7 April 2022
The West’s superpower.
By Neil Tidmarsh
What to make of Viktor Orban’s victory in Hungary’s general election last weekend? Voters gave yet another big majority to his ultra-conservative, reactionary Fidesz party which presents itself as the champion of the traditional values of patriotism, the family and Christianity in a decadent modern Europe.
Hungary is a member of the EU and yet it deliberately and ostentatiously flouts the liberal values and rules of the club which it voluntarily joined in 2004: its illiberal attitude towards the rule of law, judicial independence, academic freedom, minority rights and refugees enrages Brussels. It’s a member of Nato and yet Orban is an admirer of Putin, his government is Kremlin-friendly and the election was won by the promise to offer Ukraine no military help against the Russian invader.
Can the EU tolerate such dissent? Can Nato accommodate such divergence? What does such division mean to the West? Is it a frightening result, a threat to the West’s capabilities and a comfort to its enemies? Is it a disaster for its values, just when it needs everyone to stand shoulder to shoulder in their defence?
Well, this may be clutching at straws, but other news this week suggests that the result in Hungary is a reminder of what uniquely makes the West strong. Perhaps the result could even reinforce that strength. Because division is not necessarily weakness; division is a sign of diversity, and diversity is strength. Diversity is the West’s most powerful weapon. And it’s a weapon that its enemies don’t understand.
Forty years ago this week, Argentina looked at the United Kingdom and saw (or thought it saw) a nation fatally divided against itself, Mrs Thatcher loved and loathed in equal measure. Now is the time, thought General Galtieri and his fascist junta in Buenos Aires, to cement our grip on power by launching a populist, jingoistic, military adventure as a distraction from our economic and social failures. The whole country will come out in support of our invasion of Las Malvinas. And the United Kingdom – divided and thus weak – won’t have the strength or the will to oppose us.
They were wrong about the United Kingdom, of course. Britain’s response proved that any country or political entity which can tolerate differences and accommodate dissent and disagreement is a strong one, capable of pulling together in the same direction when a real crisis threatens. Argentina’s military regime didn’t understand this, because it was itself brutally intolerant of dissent. It crushed any diversity of opinion or action with ruthless force. It kidnapped, tortured, raped, murdered and ‘disappeared’ an estimated 10,000 political opponents, social misfits and other victims while it was in power. Galtieri believed that this made his country strong, but he was wrong about that, too. It made it weak. This was proved only too vividly on the battlefield of the Falklands where its military machine performed badly and its soldiers fought poorly, the regime collapsing with astonishing speed in the wake of that crushing defeat.
Forty years later, Putin looked at the West and saw (or thought he saw) an alliance fatally divided against itself: Nato bickering about its budget and questioning its very purpose, the EU floundering between a Brexited Britain and an illiberal Eastern Europe, and the USA tearing itself apart over culture wars which were crystalizing over an increasingly toxic political divide. Now is the time, he thought, to launch a populist, jingoistic, military adventure as a distraction from economic and social failures, from corruption and repression, and to crush those frightening calls for freedom and independence among Russia’s satellites. The whole country will support my invasion of Ukraine and my bid to restore the power, glory and territory of the Tsars’ empire. And the West – divided and thus weak – won’t have the strength or the will to oppose us.
He was wrong about the West, of course. The USA and Europe have surprised and shocked the Kremlin by pulling together to impose massive sanctions on Russia and to supply arms, equipment and other materiel to Ukraine, while cannily resisting Putin’s invitations to escalate the conflict. Nato is stronger now than it has ever been, Germany at last agreeing to pull its weight, Finland eyeing up its chances of joining, and member states rushing troops eastwards so that Putin’s attempt to deter them from coming too close has completely back-fired. Brussels and the EU have found common cause with its ex-member Britain and with it troublesome members in Eastern Europe in joint support of Ukraine.
The West’s strength in diversity is apparent in another way. The more approaches and ideas you can try, the more likely you are to find one that works. Europe and the USA, even though united against Russia’s aggression, do have a diversity of approaches towards it, from Boris Jonson’s unequivocal and whole-hearted support of Ukraine’s war effort and of Vladimir Zelensky’s military needs, through Emmanuel Macron’s persistent pursuit of diplomacy (though this is looking increasingly bizarre – Macron’s persistence in the face of Putin’s brazen lies is beginning to seem humiliating and perverse – the Ukrainian president, frustrated by too much talk and not enough material support, exclaimed this week that Paris was “afraid of Russia. And that’s it”) to Viktor Orban’s support of sanctions but refusal to allow weapons to cross Hungarian territory to Ukraine. The more approaches the West can try, the better; the bigger the variety of tools in your toolbox, the more likely you are to get the job done. And if Putin thought that Brexit was good news for him, he must be bitterly disillusioned and disappointed by now; the division of Brexit has created diversity, and diversity has allowed the UK to take a much more robust and combative approach than either France or Germany.
But the West’s strength in diversity is a mystery to Putin and the Kremlin, of course, because his regime is brutally intolerant of dissent. Like Galtieri’s military junta, it crushes any diversity of opinion or action with ruthless force. For years, it has defied the rule of law and the standards of common humanity to eliminate opponents and silence dissident voices, murdering them (e.g. Boris Nemtsov), imprisoning them (e.g. Alexei Navalny) or driving them into exile (e.g. activist Kira Yarmysh, opposition politician Vladimir Kara-Murza, independent journalist Irina Borogan, etc, etc, etc). Anyone who opposes the war in Ukraine, or merely says that there is a war in Ukraine, is arrested and fined or imprisoned. An article published in Russia’s state media this week recommended “ideological repression” in Ukraine “and strict censorship, not only in the political sphere but also in the sphere of culture and education” (incredibly, ridiculously, this ruthlessly intolerant – in other words fascist or Nazi – approach was suggested as a way of de-Nazifying a country which is democratic and diverse; the unintentional ironies would be hilarious if they weren’t so tragic; but then again, ironies – which depend, like most humour, on contrasting two divergent opinions – are bound to flourish but go unnoticed among those who only allow themselves to see one opinion. ‘Demilitarising’ a peaceful country by sending your tanks and troops into it and fighting a devastating war against it!?!? – that’s another mind-boggling one).
Putin believes that this intolerant repression of diverse opinion makes him and his country strong, but he’s wrong about that too. As wrong as General Galtieri, and we’re seeing the proof of it on the battlefields of Ukraine just as we saw it on the battlefield of the Falklands. Russia is patently weak. Its military machine is performing badly, its soldiers are performing badly and its equipment is in poor condition. Significantly, the Russian army is having trouble co-ordinating its different arms – infantry, armour, artillery and air-force – and in coping with its different logistic demands. In other words, it can’t handle diversity. And diversity is even more essential on the modern battlefield than ever, as the Ukrainian forces – trained by the West – are discovering; flexibility, improvisation and combination are proving tactically successful for them.
Diversity is as important in the intelligence battle as it is in the physical battle. Last weekend, The Sunday Times published a fascinating article by Matthew Syed about GCHQ. He revealed that its success is due to its policy of recruiting staff from all backgrounds – cultural, social, academic, psychological – producing a rich and productive mix of approaches. He quoted Sir Jeremy Fleming, head of GCHQ; “It is impossible to solve complex problems when you have one mind, or one perspective, or one point of view. This is why Russia is failing in Ukraine. Vladimir Putin’s miscalculations could be blamed on blind spots caused by group-think and the values that underpin the controlling nature of his leadership… Diversity is one of the greatest strengths of the West.”
It was ever thus. It’s a historical truism that Europe leap-frogged ahead of the rest of the world because its patchwork of different countries, each with their own way of doing things, allowed entrepreneurs, artists, scientists etc to prosper; if one country’s approach didn’t suit what they were trying to do, they could simply cross a border to another country and a more sympathetic and enabling environment. The city states of classical Greece, Europe’s cultural foundation, were surprisingly varied (Athens and Sparta supported quite different cultures) and were engaged in remorseless competition with each other – but pulled together when threatened from outside. The heroic defiance which Sparta’s 300 exhibited against Xerxes’ invading Persians at Thermopylae, degrading the enemy and buying time for the other cities, has an exact counterpart today in Ukraine’s heroic battle, on behalf of all the rest of Europe, against Russian aggression.
J K Rowlings, although not often seen as a champion of diversity these days, was onto something when she invented four diverse houses for Hogwarts; there was even room for the sinister Slytherin beside the brave Gryffindor, the intellectual Ravenclaw and the reliable Hufflepuff. Tolerating the problematic Slytherin and its dubious relationship with the Dark Lord was always a puzzle for the other three houses, but in the end Professor Snape proved that every successful team has to include at least one Slytherin. Which brings us back to Hungary and Viktor Orban. Tolerating and accommodating his intolerant Fidesz government (Europe’s Slytherin?) might be problematic and distasteful for the rest of Europe, but if diversity is Europe’s highest value and most important article of faith, then perhaps it should be done. Clutching at straws, as I said. But blind faith is often the most powerful and rewarding type of faith.