George Weigel

To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II

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The Maidan and the West

This is the prepared text of remarks Mr. Weigel delivered on June 11, 2014, at the Lithuanian Embassy in Washington, D.C., where he was awarded the Lithuanian Diplomacy Star by the Foreign Ministry of Lithuania. A revised version of these remarks was published by National Review Online.

I should like to begin by thanking Ambassador Pavilionis and the Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the honor of this award.

More than thirty years ago, it was my privilege to work here in Washington on behalf of brave dissidents and civil society activists in what was then Soviet-occupied Lithuania – and especially on behalf of the leaders of the Lithuanian Catholic Committee for the Defense of Believers Rights. The leaders of the Committee, and many who participated in its work, did hard time in the Gulag because of their work for freedom; but they also sustained the longest-running, unbroken samizdat publication in the history of the Soviet Union, the Chronicle of the Catholic Church in Lithuania – a twentieth-century version of the ancient acts of the martyrs in the days of Roman imperium.

Lithuania’s struggle to maintain its national identity and culture during the Soviet occupation was sustained in no small part by Lithuania’s Catholic faith. In Lithuania, as elsewhere in central and eastern Europe during the second half of the twentieth century, Christian resistance to communist tyranny first challenged, and then reversed, the conventional Enlightenment story-line about the relationship between Christianity and political liberty. Voltaire and his followers claimed that the God of the Bible had to be rejected in the name of the maturation and liberation of humanity. The Christian resistance to communism, in which Lithuania’s Catholics played a noble and leading role, demonstrated in action, not just argument, that faith in the God of the Bible, far from chaining humanity, can be a powerful, indeed irresistible, force in sustaining cultural authenticity against the assaults of secularist cultural aggression, in resisting the evil of unchecked and unaccountable political power, and in building civil societies and stable democracies for the twenty-first century and beyond.

In September 2013, when I had the honor of speaking in the Lithuanian Parliament on the twentieth anniversary of St. John Paul II’s visit to Lithuania, as when, a few days later, I walked the Hill of Crosses in Siauliai and pondered the relationship between fidelity and freedom, I did not know that the epic story of Lithuania’s resistance to the communist usurpation of Lithuanian culture and Lithuanian liberty was about to be replicated, in a dramatic if somewhat different  form, in another former Soviet “republic” several hundreds miles to the southeast. Yet that is what has been unfolding in Ukraine since the Maidan movement of national moral self-renewal formed last November.

The end of the story of the Maidan is, of course, nowhere in sight. Ukraine remains, today, a country in deep distress, politically and economically. But that was true in October 2013. What is different, today, is that Ukraine has undergone something like a revolution of conscience. What began as a movement of resistance to a corrupt government that was, in effect, selling Ukraine’s national future to Vladimir Putin’s Russia, quickly evolved into a broad-based movement in defense of the elementary decencies of public life – a movement determined to rebuild civil society in Ukraine as the essential foundation for twenty-first century Ukrainian democracy. As one Ukrainian activist described the feeling on the Maidan in Kyiv the day former president Yanukovych fled to Russia, “We came to the Maidan looking for Europe, and instead found Ukraine.”

That discovery remains to be secured. But permit me to suggest this evening that there are already important lessons that the West should learn from the Maidan: lessons that touch the lives of Lithuanians, Americans, and all the peoples of the North Atlantic alliance.

The first lesson: History continues.  

It may be true, as Francis Fukuyama provocatively argued toward the end of the Cold War, that democracy and the free economy have proven themselves the victors in the debate over the future of politics and economics under the conditions of modernity. No sane person, today, argues that state ownership of the means of production is the path to justice, abundance, solidarity, or freedom. And even the enemies of democracy-rightly-understood use the language of democracy to describe what are essentially authoritarian systems: “managed democracy,” “guided democracy,” and so forth – names that summon up memories of those bogus “Peoples’ Democratic Republics” of the Cold War era, or the equally bogus “People‘s Republics” of the Arab Middle East.

Yet notwithstanding the kernel of truth in Fukuyama’s argument, “history” manifestly continues. It continues because democracy and the free economy are not machines that can run by themselves. History continues because the essential complement to democratic politics and free economics is a vibrant public moral culture, capable of forming the citizens who can make free politics and the free economy work, so that the net result of these remarkable systems is liberty, justice, abundance, solidarity, and the other public elements of human flourishing. History continues because the great challenge within history is not the creation of the machinery of democracy and the free economy; difficult as those tasks may be in some circumstances, the even greater challenge is to nurture the public moral culture, embodied in the institutions of civil society, that ennobles political and economic freedom and prevents the machinery of democracy and the free economy from freezing up – or worse, from corrupting the very men and women, the citizenry, on whom the future of freedom ultimately depends.

The second lesson: “Europe” is – indeed “Europe” must be – more than a cornucopia.

The Maidan movement erupted in Kyiv and elsewhere as a spontaneous societal rejection of the Yanukovych regime’s refusal to take the steps necessary to accelerate Ukraine’s accession to the European Union, turning instead toward Putin’s Russia. But as the Maidan quickly evolved, it became something different, something deeper and nobler, something more morally serious. As tensions mounted in Ukraine in the aftermath of Yanukovych’s scuttle, my friend Bishop Borys Gudziak of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church called me late one night to reflect on what had happened on the streets of Kyiv in recent days. “Blood is serious,” he said. “Blood makes people think. [And] there are very few people in Ukraine tonight who are thinking of Lady Gaga.”

The Maidan is thus a powerful reminder to Europe of what Europe intended to be, in the founding days of what has become the European Union. Yes, what is now the E.U. began with a series of mutually-beneficial economic arrangements, in the European Coal and Steel Community and the European Common Market. And yes, the political intention behind those economic arrangements was to bind together the East Franks and the West Franks – otherwise known as the Germans and the French – so that their millennium-long struggle for continental hegemony would dissolve in a larger political formation. But beneath all of that was a cultural vision: the vision of men like Schuman, de Gasperi, and Adenauer, who saw in European integration a chance to recover something from beneath the rubble of two catastrophic world wars, something that could properly be called European civilization – a Europe once again living from its deepest cultural taproots, which run to Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome; a Europe being formed and reformed by biblical faith, reason, and law.

It would be difficult – indeed it would be fanciful – to suggest that that vision is the guiding inspiration in the institutions of the European Union today.  But unless that vision is recovered and “Europe” becomes something more than an open labor market and a vast network of social welfare systems, led by clotted  bureaucracies determined to impose lifestyle libertinism on the entire continent in the name of a false idea of freedom and tolerance, “Europe” will continue to find it impossible to summon itself to meet the challenges posed to peace, order, and elementary decency in world affairs by Putin’s Russia, Assad’s Syria, post-Qaddafi Libya, China’s imperial ambitions, and global jihadism.

Thus the Maidan is a sharp reminder that the answer to Putin’s “Western decadence” story-line is the cultural renewal of the West, not the West’s further descent into moral incoherence and what has rightly been called the “dictatorship of relativism.”

The third lesson: Putin is running a criminal regime that is unsafe for the world and humanly self-destructive in Russia.

At one point a few months ago, having absorbed the latest barrage of propaganda and prevarication from the Russian foreign ministry (amplified, alas, by dupes and fools in the western media), I said to my wife, “This is what 1938 must have felt like.” It was all there: the Big Lie, shamelessly repeated; warped imperial ambition masked by the call to ethnic solidarity; the criminality on the home front, by which the regime of lies maintained itself in power; the summons to a false ideal of national greatness; the provocations, sometimes lethal, in the near-abroad; the contempt for the “world community.”

Putin’s Russia is bad for Russia. The average Russian fifteen-year-old today has a life expectancy three years less than the average fifteen-year-old Haitian. Indeed, Russia is the only case in modern history of a developed nation experiencing declining life expectancy absent wars, natural disasters, or plagues. Russia is not a “managed democracy:” Russia is an authoritarian state run by an oligarchic mafia with deep roots in the old Soviet security services, a state in which a small minority with control over most of the levers of power have gotten extremely rich while society rots out underneath them. The brave hopes of the brave Russians who looked to a better future in 1991 have been dashed; Putin restores the old Soviet anthem, which is sung robustly at the Sochi Winter Olympics; a vast internal propaganda machine dupes a disturbing number of Russians into believing that Putin’s mafia is leading a great national restoration; and most sadly of all, the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church gives its blessing to this campaign of falsehoods. The Maidan has made unmistakably clear that there is no better future for the people of Russia under the Putin regime.

Putin’s Russia is also unsafe for the world. The genocidal Assad remains in power in Syria because of Putin; the apocalyptic mullahs in Iran have been given time to advance their nuclear ambitions by Putin; now the post-Cold War security order in Europe has been challenged by Putin – and to this point, at least, he has won his gambit. All of this suggest that the next “re-set” of western policy toward Russia must be a “re-set” of containment, but with a difference. What the Maidan teaches us is that the West’s strategy toward Russia should be “containment-plus:” containment plus transformation.

The phrase “regime-change” makes many European and American politicians break out into hives these days. But it is not easy to see how Russia can become safe for its people and safe for the world unless Russia is governed in a fundamentally different way than it is being governed by Vladimir Putin. Thus, in the first instance, Putin’s Russia must be contained: which means strengthening NATO land, air, and naval capabilities in and around the front-line NATO states through more troop emplacements and training exercises; negating the Russian nuclear threat by a rapid and robust deployment of ballistic missile defenses; giving the Poroshenko government in Ukraine the defensive means to secure its national territory; and having ready-to-hand further, and far more serious, economic sanctions if Russia does not cease its attempt to destabilize various regions of Ukraine through the use of Russian-trained and Russian-armed criminal gangs masquerading as “separatists.” The countries of the North Atlantic alliance must also re-develop their broadcasting capabilities and accelerate their use of new media to counter, within Russia and in that country’s many languages, the fog of lies that pours out of the Putin-controlled media. Western political and military leaders should be regular visitors to the Baltic states and Poland in the months ahead. And the hard but essential work of breaking Europe’s dependence on Russian oil and gas must begin – now.

As for transformation, it is no accident, as the Marxists used to say, that Putin has bent every effort to crush the nascent flowering of Russian civil society. Thus the West must strengthen its own efforts to support Russian civil society and democracy activists. And here, I might suggest, there is an important role to play for European and American Christian communities, who ought to bring to their  theological dialogue and their social service work with Russian Orthodox churches and leaders a commitment to challenging the pro-“managed democracy” rhetoric and action of the current Russian Orthodox leadership, which has played an unfortunate role in underwriting Putin’s new ideology of a “Russian space” for which Moscow bears special responsibility.

If the Maidan is something that Vladimir Putin fears because of the possibility that it could be replicated in Russia, then the Maidan must be embraced and defended by the West precisely in the hope that something similar to what has happened in Kyiv and throughout Ukraine could happen in Moscow and throughout Russia.

The fourth lesson: The future of freedom requires the West to recover both its faith and its nerve. 

If the past seven months have suggested what 1938 must have been like in central Europe, they have also suggested what the 1920s and 1930s must have been like in western Europe and the United States. These were the twentieth century’s version of what the Old Testament called “the years the locusts have eaten” [Joel 2.25]: the years in which Edmund Burke’s eighteenth century warning, that “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing,” was borne out, as Europe and America watched, in detachment or helplessness, the consolidation of Soviet power, the Ukrainian terror famine, the rise of the Third Reich, and the erection of the Gulag camps and the Nazi concentration camps – human charnel houses that were integral to the economies of the evil political systems that created them. The price paid then for not paying attention was the greatest bloodletting in human history, followed by four and a half decades of Cold War during which the fate of the planet rested on a nuclear razor’s edge.

Some very intelligent American and European analysts have argued that the people of the western democracies have become too enamored of their own comforts and pleasures to take the lead in shaping the world politics of the twenty-first century. That view seems to be shared in the Kremlin. The Maidan calls all of us in the West to reject that story-line of western decadence.

That rejection begins with reclamation: a reclamation of the West’s faith in freedom. Not freedom as sheer willfulness, as mere “choice,” as “I did it my way,” but freedom tethered to the moral truths we can know by reason, freedom ordered to goodness. Perhaps the greatest obstacle to the West’s re-learning the truth about itself from the Maidan is the contemporary tendency in western high culture to reduce the human person to a twitching bundle of desires, as if reason and moral judgment were not the defining characteristics of human beings. The Maidan, where men and women of conscience and conviction literally put their lives on the line in witness to moral truth, has issued a summons to the West. That summons is to nothing less than a recovery of moral coherence, not only in our individual lives, but in public life. And that recovery begins with a rediscovery that there are givens in the human condition; that not everything is plastic, malleable, and subject to human willfulness; and that the key question for a civilized society is “Choose what?” Freedom without a foundation in moral truth and an aspiration to goodness is not freedom, but license: and license destroys freedom over the long haul.

While recovering its moral bearings in a renewal of faith in freedom rightly understood, the West must also regain its nerve. This will require far more assertive political leadership than most of the major western countries have managed to summon up these past seven months; and that leadership will only emerge, it seems, when the people of the western democracies demand it. It makes little sense to denounce the cravenness of western politicians who govern and conduct foreign policy by means of polls and focus groups when citizens of the western democracies have not done everything they can to persuade their friends and neighbors that history continues, that there is no substitute for western leadership in the cause of freedom, and that the world will become far nastier – and far less prosperous – absent that leadership.

Thus the Maidan offers a challenge, not simply to western governments and western foreign policy establishments, but to the peoples of the western democracies. And that challenge is to nothing less than a great moral and cultural renewal based on those truths, embedded in the world and in us, to which the American Founders once pledged their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor.

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