THERE ARE MOMENTS in history when the essential powerlessness of our leaders stands exposed for all their people to see. Moments when they are struck forcefully by the brutal realisation that they have no good options – only the least worse ones. The manner in which they respond to these moments is critical.
Volodymyr Zelensky, for example, presented with the reality of Russian forces rolling across Ukraine’s borders at multiple points, had to accept the reality that his worst nightmare was now upon him. The man who had campaigned on promises of peace, now faced war with an enemy the whole world expected to be rumbling through his capital city within three days.
The Americans famously offered Zelensky a ride out of harm’s way. He refused. Faced with no good options, he chose what was, morally, the least worse: he stayed where he was. Outnumbered and outgunned, he nevertheless vowed to defend his homeland and his people.
And the hearts of the peoples of the West beat a little faster. After the shame of the cowardly flight from Afghanistan, the spirits of Westerners were lifted. Everywhere, from the battlements of Edinburgh Castle, to the rooftops of Dunedin, Ukraine’s blue and yellow banners suddenly blossomed, like bright flowers of freedom.
To the immense relief of their elders, young people were presented with the inescapable reality of heroism. They saw Zelensky in his olive-drab T-shirts; they saw men and women their own age stepping away from their university studies; saying farewell to their workmates; and presenting themselves to be trained in the operation of deadly weapons. They learned that there are some things worth fighting for – worth dying for. They also learned how to say: Sláva Ukrayíni! – Glory to Ukraine!
How much easier it would have been: not only for Vladimir Putin and the Russian Federation, but also for the West itself, if Zelensky had taken that ride. If Kyiv had fallen in three days and a puppet government subservient to Moscow had been installed. Diplomatically, the world would have been confronted with a convenient fait accompli. Western leaders, most particularly, President Joe Biden, would have huffed and puffed. Sanctions of a largely cosmetic nature would have been imposed. And that would have been that.
The waters of the world, briefly disturbed, would have returned to their former placidity. And the children of the West would have received yet more lessons from their leaders. That might makes right. That nothing is worth fighting for. That heroism is dead.
It has taken the example of Zelensky to make us understand, fully, the true political magic of Winston Churchill’s example in 1940. France had fallen, and those who purported to speak the language of realism argued that Great Britain was “irredeemably lost”. The world expected to learn, any day, of Britain’s surrender, confirming the irreversible advance of fascism across the entire globe. But, Churchill said “No!” Refusing to bow to the “inevitable”, he vowed that Britain would “never surrender”.
The flame of freedom, guttering, grew suddenly stronger and brighter. The darkness hesitated and drew back. Hope sang – like a nightingale in Berkeley Square.
So, what do we do now? Now that Ukraine is fighting for us all? Now that we can no longer afford to let her lose? What is the least worse option being offered to our own leader, Jacinda Ardern?
She may already have taken it.
Diplomatically and militarily the game is changing. Russia and China are already allies – and only likely to grow closer together. Against the fluttering complexities of liberty and democracy, they will offer the straight lines and sharp edges of authoritarianism. In place of the heady wines of freedom, they will offer the opium of security.
It would be most unwise to believe that this new Eurasian behemoth will not find friends. The wounds inflicted by the West still bleed in many countries. Among the victims of imperialism, the virtues of democracy and freedom are often obscured by tears.
But, if we would not shed tears of our own, then we must look to our own safety. At the end of this month, Prime Minister Ardern will attend the Nato Summit. Alongside Australia’s Anthony Albanese, she will hear plans for a great Western alliance extending the protections of collective security well beyond the North Atlantic.
Our least worse option.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 10 June 2022.