by Winslow Myers
Humility is endless. —T.S. Eliot
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin declared that he wants Russia weakened. Of course, he meant militarily weakened. Still, his words summoned an echo of Versailles in 1919, when the complete humiliation of Germany planted the seeds for the next world war. Unlike 1919, we inhabit a nuclear world, where humiliating other nuclear nations may be infinitely more dangerous.
Putin has done criminal harm on a colossal scale. But Putin and his oligarchs are not all of Russia. I have had friendly Zoom conversations with Russians who are just as interested in peace and representative government as we are. While Putin seems to be far from interested in democracy, it is hard to imagine that he is not interested in avoiding nuclear war.
Sharing that interest with Putin means staying humble about our own faults and refusing simplistic good guy versus bad guy scenarios. There are no good or bad nuclear weapons. Everyone is human and fallible. Preventing escalation requires confronting Putin’s arrogance with humility, even as he fails with his own humility.
It is humbling to admit how much the U.S. and Russia share. First, those in power in our own country have launched their own imperialist wars with murky motives against Vietnam, Iraq, and others going back into our distant past.
Second, accountability. The Russian state does not hesitate to poison or murder its critics without consequence. But the U.S. also has a systemic accountability problem. Our police too often get away with racist murder. The richest among us find ways of paying no taxes at all. No politician has been made accountable for the costs and consequences of war and torture. Our previous president seems to possess an impenetrable Teflon coating that repels all attempts at legal accountability for corruption.
Third, the U.S. and Russia share delusion and nostalgia, including the dream that endless arms races will bring us the security we long for. Putin is soaked in grievance about the breakup of the Soviet Union and thrives on fantasies of restoring Russia to 17th-century glory. He has tried to keep his citizens in a state of delusion about the invasion of Ukraine.
America too suffers from nostalgic delusion. Vast numbers of our citizens, encouraged by politicians eager to ride to power on the whirlwinds of deception, believe the nonsense about voter fraud. Anti-scientific Covid misinformation has led to numbers of deaths higher than any other nation.
Too many white Christians, threatened by inevitable demographic change, long for a version of national greatness that never was, again encouraged by politicians and commentators who have mainstreamed formerly extremist racist ideas.
No national culture, whether in Russia, America, China, or anywhere, can thrive if it bases its religious or political principles on fear, lies, and exclusion. Just as many in Russia may be accepting Putin’s delusion that Ukrainians are all Nazis worthy of extermination, many in the U.S. along with their supposed political representatives have bought into delusions of conspiracy because they have felt threatened and humiliated by unaccountably rapid economic and cultural change.
The U.S. Supreme Court lacks humility by clinging to nostalgic interpretations of a Constitution that was conceived in a different world. The framers would recoil at the Court’s definition of money as speech, or if they could see how a gross distortion of the meaning of a well-regulated militia and the right to bear arms has resulted in a nation awash in 400 million guns where mass killings are routine. If Democrats and Republicans stereotyped each other to the extent that those guns were used to resolve our cultural differences, it would make Ukraine look like a picnic, and yet that may well be the direction of our drift.
American and Russian military arrogance was equally humbled in Afghanistan. Whoever “wins” in Ukraine, there will be no genuine victory. The war between nations is really a civil war in the sense that all the attacks by all sides are against the common good. Besides the harm to the Ukrainian people themselves, the war has caused a global food crisis, because so many nations depend upon the bounty of Ukrainian agriculture. Our real challenges, like preventing nuclear apocalypse and sustaining the biosystem that supports us, transcend both the quarrels of nations and the conflicts within them.
National pride has strengthened the arm of Ukrainian resistance but caused our humility to decline. As Teilhard de Chardin asserted, “The Age of Nations is past. If we do not wish to perish, it remains to us now to set aside ancient prejudices and build the earth.”
We—humanity and the planet—are between an old unworkable story and an emerging one. In the old story, nature is a resource to be exploited in support of economic prosperity depending upon an illusory model of infinite natural resources, and both nature and other humans are best controlled according to the principle of might makes right.
In a possible emerging planetary story, humility will allow us to see that we have more in common than what divides us, based on the challenges we face together. Tanks, fighter jets, and nuclear missiles—and the greed, hatred, and paranoia motivating their endless deployment—do nothing to address the death of coral reefs, the breakdown of ocean ecosystems and fisheries, and the rise in sea levels, and the mass migrations of refugees.
Because our global situation transcends “us and them,” there’s a relationship between the opposites of humility and humiliation. Keeping our own faults in mind, we can avoid the arrogant temptation to humiliate the Russian nation. Both we and they are in need of radical self-examination. The U.S. may be alienated from Russia at the moment, but we still need to join each other as soon as we can in both disarmament and ecological initiatives. Our very lives depend on it.