Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was, first and foremost, a crime — indeed, the war crimes continue as you read this. But it was also a blunder. In less than five weeks Putin has destroyed Russia’s military reputation, battered his nation’s economy and strengthened the democratic alliances he hoped to undermine. How could he have made such a catastrophic mistake?
Part of the answer, surely, is strongman syndrome: Putin has surrounded himself with people who tell him what he wants to hear. All indications are that he went into this debacle believing his own propaganda about both his army’s martial prowess and the eagerness of Ukrainians to submit to Russian rule.
But there’s also reason to think Putin, like many of his admirers in the West, thought modern democracies were too decadent to offer effective resistance.
And here’s the thing: When I look at the United States, I worry that the West is, in fact, being made weaker by decadence — but not the kind that obsesses Putin and those who think like him. Our vulnerability comes not from the decline of traditional family values, but from the decline of traditional democratic values, such as a belief in the rule of law and a willingness to accept the results of elections that don’t go your way.
Of course, the idea that loose morals destroy great powers goes back centuries. In the Hollywood version of history, the Roman Empire fell because its elites were too busy with orgies to attend to the business of defeating barbarians. Actually, the timing is all wrong on that story, but I’ll get back to that in a minute.
Today’s right-wingers seem bothered less by weakness from sexual license than by weakness from gender equality: Tucker Carlson warned that China’s military was becoming “more masculine” while ours was becoming “more feminine, whatever feminine means anymore, since men and women no longer exist.” Senator Ted Cruz retweeted a video comparing a U.S. Army recruiting video with footage of a Russian paratrooper with a shaved head and declared that a “woke, emasculated military” might not be a good idea.
It would be interesting to know what has happened to that paratrooper since Putin invaded Ukraine. In any case, the heavy casualties suffered by Russia’s anti-woke military as it failed to overrun vastly inferior Ukrainian forces have confirmed what anyone who has studied history knows: Modern wars aren’t won with swaggering machismo. Courage and endurance, physical and moral, are as essential as ever; but so are more mundane things like logistics, vehicle maintenance and communications systems that actually work.
By the way, I can’t help mentioning that recent events have also confirmed the truism that many, perhaps most men who pose as tough guys … aren’t. Putin’s response to failure in Ukraine has been extremely Trumpian: insisting that his invasion is all going “according to plan,” refusing to admit having made any mistakes and whining about cancel culture. I’m half expecting him to release battle maps crudely modified with a Sharpie.
But back to the kind of decadence that really matters.
As I said, the Hollywood version of Rome’s decline and fall doesn’t stand up under examination. True, the spoils of empire made it possible for a few people to live in great luxury, possibly including the occasional orgy; the closest modern counterpart to that elite would be … Russian oligarchs. But Rome retained its territorial integrity and military effectiveness for centuries after the emergence of that pampered, libertine elite.
So what did go wrong? Historians have many theories, but surely a big factor was the erosion of norms that had helped establish political legitimacy, and the ever-growing willingness of some Romans, especially after around 180 C.E., to use violence against one another.
Obviously what’s going on in the U.S. today bears no detailed resemblance to the troubles of the ancient world. Yet these days not a month goes by without further revelations that a large part of America’s body politic, very much including members of the political elite, has contempt for democratic principles and will do whatever it takes to win.
It’s incredible how quickly we’ve normalized the fact that the last president tried to retain power despite losing the election and that a mob he incited stormed the Capitol. Many people took part in the effort to overturn the election — among them, we recently learned, the wife of a sitting Supreme Court justice, who hasn’t even recused himself in cases about the attempted coup.
And while Donald Trump’s effort to stay in office failed, most of his party has, in effect, retroactively backed that effort.
Why is that relevant to Ukraine? Putin effectively bet that an effete West would stand by as he carried out his conquest. Instead, President Biden very effectively mobilized a democratic alliance that has rushed aid to Ukraine and helped humiliate the aggressor.
But the next time something like this happens, America might not lead an effective alliance of democracies, because we ourselves will have given up on democratic values.
And that, if you ask me, is what real decadence looks like.