As Putin rages war in Ukraine and the West reacts, I have been pondering a small book written in 1940 by the man who would later become the 35th President of the United States – John F Kennedy.
Why England Slept was the young Harvard man’s analysis of why he felt England (Britain) was so poorly prepared for war with Nazi Germany. Kennedy’s opening itself remembered another book covering similar ground two years earlier, While England Slept, by Winston Churchill, the man who would eventually lead England/Britain to victory.
Kennedy’s best-selling book and another he penned in 1956, Profiles in Courage, short biographies describing acts of bravery and integrity, formed important parts of the image and status which propelled JFK, along with his father’s money and influence, to the Presidency in 1960.
What so resonates about the assassinated President’s account of England’s sleep in the 1930s is the crushing feeling of déjà-vu at the West’s inaction over Putin since he came to power in Russia in the 1990s.
Prior to the 2nd World War, Britain and its Allies failed to deal with Hitler’s emerging threat. The ‘West’ was a different animal then of course - the USA was inward looking after the First World War, not very interested in overseas issues, nation to nation relationships were not as defined as today, there was no EU and global business or financial systems were in their infancy compared to today’s wired world.
But the Nazi nightmare was there all the same, in plain sight, and there was a tragic lack of joined-up political will and long-term focus to do what was needed to be done to stop the horrors which were to unfold.
Snap to the West’s handling of the increasing Putin threat over the last twenty years. Failure to grasp what was happening in front of its eyes. Deepening authoritarianism, lies, deceptions, clamp-downs on freedom at home, state murder on other nations’ own soil, annexation of Crimea, war in Syria… and the West was turning blind eyes, threatening back but never delivering, making excuses, continuing to buy Russia’s oil and gas, even joining with them to build new power pipe-lines.
Sleeping… either alone, keeping out of Putin’s way in Syria when President Obama failed to act on red lines crossed. Or in Putin’s bed, as the Tory party and others in the UK have done by luxuriating in Russia’s billions while Oligarchs have wormed their way into Britain’s political and social fabric – even the House of Lords and the Premier League. All the while deflecting from Putin’s long-term intentions, sowing seeds of illusory co-operation, gaining high-level sway and influence by the back door.
Sleeping… while Putin was planning. Laying his foundations, plotting his way, a year here, a year there, a piece at a time before making his move when the West was too weak and divided – barely has America’s Capitol been attacked by Trump’s mob, the ink dry on the pathetic Brexit deal and COVID’s death toll finally lessening.
The West and the major democracies have a cancer that has developed into near-fatal proportions in the last few decades – short-termism. Johnson was more worried about Partygate than Putin, just trying to get to the end of any day rather than give any thought to the right planning and policies for the end of the next decade. Net-zero by 2050? Big promises but the PM has zero idea or interest on how the UK is actually going to achieve it.
Modern politics in the West is utterly debilitated by short term decision-making – from going Green to housing, from transport to social care and, as the spotlight of Ukraine has searchingly revealed, from foreign policy to defence.
As Michael Douglas says in the movie The American President, ‘We have serious problems to solve and we need serious people to solve them’. People like Johnson are simply buffoons not serious leaders. In the face of Putin, the West needs to get serious quick over its leadership and planning for serious long-terms goals.
As Ukraine faces invasion, the West is only now facing up to what it has failed to do. Sanctions are raining down on Russia but, however effective, and it looks like they will be, they are late. The dependence by so many nations of Russia’s oil and gas should have been negated much earlier, especially with the world’s climate change crisis ringing in its ears.
Now, the West is finally waking up to Putin – but it has taken real war, death and destruction to do it – and without doubt the world, already into a new epoch due to COVID, has truly entered a new global order. It remains to be seen how important nations such as India and China, of course, will align quite apart from other former Soviet states.
Britain, of course, with the Brexit little-England blinkers is has forced on itself, and in the snare of the Johnson government, steeped in Russian cash, mired in corruption and lies, continues to bumble and fumble along. Yes, it has hit back with severe sanctions but its first salvo was weak, it is giving Oligarchs enough rope to move their cash (why has Abramovich only been sanctioned now?) and its reaction to the awful refugee crisis from Ukraine has been dismal – an international embarrassment.
While other states have freely opened their borders to the thousands fleeing Ukraine, our ‘immigrant’ phobic government, still infested by the likes of Farage and the ERG or whatever they are calling themselves now as they switch their bile away from Brexit to cancelling the climate change net-zero agenda, has dithered, deceived and to its shame thrown all sorts of hurdles in the way of desperate families reaching our shores.
If anything has revealed the utter irrelevance of Brexit and the divisions in society and across Europe it has spawned, it is the war in Ukraine. Just as Europe needs to speak with a united front as Putin’s threat continues, so the UK is looking increasingly forlorn on the outside, desperate to find an international role. Wither Global Britain when the globe is not the same globe anymore.
Back to JFK – Putin’s war also vividly recalls Kennedy’s legendary ‘Ask not…’ inaugural address in the freezing cold outside the Capitol on 20 January 1961.
The young President heralded a new era with the torch passing to a new generation and declared: ‘In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger.’
How JFK’s words ring through the ages to the West and other like-minded nations today and the response to Putin.
With the invasion of Ukraine, this is a new hour of maximum danger and it is today’s generation which must now take up the torch of defending freedom.