Western elites and reality. Q & A WITH AURELIEN_edited by Roberto Buffagni
italiaeilmondo.com has long followed the weekly publications of ‘Aurelien’ on his substack with keen interest, and has translated several of his articles. We asked Aurelien four questions, which he answered with his usual clarity and insight. We thank him sincerely for his kindness and generosity. Happy reading. Roberto Buffagni
Q & A WITH AURELIEN
- What are the main reasons for the serious errors of judgment made by Western political-military decision makers in the war in Ukraine?
Books will be written about this! We should first begin by defining the errors, since not everyone will have the same list, and not everyone will regard certain decisions as errors.
However, I think most people would agree that there were two basic errors. The first was the failure to correctly anticipate the Russian reaction both to the military strengthening of Ukraine by NATO after 2014, and then to the series of events beginning with the Russian tabling of draft treaties at the end of 2021. I am aware that some people have argued that the war was not, in fact, an error, but a deliberate plot to lure Russia into a conflict. I do not believe this: politics does not work in that way, and such a plot, which would have to be somehow kept secret within NATO for years, would be unthinkably complicated and anyway effectively impossible to conceal. There are certainly individuals who fantasised about a war with Russia, and others who tried, when they were in power, to pursue a confrontational policy, but I continue to believe that the actual Russian reaction was not anticipated, and that this was indeed an error. The second error I think would be agreed by almost everybody: the complete failure to realise the size, complexity and sophistication of the Russian military-industrial complex, and the human and material resources of the Russian Army.
In many ways, both errors derived from the same set of factors. The first is simply that western governments were not greatly interested in Russia, and did not think the country was particularly important. For some time, the focus had been moving to China, economically and strategically, and to the Middle East and Islamic terrorism. Good careers were no longer made by specialising in Russia, and the kind of Russians that westerners in government and the media usually met were wealthy, educated and English-speaking, often having been educated in the US or Europe. With many other priorities, governments simply could not devote the effort to studying Russia that they would have done forty years ago, and they did not think this was necessary anyway. To become an expert on Russian military production, for example, takes years of specialist training and experience, at a time when other things were considered more important. Western governments had an image of Russia, which had scarcely changed since the 1990s, and contrasted unfavourably with the more positive image of what they saw as a modern, pro-western Ukraine. Linked with this is what I can only describe as a traditional European racialist dismissal of the Russian Slavs, as primitive and backward. Militarily, they were not treated as a serious opponent, assumed to have been defeated in Afghanistan and Chechnya, and considerably behind the West in military technology. A small but important point is that the western image of the Red Army in the Second World War is drawn largely from interviews with German generals, and German documents (in the absence of the Soviet equivalents) and this image was very misleading.
- Are they errors of a ruling class or are they errors of an entire culture?
Clearly, the more technical errors of appreciation and understanding were by definition those of the government and its advisors, as well as the media: the ruling class if you like. They behaved with an amateurism and lack of understanding that their predecessors even thirty or forty years before would have been ashamed to display. But any ruling class necessarily reflects the cultural values of a society, because that class (if we understand “class” here as a social and professional label, not an economic class) consists of those people who have succeeded best according to the cultural rules of the time. Simply put, a senior military officer or diplomat in most western counties has arrived in their position by knowing what is wanted, how to sound, what to say to the political class, and indeed has been socialised into a culturally-dominant way of thinking. In such a culture, where short-termism rules and managerialism and presentation is all, the ruling class is unprepared for the arrival of genuinely serious problems, and incapable of dealing with them. And this is a genuine change. The European ruling class of a hundred years ago had a fundamental seriousness, from its religious, political, ethical or nationalist convictions, that makes today’s look like a group of children.
- The war in Ukraine manifests a crisis of the West. Is it reversible? If so, how? If not, why?
Whether it is reversible, depends on what you think the crisis is about. I think it actually comes in three parts.
The first is a crisis of influence. I say that rather than “power” because it’s more complex than just power. For a relatively brief but significant period of time, the collective West has been the most influential political and economic force on the planet. It has been militarily dominant (at least against those who have fought it) and politically powerful at an international level. Its influence in the UN and other international organisations has been much greater than any other bloc, and it is used to having an important voice in managing problems elsewhere in the world: in the Middle East, for example. This will not change instantly, since, for example, accumulated western expertise in crisis management in some parts of the world can’t be replaced overnight. But the West will increasingly be obliged to share power, and to either compete for influence, or more probably learn to cooperate with, other actors, and recognise its own limitations. This may not be easy, and indeed may not actually be possible.
The second is a crisis of universalism. The particular form of social and economic Liberalism that dominates today has pretensions to being a universal system of values, with a teleological destiny that means that one day it will be adopted by the entire world. And history suggests that any system of values that claim to be universal has to always go forward, and when it stops going forward, it is inclined to move back. It is difficult for a universalist system to recognise that it has reached its limits and must stop, yet I think that is actually the position that the West’s ideology is in now. Most of the world does not share this ideology, even if elites in many non-western countries pay lip-service to it, and it will be very hard for the West, and particularly institutions such as the EU, to abandon these universalist aspirations.
The third is an economic crisis. For a long time the West has lived off its early industrialisation, its educated workforce and developed financial system. Yet more recently all of these have been in decline. Even European countries like Germany and Italy, with significant industrial sectors, have been following the trend towards de-industrialisation and financialisation, and of course the experience of the Ukraine crisis has accelerated this process. The West finds itself dependent on both raw materials and finished imports from elsewhere, and it has found that you can’t eat financial derivatives. Re-industrialisation, for all that it is talked about, would require a wartime level of mobilisation perhaps over a period of 10-15 years to have any chance of success; The West is going to have to get used to being economically dependent on others, who may themselves decide to make political use of our weakness. I’m not sure our ruling elites are ready for that.
In general, I don’t think any of these three things is reversible. The real issue is the extent to which we can live with relative decline, and adapt to it. By “we” of course I mean our political elites with their well-known weaknesses. But more generally, I think there is a risk that the incompetence of these elites, and their difficulty in facing reality, may lead to stresses that some part, at least, of the West may not survive.
- China and Russia, the two emerging powers challenging U.S. and Western unipolar domination, have since the collapse of communism reconnected with their pre-modern cultural traditions: Confucianism for China, Orthodox Christianity for Russia. Why? Can the backward, literally “reactionary” return take root in a modern industrial society?
I’m not sure that these two countries (especially China) ever entirely abandoned their historical traditions, and of course the Chinese Communist Party is still in power, but I’m not really an expert on either country. As far as the West is concerned, we should not over-stress the idea of unipolarity. The West is divided on many issues (indeed, the US itself is divided on many issues, for that matter) and a great deal of what goes on below the surface of international politics reflects very complex multilateral dynamics. However, the West, and particularly the US, is inclined to see this situation in very stark terms, and often to believe that it has more power and influence than is actually the case. For this reason, the inevitable accommodation to a world where power is going to be differently distributed will be a problem for western elites.
Just as we should not assume that the world is simply “unipolar” now, so we should not assume that it will be simply “multipolar” in future. I prefer to talk of power being “distributed” in different forms among different actors. Nonetheless, the two nations you mention (one could add India, and of course Korea and Japan have also retained their traditions) do have a solid civilisational base to fall back on. Until perhaps fifty years ago one could say the same of the West, but the whole point about modern Liberalism is, of course, that it is post-national, post-cultural, post-identity, and entirely technocratic in its concept and execution. I find it really difficult to see how you can build identity around a dogma which specifically denies identity. It’s not that people in the West have lost the urge to collective identity: the Coronation of King Charles III earlier this year was an example of how much ordinary people seek common points of reference. The problem is that, for all the different types of interest at the moment in traditional religions, in certain types of participative politics or in such issues as environmentalism, all of these are minority interests, and often in opposition to each other. Once you have destroyed traditions, I really don’t see that you can create new ones easily, or revive old ones. Indeed, the speed of the collapse of Communism in Europe is a good example of how quickly and irreversibly traditions not based on historical references can collapse. I can imagine reactionary politics in the sense you describe, but unfortunately there are likely to be a number of them, probably mutually hostile to each other, rather than a single one.