Getty Images

The perils of prosperity

Does the decadent West have the will to defy Putin?

Artillery Row

There is a meme that has found popularity within the right-wing edges of the internet, which some will be familiar with. It states “hard time make strong men; strong make good times; good times make weak men; weak men make hard times”. Its origins are in a post-apocalyptic novel by the author G. Michael Hopf, and it is an attempt to describe the natural cycle of civilizations. Its memified version is likely often intended to refer to the relative softness of our society as a result of highly prosperous and desirable material conditions, or something like this.

Disregarding the quasi-fascistic extremes this can be taken to, I predict that what truth there is to this idea will dawn upon us in the near-term future, as the often abstract windings of geopolitics come closer to home — and not just in the sense of happening on our continent. In response to President Putin’s invasion of a sovereign UN member state and allied democracy, the West, led by the United States, has slapped severe sanctions on Russia. Granted, this is nothing Putin had not expected, but they will further weaken an already-perpetually sluggish Russian economy.

We need psychological preparedness

However, they’ll also have an effect on our own. Global gas and oil prices have surged, pushing UK petrol prices to record highs, while raw materials such as aluminium and other raw materials have smashed records, and wheat prices join in on the fun. All of this will exacerbate a cost-of-living crisis that has had the public grumbling for some years. And no one should think it will end here.

The invasion of Ukraine has completed Russia’s transition into unambiguous pariah state. The international community is about as united as it can be in condemnation, and our confrontation with Putin is now qualitatively different than it was a week ago. As this level of tension between Russia and the West becomes the new normal, the world is an even more uncertain place than it was last year. Military conflict should of course be avoided by all reasonable means, although an escalating sanctions war is a distinct possibility — and we should all understand what that means for us.

In short, it means a degree of sacrifice on all our parts. Sanctions wars, like military wars, hurt both sides; the winner is determined by who has the greater economic leverage, and who has the higher pain threshold. And while the former broadly favours the West, the latter may be of some concern. Because it is a curious side effect of prosperity, such that the UK, and much of the west, has enjoyed for the past several decades, that it tends to diminish a society’s pain threshold, and with it, their resilience.

People can often be willing to endure harsh conditions that they have already been enduring, but nobody wants to be plunged into them, much less make the choice to be. Nevertheless, I think it would be the right choice, should things escalate, to be willing to let our economies take the hit in order to stand up to a man who has gone out of his way to demonstrate his unappeasable hostility.

Are we willing to put our money where our mouths are?

It’s important to understand that all bets are off here. The prospect, for example, of Putin eventually pulling out the trump card of cutting the continent off from gas is a real one. The modern-day Tsar has shown he is willing to subject his country to enormous economic harm just to hurt the West, and we have no choice but to match this attitude. This will firstly require long-term contingency planning for such a possibility, meaning making a serious effort to seek alternative gas suppliers, as well as investing in nuclear, and for now, reviving some fracking (sorry Extinction Rebellion).

But more than this, we need psychological preparedness. Even with all the contingency planning in the world, a blanket denial of gas may mean energy rationing in the short term, and possibly blackouts. Are we willing to suffer this? Its certainly not obvious that we are. However, with the Ukrainians willing to suffer bombs and missiles, it would feel rather shameful if we weren’t.

Then there is the increased defence spending the UK, and all NATO members, have a responsibility to engage in to achieve credible deterrence — deterrence which, until now, we have duped ourselves into believing we didn’t need. If the integrity of NATO isn’t defended now, the West is all but finished. When it comes to budgeting, defence is never a popular priority, particularly with our current, post-covid economies and debt-levels. However, small countries with large hostile neighbours, such as Greece, Israel, and Ukraine, understand that reasonably high defence spending is simply non-negotiable, and learn to live with it. We must come to this realisation too, and promptly.

In recent years, our leaders have been promising us unhindered economic growth, and at the same time, a rapid transition to net-zero. Now, they are also promising to stand strong against Putin’s aggression. But something here has got to give. Our accustomedness to peace and prosperity, desirable conditions though they are, has given the illusion that such things are self-sustaining, and left us unprepared for the current moment. Soon, the time may come to prioritise steadfastness over indulgence; stoicism over greed. The platitudes of standing united against aggression are fine, but in the final analysis, are we willing to put our money where our mouths are?

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