The Prince’s Playground and the Pauper’s Peril

The First World War, better known now as World War I and referred to by those who fought in it as the Great War, was a truly “stupid” war. By using the word “stupid” I do not mean to imply that it was inconsequential, nor do I mean any disrespect to those who fought on its battlefields. The Great War is clearly a contender for history’s most consequential conflict and I am quite confident that we still feel its repercussions today. Similarly, history records that the combatants were profoundly impacted by the horrors to which they were witnesses and I’d never diminish their sacrifices, nor the sacrifices of their families, by trivializing the war.

But, the word “stupid” works within the context in which I perceive the war. Benjamin Franklin said something along the lines that a bad peace was always better than a good war. He was absolutely correct. There are times, unfortunately, when war is both justified and necessary. The Great War was neither justified nor necessary, albeit perhaps inevitable.

The “peace” preceding the Great War—if the word “peace” can even be invoked here as the Europeans prior to the end of World War II seemed committed to a constant state of conflict—was seemingly built on a Rube Goldberg-inspired concoction of various alliances and treaties, some of which were state secrets, so nobody could really be sure of who was truly allied with whom. Furthermore, this was an era in which aristocracies still ruled (literally). Intermarriage between ruling families was common and this whole “way of doing things” so limited those “qualified” to rule that the notion of any kind of meritocracy in national leadership was a joke.

Throw the assassination of the heir-apparent to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire—which was met with a yawn by the throne’s ruling incumbent—onto the house of cards that were the day’s international relationships, apply a massive amount of leadership and diplomatic incompetence, adopt a score of new technologies to make weapons far more destructive and lethal and use them indiscriminately, and you have one of the deadliest periods of human history. Oh, and in the wake of the conflict as you’re establishing a new “peace,” be sure to set up the conditions that lead directly to the horrors of the Great War’s sequel, World War II.

Human and social frailty and stupidity at the peak of their powers.

Among the casualties of the war were no fewer than four empires, all of which ceased to exist after the fighting stopped. The Austro-Hungarian, Russian, German and Ottoman Empires were consigned to history. This is the price paid for the imbecility and entitled mentality of their aristocratic leaders.

But, the price paid by regular people was far greater. In the decades before the war, millions of citizens left their ancestral homes (where they may have lived for hundreds of years) and moved thousands of miles away, including huge numbers who chose America. Yes, it must be hard to leave a place that has always been “home,” but that decision is easier when you lack basic freedoms, have minimal economic prospects and are subservient to leaders who share neither your history nor your values and who, in fact, make efforts to reshape and/or reframe both without allowing you any voice in the matter.

Then, you have the enormous toll of human suffering from the war itself. Brutal war crimes were committed. Chemical weapons were introduced to the battlefield and some would say those killed were luckier than many of the survivors. Genocides and “ethnic cleansing” were a part of the mix in multiple theaters of the war. Over 8 million Europeans died in the course of the conflict and many millions more were left with the permanent scars of war for the rest of their lives.

As in most, if not all, national conflicts, the context and conditions are set by the rulers, or “princes,” but the burden is borne by the people, or “paupers.” World War I is a perfect example of this dynamic.

One of the many beautiful precepts to emerge from the American Revolution was the notion of government requiring the consent of the governed for legitimacy. The autocrats and dictators and princes of the world ultimately require the compliance of their populations to rule; but any consent they generally give is, for the most part, coerced.

The latest chapter in this thread of history is Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine for reasons that appear quite difficult to ascertain. Honestly, the best theory I can fashion is that he shares the same dream of ruling a sprawling empire that drove the Tsars of the Russian Empire and the various Premiers of the Soviet Union. In the latter situation, at least a case could be made for Mother Russia requiring (after the trauma of World War II) a surrounding security buffer to justify the Eastern Bloc. Putin, however, rules in era of unparalleled European peace and, thus, the security argument is hard to countenance.

Sadly, it seems that in Putin’s worldview, Russia’s identity and purpose is found in subjugating peoples who do not wish to be Russian. The Ukrainians see the Russian troops in their country as invaders, not liberators, and I strongly suspect that the peoples of Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, and so on would feel the same were Russian tanks and troops to roll into their countries.

This is another “stupid” war, arguably even more stupid than the Great War as it seems to have emerged from the head of a single individual named Vlad. There does appear to be some support from the Russian people, though that support is likely based on the barrage of bull they are constantly fed through their state media. Ukraine posed no military threat to Russia, so there’s no issue of national security. The whole de-Nazification argument is rubbish. There’s clearly a corruption issue within Ukraine, but that’s got nothing to do with Russia or Naziism and seems to be a broad problem in that part of the world. Certainly, this is not something that should show up on Russia’s national security radar. Ukraine seems simply to have the bad luck of living next door to a big, brutish and belligerent neighbor whose nose is out of joint from not receiving enough fealty.

There are many in the West who have concluded that Putin is a geopolitical mastermind. Nonsense. He’s fundamentally a thug. However, heretofore, you could at least have made a coherent argument along these lines if you were willing to keep a relatively narrow focus.

His ultimate goal has been clear for nearly two decades: Putin wishes to essentially rebuild the Soviet Union. He talks of its dissolution as “the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century.” In a century that saw not one, but two, World Wars, this type of thinking could only come from the “not quite right” mind of a Russian megalomaniac.

But at least his strategy looked smart and bore some truly tangible success. To get to where he wanted to be, knowing that militarily he couldn’t possibly “beat the West,” he set about destabilizing his adversaries by taking aim at their economic and military alliances. These arrangements have been remarkably successful in maintaining peace and prosperity after the world emerged from the rubble of World War II. The post-war Western strategy was brilliantly conceived and executed.

More recently, though, shortsighted Western leaders have overseen the development of economies that have left huge swaths of their populations not reaping any rewards of decades of amazing economic prosperity. Similarly, the economic alliances have been expanded to countries that offered economic benefit, but who do not share our geopolitical interests. This was a fundamental strategic mistake.

All the while, soulless profiteers like Rupert Murdock have been happy to use the power of mass media to reap huge financial rewards from pushing unrelenting divisiveness into the cultural mainstream. And, social media conveniently arrived to provide Putin a cheap weapon for crafting a masterful cultural war in which dumbasses on both extremes of the ideological spectrum were mobilized to call for the wanton destruction of each other with longstanding public institutions representing collateral damage. In not taking care of “all” the people, Western leaders created the openings Putin needed to fracture their societies. That damage is obvious and widespread.

He got real results that aligned with his desires. Brexit was a win. An anti-NATO and pro-Russian American president is a win. The success of far right parties in Hungary and Poland and France are a win.

I absolutely believe that Putin looked at the world situation and concluded that he had fractured the West enough that he could start reassembling the borders of the Soviet Union without serious consequences. He decided to start with Ukraine, but I am certain that the Baltics and Poland and other former East Bloc countries were on the menu for consumption at a later date.

But, the magnitude of his strategic miscalculations is immense. The West wasn’t totally fractured and he has breathed new life into old alliances. His military isn’t nearly as good as he thought. The Ukrainians value their independence far more than he expected. And, the lesson is now out there that Russia is a threat to its neighbors and their best protection is joining Western alliances.

Which leaves Putin with a huge problem. Which means we all have a huge problem.

The underlying cause of this problem is fundamental and we are facing it around the world in numerous ways. Unchecked power exists in too many places and lies in the hands of too few people. It absolutely appears that Putin’s stranglehold on power within Russia is so complete that he is basically able to do whatever he pleases with absolutely no counterbalancing voices or institutions to challenge him. Even the very best of people should never have such power and Vlad would never receive an invitation to the club of “the very best of people.”

The American Revolution was largely fought to counter what many saw as the abuse of immense power on the part of King George III. The American system of government that followed in the war’s wake was clearly designed to keep power in check. Concentrated power will always eventually become the true enemy of regular people and the framers of the “American Experiment” were keenly aware of this truism.

For the most part, in the West we have done away with Kings and Queens and Princes, at least the “royal” types, but unchecked power is alive and well and takes on many different forms today. Putin carries the title of President, but he’s not unlike the Tsars of Russia’s past. Similarly, while he is perhaps the most egregious and obvious example of the modern “Princes” at this moment of history, other dictators exist as do people of extraordinary wealth and “titans of industry,” all of whom have learned how to convert wealth into political power.

The long-term well-being of regular people depends on our ability to keep great power in check. Power is necessary and beneficial at many times and in many regards, but it always needs clear boundaries that are rigorously enforced, lest power degrade into tyranny. And, tyranny can be political or economic.

America works best when it unites in the interest of protecting individual freedom and liberty. Arguably, the best moments of American history are: the Revolution, which ended the power of monarchs in our country; the Thirteenth Amendment, which, in the wake of the Civil War, eliminated the ownership of people in our land; the trustbusting of early 20th century, which placed must-needed checks on how private economic activity was to be conducted; and, the gift to the world of a (mostly) peaceful and prosperous international framework for relations and economics after the end of World War II.

In each case, what made these moments so profoundly important is that they reallocated the sharing of political and/or economic power amongst people to the benefit of growing numbers of regular citizens. All of the tools and lessons and learning we need to prosper as free and independent people have been fought for and won in those moments of American history. Our challenge is to live up to the promises of those victories and: not welcome despots or would-be despots who disregard the will of the people into positions of governance; to ensure that the freedoms promised by our Constitution are available to all and not just to some of the people; to recognize that competitive commerce is good for prosperity, but large and unconstrained economic organizations present significant dangers to individual liberty and well-being; and, that countries who do not share with us a common set of basic values and interests will happily accept our financial resources and then use them to destroy the rights of free people, which then erodes everyone’s freedom and prosperity. With regard to that last warning, remember that purchases of Russian gas and oil are basically the funding mechanism of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. China is probably not markedly different in its long-term aspirations.

The Princes, in order to retain their power, will seek to divide us and turn us against each other. We need to be acutely aware and smart enough, therefore, to realize that we are at another inflection point in history in which we need to set our big priorities right and construct a national paradigm that “lifts all of our boats” in terms of sustainable prosperity while allowing us to be our unique individual selves who can live together despite the differences that will always exist between us. The differences between regular people, as broad as they may seem at the moment, amount to absolutely nothing compared to the divergence of interests between those with great power and the rest of us. Beware of Princes who promise you liberation and freedom. You allow them “in” at your own peril and they will, ultimately, steal both from you in the fulfillment of their own desires.