“Who dares wins,” we used to say without apology. Today we are reduced to: “How dare he?”
The former is the famous and audacious motto of the elite British special forces, the SAS. We might have said once it was a fitting motto for the Western world. But at the moment it is Vladimir Putin who “dares”—the Russian despot dares to invade and dismember his country’s neighbors, knowing that we do not dare to stop him.
We oppose him, to be sure. And the West has come together with admirable speed over sanctions, economic disinvestment, and diplomatic isolation. But given our collective response to Georgia’s partition in 2008, the seizure of the Crimea in 2014, and the aid and materiel to Bashar al Assad since 2018, Putin could be forgiven for expecting far less by way of pushback than he has received.
Even so, Putin knows that, thanks to a commitment to green policies that have led Europe to outsource its energy production and a great deal of heavy industry, Western Europe needs his oil and gas. He also knows, because U.S. President Joe Biden keeps saying it, that there’s next to no chance of the U.S. entering a shooting war with Russia—unless Putin oversteps and attacks the territory of a NATO member.
In other words, to borrow Mao’s phrase, Putin understands that power emerges from the barrel of a gun—that soft power is in some important sense a contradiction in terms. Xi Jinping, an assiduous student of Mao, understands that too, which is why he’s been busy building quite literal facts on the ground in the South China Sea, while we mutter, “How dare he?”
We still admire daring, up to a point. Americans knew of Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskyy, if they knew him at all, as a bit player in Donald Trump’s first impeachment. Today he’s made himself famous the world over for standing up for his country far more vigorously than even his own embattled people had any right to expect. He has been positively Churchillian by the standards of the day.
Putin’s deadly and unprovoked invasion of a neighbor is, without question, dreadful and odious. But it remains to be seen whether he’s wrong to calculate that we’re too feckless to go beyond “How dare he?” if he succeeds in toppling Zelenskyy. What’s more, we shouldn’t kid ourselves that Putin somehow shattered 70 years of uninterrupted peace on the Old Continent. In the 1970s, NATO member Turkey invaded Cyprus to prevent its annexation by Greece—another NATO member—leading to more than 100,000 people displaced on both sides of a line of partition that persists to this day.
And in the 1990s, even more relevantly, the post-Cold War settlement in the Balkans turned into a series of bloody wars—with more ethnic cleansing, over two million people displaced and at least 100,000 dead. It’s easy to forget that Western Europe and America’s default view of what was then Yugoslavia was that this newly “free” multiethnic state should hang together. That Yugoslavia, as such, was always an imperial invention, seemed to matter little to us at the time; some countries in Western Europe were at least as worried about encouraging their own separatists as about what was actually happening in Yugoslavia.
This is not to justify or excuse Putin’s murderous invasion. Nor is it to bang the drum for going to war against Russia. It is a call, rather, to understand this new war in Europe as an inflection point in history, but also as the culmination of forces that have been building for decades. American hegemony after the end of the Cold War was a function of both our economic pre-eminence and our cultural bravado: We had arrived at the end of history, and it was us. Three decades later, our economic importance has shrunk, and even we don’t believe in the rightness, never mind the inevitability, of our values. We wouldn’t dare to presume.
And into that void is stepping not just one megalomaniacal former KGB agent, but also Supreme Leader Xi and perhaps others behind them—those who don’t like where the chips fell the last time the world order came to rest, or who believe they’ve earned a promotion to the big kids’ table, or who simply yearn for their own place in the sun and dare to try to seize it.
Unless we accept this new reality—the reality of our own weakness, of our loss of vision and ambition—we will find ourselves, like has-beens throughout history, muttering “How dare they,” impotently, while others make the world anew. From our perspective, it’s unlikely to be a better one.
Mr. Bovim is the author of a novel, “Around the Sun,” and CEO of Avisa Partners U.S., a consultancy based in Washington, D.C. The views expressed are the author's own.