Putin’s new world challenges the cakeism of Irish neutrality

Pat Leahy: We like Nato’s protection but don’t fancy participating in the alliance

Be careful what you wish for. For the first time in what felt like a hundred years, Covid was banished from the front pages. But it was replaced by something even scarier – the prospect of a shooting war on the European mainland. This will not leave Irish politics untouched.

Reports from Ukraine and bellicose rhetoric from Nato and Russia felt like a throwback to the Cold War, when a Soviet invasion of West Germany seemed a real prospect and armoured divisions rehearsed for the dreaded day either side of the Elbe.

The river is no longer a border but Vladimir Putin’s mission is to turn back the clock to the days when the Kremlin’s writ ran through much of eastern Europe. We should not be naive about this, or about the more dangerous world that we now live in.

In a lengthy article on the looming conflict and on Putin’s approach more generally, the left wing author and journalist Paul Mason describes Putin’s policy as being to “reverse the economic and geopolitical humiliation inflicted on Russia at the height of US geopolitical dominance in the early 2000s - decisively and permanently. In place of the ‘unipolar’ world order, which fell apart after the global financial crisis, Putin wants a tripolar order: Russia, China, America.”

The desire among several EU countries for greater defence and security co-operation makes Irish governments nervous

For this to happen, Mason says, Russia must become once again the “co-equal” of the US, and the “international architecture designed around US post-1945 hegemony [must be] dismantled”. Crucially, he says, the EU is to be “sidelined and fragmented” as an international player. Nato must be proven a “busted flush”; the EU’s foreign and security policy “a joke”.

In this future, he says, the EU will be, “metaphorically, the chess board, not one of the chess players.”

Mason argues persuasively – it’s a view that many western security and international relations analysts share – that the situation in Ukraine must be understood in this context: not as an end in itself, but as a move that is part of a strategy to remake the geopolitics of Europe. This, I think, is true whether an invasion goes ahead or not.

And if it is true, then the EU faces some inescapable questions about its future. Ireland will not be able to escape this and some uncomfortable choices will present themselves. The desire among several EU countries for greater defence and security co-operation makes Irish governments – conscious of the public attachment to the idea of neutrality here – nervous. But that will not dull the determination in the EU to give the bloc a more coherent voice and a more muscular presence on the world stage.

Critics of those moves – which were likely after Afghanistan and inevitable now – will complain about European neo-imperialism. Supporters will say that an enhanced EU military and diplomatic capability is necessary to defend the EU and its values.

And those values have never been under such threat around the world. From China’s repression in Hong Kong and threats to Taiwan, to Putin’s reinstatement of the Kremlin’s brute authority, to the array of tinpot strongmen who take inspiration from them, the ideas that animated western liberal democracies and their practice have never been under such pressure. In many cases, they are under siege not just without, but from within their own borders.

That is why the maintenance of the EU and the strengthening of its role is important, perhaps paramount. For all their faults, as the Nobel-winning economist Paul Krugman has observed, the states of the EU are probably the most civilised political organisations in the history of humanity. Certainly their citizens are among the most fortunate human beings ever to have lived.

We like the piety of neutrality, but not its obligations

On the Inside Politics podcast this week, Brookings Institution scholar and author Tom Wright quoted the Norwegian historian Geir Lundestadt' description of the west as an "Empire by Invitation". Countries choose freely and democratically to be part of this organisation; and if they want to leave, well, off they go. As the menacing of Ukraine attests, and the clear threats to the EU members in central and Eastern Europe that were formerly Soviet client state shows, Putin wants a different world.

So the EU, which has been talking of greater security and defence co-operation and capability for donkeys’ years without much progress, is suddenly faced with a changed world that may require these things if the bloc is to defend itself.

This and future Irish Governments will be faced with these questions and the Irish public will be forced to confront the free ride of neutrality. We were all very quick to decry Boris Johnson’s unashamed have-your-cake-and-eat-it policies on Brexit. But Irish neutrality has been cakeism on an epic scale.

We like the piety of neutrality, but not its obligations, which would actually require us to tell the United States to forget about using Shannon. We like the security of Nato’s protection, but don’t fancy actually participating in the alliance, with all the requirements for maintaining a substantial military that come with it.

It is very likely, I think, that there is little public support for an enhanced EU security policy or an international presence. Fair enough. But in a changed world, where cakeism might have had its day, we shouldn’t be surprise if our EU partners think very much less of us for it – and go ahead themselves anyway.