September 1, 1939: Germany invades Poland, quickly overrunning Polish border defences, and advancing on Warsaw. What if, in the lead-up to this historic moment, Winston Churchill had announced that he could not imagine any circumstances in which troops would be sent to meet the onslaught? What if he had quipped that, if Britons and Germans start shooting at one another, it would be the second world war?
Yet these are the same words with which Joe Biden abandoned the people of Ukraine to their fate, signalling to Vladimir Putin that he has a free hand to do his worst without fear of challenge from the West. Thus has Biden edged us all closer to a third world war.
True, history tells us that Hitler’s Polish adventure occurred despite unambiguous statements of Britain’s intention to support Poland militarily. But, despite the obvious similarities, Putin is not Hitler. Putin is shrewd; he is cunning; he is an opportunist. He plays a long game. And, now, we will never know whether he might have paused at the Ukrainian border if the leader of the Free World had shown some grit and determination. Biden did not have to threaten ‘boots on the ground’; he merely had to convince Putin that it was a credible possibility. Instead, he announced unilaterally – and for no obvious reason – that it was never going to happen.
The peoples of autocratic countries don’t get to choose their governments; that is their tragedy. The peoples of liberal democracies get a choice, and that is theirs. The fact that the people of the United States have chosen to be led by a geriatric incompetent, at this moment in time, is more than a tragedy for America; it is a tragedy for the entire world. More backbone existed in the black umbrella ubiquitously carried by the doddery and terminally ill Neville Chamberlain.
The prelude to war makes little difference militarily. But the fact that Churchill (and, eventually, Chamberlain) drew a line in the sand was important for three reasons. First, it slowed the Nazi advance, as the promise of military support from powerful allies added to resilience and morale in all countries threatened with invasion. Secondly, it ensured that service personnel from countries like Poland, France and Norway had a safe haven from which to continue the fight even after their countries were occupied.
And thirdly – but most critically – it enhanced the Allies’ moral standing that they were prepared to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the defenceless and the downtrodden, rather than cowering on the sidelines until directly attacked. Or, rather, it enhanced the moral standing of some of the Allies: in particular, France, Britain, and the countries of the British Commonwealth (including Australia). It reflected less credit on those who chose to stand aloof until drawn into the war very much against their will: especially the United States and Soviet Russia.
Let it never be forgotten that, in the two greatest conflicts of world history to date, the world’s English-speaking peoples became involved, at least initially, not in defence of their own territories, but from a moral obligation to support weaker, poorer, and less populous countries which were the innocent targets of ruthless attacks by aggressors. In the first world war, it was Belgium; in the second world war, it was Poland. By all indications, in the presumed third world war, it will be Ukraine.
On the present occasion, to stand by passively is the ultimate insult to the memories of all who sacrificed in those two cataclysmic confrontations – and in many others, before and since – in the interests of freedom, liberty, democracy and, ultimately, peace. Unless the leaders of the Western World’s liberal democracies are willing to stand up to Putin on this occasion, they can expect never again to be believed when they claim that their mission is to ‘make the world safe for democracy’.
The USA can spend twenty years and some $5.8 trillion losing a war in Afghanistan, a country which has never enjoyed any real semblance of peace, freedom, liberty, or democracy. But it will not raise a finger in defence of a stable, peaceful, and free liberal democracy like Ukraine. This shows, for once and all, that US geopolitical policy is driven by a very different and utterly meretricious agenda.
The idea of war against Putin’s Russia is truly abhorrent. But even more abhorrent is the thought of a world in which Putin’s Russia is free to pick off the easy targets, one by one, confident in the knowledge that the degenerate Western powers will do nothing about it. And, should Xi Jinping’s China take notice of the impunity with which Putin has been allowed to invade Ukraine – as will surely happen – the entire world faces the most abhorrent future imaginable.
Anthony Morris QC is a Brisbane barrister.
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