Once upon a time, long, long ago, there was a “Faustian Bargain.” As the German legend would have it, that bargain was made with the devil. Johann Faust made a pact with the devil in which the devil took ownership of Faust’s soul in exchange for the complete set of world knowledge and unlimited pleasures.
Speaking metaphorically, in today’s world Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin have strong-armed such a pact with their own people, capturing their souls. These were two countries wallowing in the pits of despair at the end of the Second World War — poor, hungry and emerging from uncertain Marxist transformations.
The Faustian Bargain perpetrated by emergent Marxist leaders was this: Give up your rights to free speech, to democratic governance, to a free press, to bear arms, to trial by a jury of your peers, to religion, petition and assembly and we will deliver to you the material goods for your indulgence and a sovereign power that will make you proud to be Chinese or Russian.
Today the United States faces the biggest threat to its national security and its global leadership since the Second World War, on two fronts.
Since the Great Cultural Revolution in China, I have traveled to that People’s Republic many times in the last 45 years and witnessed firsthand its transformation from Third World privation to twenty-first century grandeur (at least in its major cities and infrastructure). The Soviet Union faltered, fell and then reinvented itself as the Russia Federation under the same auspices, with less splendor and material promise as China yet the “devil” still rules in both cases.
When Hitler was making his moves in Europe in the late 1930s, there was a lingering insouciance, that reminds me of much of America’s indifference to Chinese and Russian attempts to impose their view of the world, a view that promotes authoritarian means as the devil’s covenant that will win in a technology-driven material world.
Xi Jinping’s staging of the Winter Olympics is a reminder of his governance and control of everything, that power as a means to an end is justified. It’s Machiavellian in its purest form. Leaders should never be limited by any considerations of justice and humanity. Ends always justify the means. News and information related to the Olympics are to be dictated by Chinese authoritarian regulations. The Olympics will be done on his own terms, because he has the power to say so. The Olympic Committee concedes because on his turf, they have to.
Fellow Machiavellian disciple Vladimir Putin is trying to make his own more dangerous power play in Europe. Which brings me to NATO and why it’s so important.
Putin sees political chaos in the United States as a sign of weakness, failing governance and failing global leadership. His threats against Ukraine and other former Soviet republics is a deliberate gamble that a decline in American prestige and leadership, coupled with European disagreements on economic and security priorities, present an opportunistic geopolitical chance to strike.
History is a great teacher. NATO was formed in 1949. It’s important to understand why it was formed. Post-World War II, Joseph Stalin went from so-called “friend” to foe, consolidating communist regimes in eastern Europe. He ratcheted up allied tensions in a divided Germany, blockaded West Berlin forcing the Berlin Airlift, enabled the transformation of East Germany from a fascist state to a communist state, while simultaneously forcing a Soviet coup in Czechoslovakia.
Western European nations at the end of the war were vulnerable. Their economies were wrecked, agriculture and industries were struggling to regenerate. To help with their recovery, the United States introduced the Marshall Plan. But threats to western European security by Stalin’s geo-strategic and political moves prompted the U.S., Canada and 11 European nations to form the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. This integrated European security pact was a direct counter to post-war Soviet aggression and autocratic behavior that threatened the recovery and sovereignty of Western European nations.
Now Vladimir Putin claims NATO, a defense pact born of post-war national security threats to Western Europe by Russia, is a threat to Russia? Ukraine is not a member of NATO; therefore, it is not subject to NATO’s promise that “an attack against one constitutes an attack against all.” Plainly put, Russia seeks to expand its geo-political dominion by consuming Ukraine and installing its own quisling leadership in Kyiv.
This is no time for lofty indifference to what has become a developing tale of two worlds. One world promises freedom from intimidation, another promises intimidation as a way of life.
It’s not just an ideological battle over political differences. It’s a battle of liberty over despotic governance. It’s a battle over what form of governance is better suited to meet the accelerating demands of the twenty-first century. It’s a battle over human rights. It’s a battle over who controls our souls, authoritarian leaders, or us as free people. That’s why what happens on the European Front with Russian intimidations and threats against Ukraine and NATO matters. At the same time it’s why China’s power play economically and militarily matters. It’s a tale of two worlds and make no mistake, it’s essential that we take control of the narrative.
Bill Sims is a Hillsboro resident, retired president of the Denver Council on Foreign Relations, an author and runs a small farm in Berrysville with his wife. He is a former educator, executive and foundation president.