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Does the Ukraine Conflict Pit the West Against the Rest?

Another approach to teaching the war in Ukraine.

March 23, 2022
 
 

As some readers have noted, the Higher Ed Gamma blog’s subtitle, “MOOCs and beyond,” barely speaks to the topics that this column addresses.  Instead, much of the focus is on active learning pedagogies, academic freedom, accreditation, assessment, the crises of the humanities and of the professoriate, technology-enhanced learning, the history, politics, and future of higher education, and innovations in history teaching.

Indulge me if I address, for a second time, a timely topic: How to integrate the Ukraine war into our teaching.   Prompting this post is a recent opinion essay in the Wall Street Journal by Walter Russell Mead, the James Clarke Chace Professor of Foreign Affairs and Humanities at Bard College.

This op-ed, entitled "Sanctions on Russia Pit the West Against the Rest of the World," has generated a firestorm of controversy, and you might ask your students why this is the case.  

You might also ask your students why so many foreign countries, including Brazil, India, and Vietnam, among others, and even some allies (such as Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates) have not strongly backed Ukraine and NATO in what is a clear case of wanton aggression.

This is certainly a real live instance of the dog that didn’t bark.  You perhaps recall that in one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s 56 Sherlock Holmes short stories, the great detective successfully solved a case involving the disappearance of a famous racehorse and the murder of the horse’s trainer by focusing on what didn’t happen rather than what did.  After all, if the dog didn’t bark, the dog obviously knew the guilty party.

In the case of the Ukraine war, we might ask why the world hasn’t united in opposition to Russia’s invasion.

Mead’s essay lists a number of factors that may have contributed to the reluctance to support Ukraine and the Western cause:

  • The persistent and growing gap in wealth and quality of life between the Western nations and the rest of the world.
  • The weaponization of financial institutions and of social media platforms not only to sanction Russia but to pressure other countries to support Western policies.
  • A sense that the West is already too powerful and might well impose sanctions on other countries that fail to embrace Western values and priorities.  
  • The West’s advocacy of policies that impede economic growth in developing countries.
  • Resistance against Western attempts to impose its value system internationally coupled with criticism of Western double standards when it comes to accepting refugees.
  • A deepening perception that Pax Americana and U.S. dominance is in decline, that the country is an unpredictable, unreliable ally, and that a country that invaded Iraq and intervened in Libya and the Balkans, resulting in many civilian casualties, is hypocritical when it talks about international law.
  • Trepidation over the possible outcomes of the war, including a much stronger and assertive West.

You might invite your students to assess the validity of these various claims, and why, even if they’re inaccurate, other governments might yet believe them.

Mead’s foreign policy views are generally considered conservative, but the Ukraine war has not divided expert opinion along predictable ideological lines.  John Mearsheimer, the R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago, a leading foreign policy realist who is also typically labeled conservative, has argued that NATO’s eastward expansion helped trigger Russian fears of Western encroachment and encirclement.   Somewhat similar arguments have been made by a handful of thinkers on the left.  

In other words, your students have an opportunity to assess contrasting approaches to international relations, one termed realism and another called idealism.

I’m of the view that instructors should never allow a teachable moment to go to waste.  We live in a moment when liberal democracy, economic liberalism, and liberal internationalism seem threatened and the international balance of power is shifting.  That’s the world our students will inherit and it makes sense for them to ponder the challenges and choices that policymakers will have to make as the world becomes more multipolar and fractured.

I came of age intellectually at the time when ideas about neo-colonialism, underdevelopment, cultural imperialism, and world systems had gained traction and when few classmates considered the United States the Hero in the White Hat or the world’s moral arbiter.  Those earlier neo-Marxist informed modes of analysis have largely been swept into history’s dustpan.  Yet even as we celebrate Ukrainian resistance and speak out against aggression, we also urgently need to understand why international affairs functions as it does.

I am not a diplomatic or military historian or a historian of foreign affairs or an expert in international relations.  If pressed, I say I am a historian of childhood, of families, and of the life course.  But one of the messages I convey in my scholarly writings applies, I think, to current events.  Beginning in the late 18th century, a new idea of childhood arose. This was the idea of a protected childhood, insulated from the harsh realities of the adult world.  During the 1970s, a contrasting idea took shape.  This was the concept of a prepared childhood.  In today’s world, innocence and naiveite are dangerous.    

We can’t and we shouldn’t shelter our children from the many threats that lurk around them.  The best protection for unexpected eventualities is preparation.

Ditto for international relations.  An education that fails to speak to the issues of our time is pedantry.  Let’s not let today’s learning opportunities go unexplored.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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