Appeasement, concessions, premature ‘ceasefires,’ and ‘de-escalation,’ are all too often seen as weakness by terrorists and hostile anti-Western regimes.
One of the biggest makes we make in the Western world is to act as if everyone else in the world thinks the same way we do.
Of course, many people from around the world come to the West and embrace the values of the West, becoming ‘Western’ themselves.
But a significant portion of the world – especially those at the top of authoritarian anti-Western regimes – simply don’t see things the way we do.
Now, such an observation is usually followed by a denunciation of the West and criticism of ‘Western arrogance.’
However, that is not the key takeaway.
The way people in the West think – believing in religious freedom, democratic elections, freedom of expression, individual freedom, and economic freedom, has built the most innovative, advanced, wealthy, free, and peaceful societies in human history.
Many countries are increasingly embracing key elements of Western values, while also retaining core aspects of their own culture. ‘Western values’ are not exclusively Western.
Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan are all unmistakably similar to much of Europe and North America in some key ways, including limits on the power of the state, democracy, the rule of law, and individual rights.
India is both a unique and strong civilization in its own right, and a defender of many values that are held in high regard in the West, as the country has free elections, a strong tradition of debate, respect for entrepreneurship and innovation, and respect for religious differences when those differences are peacefully expressed.
With that said, the reality is that a significant portion of the world has a very different mindset. Things we view as a positive – a willingness to make concessions, a desire for peace above almost all else, and a belief that everything can be ‘talked out,’ is often viewed as weakness in other parts of the world.
Differing views of power
The West is built on the foundation of the rule of law, and limits on the power of the state. We take this for granted, but it explains why we are so outraged by corruption, why we abhor violence, and why we admire those who gain power and influence through creativity, intelligence, and persuasion rather than through force.
This has a significant impact on what the West views as ‘strength’ and ‘power.’
We tend to prize restraint, using strength to protect others, and ‘turning the other cheek.’ When Western countries negotiate, they tend to do so relatively honestly, and there is usually a mechanism to adjudicate disputes.
Consider that the United States has many ongoing disputes with neighbouring countries which it deals with through negotiation. In theory, the United States could demolish both Canada and Mexico militarily in a matter of weeks, if not days. Instead, they chose dialogue.
Looking back at history, no country was ever as powerful relative to the rest of the world as the United States was after World War Two.
At one point, the United States comprised roughly half of global GDP, and was the only country with nuclear weapons.
Had WW2 era Germany or the Soviet Union found themselves in that kind of situation, the result would have been global conquest and mass genocide by Germany, or global conquest and mass oppression by the Soviets.
Instead, the United States sought to push their former foes – Germany & Japan – to become democracies with a respect for the rule of law and human rights, provided a security umbrella to Europe, helped global trade flourish by defending the world’s oceans, and even pushed for the dismantling of the old colonial empires.
The U.S. had – and still has – tremendous power, yet has been extremely restrained in how they use it. Remember, a key critique of U.S. policy in Afghanistan and Iraq was that they spent too much money trying to build democratic institutions in those countries. That may be many things, but it’s certainly not evil.
Reverse the roles
As Israel takes the fight to the Hamas terrorists following the largest mass murder of Jewish People since the Holocaust, they have shut off power to Hamas’s base in Gaza.
Many people were likely surprised to learn that Israel had been providing power to Gaza in the first place, given that Hamas – which runs Gaza – has the openly stated goal of wiping Israel off the map.
Yet, Israel has long acted with tremendous restraint towards those who wish them harm.
Israel’s ‘reward’ for their restraint and respect for human life was a horrific terror attack perpetrated by Hamas.
Now, imagine for a moment that the roles were reversed.
Imagine that it was Hamas that controlled whether Israel had power or not.
What would have happened?
Of course, you know the answer.
The power would never have been turned on in the first place, and Hamas would have massacred everyone in Israel – perpetrating a second Holocaust.
This kind of asymmetry can be seen in many other conflicts involving Western countries against anti-Western regimes/terrorist groups.
When fascist Germany invaded countries in World War Two, those countries ceased to exist and significant portions of the population were murdered. When the Soviet Union invaded countries, those countries lost their independence and were imprisoned behind the Iron Curtain.
By contrast, when the United States and Allied nations invaded and defeated fascist regimes, those countries were given the chance to become democratic and retained their independence.
We see the same today.
Israel has been attacked multiple times, by multiple countries and terror groups in the Middle East. Each time, Israel managed to win – by surviving – and the countries that attacked them continued to exist. Had Israel lost, Israel would have ceased to exist.
Another example is Ukraine.
If Russia stops fighting and returns to their internationally recognized borders, the war simply ends. It could end today if Russia simply brought their troops home.
Is Ukraine stops fighting, Ukraine will be taken over by Russia, will lose their independence, and – given Russia’s actions in the war so far – Ukrainians would be subjected to mass rape, torture, abduction, and long-term brutal subjugation.
The same is true of China and Taiwan.
Taiwan is no threat to China.
China will continue to exist regardless of what happens in Taiwan.
By contrast, Taiwan – as an independent and democratic state – will cease to exist if China invades and wins.
The language of power
The West has a lot of power. This power stems from the kind of societies we’ve built. Free people are more innovative and more productive. Innovation and productivity brings wealth. Wealth brings the potential for both great economic and military power.
Anti-Western regimes like China, Russia, Iran, and the terrorist groups they support don’t have as much power and wealth as the West. And they deeply resent it. But, because they are unwilling to embrace the kind of individual freedom and limits on state power that exist in the West – and that are the source of the West’s power – their only hope of matching the strength of free nations is to wait for a moment of weakness and make a lunge for global dominance.
This is what happened in World War Two.
Germany built up their military – largely through hidden and unsustainable debt – at a time when much of the free world was seeking to disarm and was unwilling to ‘risk war.’
Germany thus got a head start, a head start they used to conquer many countries and slaughter millions of people, a slaughter that was only brought to an end once the U.S. massively rearmed itself and the Soviet Union (having already committed genocide in the 1930s against Ukraine) – found itself facing the threat of genocide at the hands of Germany – held them off at massive cost and with significant help from the West who – accurately – understood that letting fascist Germany conquer all of Europe and much of Eurasia simply could not be allowed to happen.
During the Cold War, the Soviets regularly spent a much higher percentage of GDP on their military than the United States, but because the United States was so much richer on a per capita basis, the military spending burden was sustainable for the U.S., while it slowly crippled the Soviets. U.S. President Ronald Reagan was right to push for a big U.S. military spending surge, because he was well aware the Soviets would try to keep up in a way that their economy couldn’t sustain.
Reagan understood – as Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill also understood – that tyrants only understand the language of strength.
Fascist Germany wasn’t defeated through negotiation and kind words, they were defeated when their opponents built a gargantuan amount of weapons and used those weapons to destroy Germany’s military power.
Fascist Japan wasn’t defeated by ‘concessions’ or ‘de-escalation,’ they were defeated by the might of the U.S. military-industrial-complex and the bravery of Allied soldiers.
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union was unable to conquer all of Europe not because NATO kindly asked the USSR not to invade, but because NATO countries spent a significant amount of money on training troops, building weapons, maintaining a nuclear deterrent, and investing in military R&D.
At crucial moments in history, the leaders of the free world recognized that authoritarian regimes only understood the language of strength, and leaders like Roosevelt, Churchill, and Reagan managed to speak that language while still largely maintaining the values of the nations they led.
That is what we must do today.
We must recognize that Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, and Hamas all seek to expand their power the moment they recognize weakness from the West.
All the efforts to appease those nations, integrate them into the ‘rules based international order,’ deepen economic ties, listen to their concerns, ‘de-escalate’ tensions, have only resulted in more global instability and danger, because those regimes take those good-faith efforts by the free world as weakness and seek to further expand their power.
When we go wobbly on providing support for Ukraine, when we overlook anti-Semitic incitement against Israel, when we sell out our values to China, when we ignore Iran’s genocidal rhetoric, when we demonize our own history, and when we fail to strengthen our national defence, we send a message that authoritarian states hear loud and clear: The West is weak, and now is the time to make a grab for world-changing power.
And so, it is essential for the free nations of the world to stop sending that message.
We must acknowledge that whether we like it or not, we are in a confrontation of values that will define whether the world is ruled by those who value freedom, or ruled by those who desire to commit genocide, subjugate billions, and stamp out human dignity.
We must build up our armed forces, we must keep our commitment to our allies, we must push back against China’s influence, we must confront Iran’s funding of terror, we must stand in support of Israel, we must support Ukraine’s fight for freedom against Russia, and we must regain confidence in Western values.
Yes, it’s a lot.
Yes, it will be expensive.
Yes, it will be difficult.
But the future will be far more difficult, far more expensive, and far more brutal if we fail to understand that the authoritarian regimes and terrorist groups that wish us harm only understand strength, and if we fail to act accordingly.