Mounk: The End of an Illusion
My generation once believed in a peaceful and tolerant future. Russia’s assault on Ukraine has killed that illusion once and for all.
by Yascha Mounk
I was born in 1982. The Berlin Wall came down when I was seven. The internet, with its promise to connect the globe, became a part of everyday life when I was a teenager. Democracy kept expanding its reach around the world until I reached my early twenties.
In my generation, hope for a better future was not the exclusive preserve of inveterate optimists. Despite serious setbacks, from the civil war in the former Yugoslavia to the terrorist attacks which shook America on 9/11, the evidence seemed to bear out the assumption that the world was getting more peaceful and tolerant.
The number of wars really was declining. The most aggressive forms of nationalism really were fading. The portion of the human population that was able to speak freely and express its preferences at the ballot box really did rise to record highs. For a few precious years, a cosmopolitan optimism which swapped the narcissism of minor differences for the embrace of a common humanity seemed to be the ruling ethos of the world’s most powerful countries.
This made it easy to dismiss disturbances in the matrix as anachronisms which would soon be overcome. Many members of my generation wrote off civil wars fed by ethnic pride as “ancient hatreds,” played down the revival of religious fanaticism as the province of extremists, and dismissed bellicose nationalists as Ewiggestrige, those who are “forever beholden to yesteryear.” When I was twenty years old, I was very much concerned about the rise of Silvio Berlusconi and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Hugo Chavez and Vladimir Putin. But deep down, I thought I knew that they were throwbacks to a sinister past that would never make a real comeback—crooks and fanatics, ideologues and warmongers who posed a real threat but couldn’t possibly win the day and shape the future.
But just as the past can prove to be prologue, so apparent anachronists can turn out to be members of the avant-garde.
Today, it seems clear that the prevailing consensus was reading the tea leaves all wrong. The world has just entered its sixteenth year of a democratic recession that has only gotten deeper over the past twelve months. Social media mostly inspired tribal narcissism instead of facilitating mutual understanding. Nothing, from the survival of democracy in its traditional heartlands to our collective ability to check the ambitions of the world’s most ruthless dictators, seems certain any longer.
Chauvinism and ethnic pride, demagoguery and the lust for conquest, it turns out, do not belong to a particular historical epoch. They are thoroughly human potentialities, forever lurking as possible futures should our vigilance waver and our institutions fail to keep the worst instincts of humanity in check—as they just did in the heart of Europe.
There are many reasons why Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine is of deep historical significance.
The invasion marks the first time that one European country has so brazenly invaded another for the purpose of territorial gain since World War II. It will, at least for the time being, turn 40 million Ukrainians into vassals of the Kremlin. And it is undoubtedly killing an intolerably large number of innocents.
This we know.
But there is also a lot we do not yet know. Those who confidently tell one specific story of how things will play out are likely to go wrong. As so often when you stand at one of history’s hinge points, the possible scenarios are many and their odds uncertain. The best we can do is to anticipate a large range of possible outcomes, bearing in mind that history often ends up containing surprising twists and turns.
Perhaps the Ukrainian people will prove more capable of defending their freedom than anyone now imagines. Perhaps Ukraine will turn into the graveyard of the Kremlin’s neo-imperial ambitions. Perhaps a prolonged conflict of his own choosing will even prove to be Putin’s personal downfall.
But deeply depressing scenarios look rather more plausible. Perhaps Putin’s war on Ukraine will prove to be a big step towards the construction of a new Russian Empire. Perhaps it will seriously undermine trust in the ability of the United States and its NATO allies to save small and midsized nations from the ambitions of their large neighbors. Perhaps it will even prove to be the beginning of decades of military conflict in the middle of Europe or (the very worst case) provoke a nuclear conflagration.
The invasion’s true consequences won’t be known for years, or decades. But one of its implications for the realm of ideas already appears strangely clear. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine puts to rest the hopeful view of the future which dominated the western world in the decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The certainties on which we built our worldview have long been morphing into illusions; the missiles which fell around Kharkiv, Kyiv and Lviv in the early morning of February 24, 2022 confirmed that the metamorphosis is complete.
I have never stepped foot in Ukraine. As is often the case for countries you have not visited yourself, the names of its cities can feel like abstractions. But many of my ancestors lived and died on the territory that is now being targeted by Russian missiles. My grandfathers, Leon and Bolek, and my grandmothers, Chava and Mila, were all born in or around Lviv. Their lives were deeply shaped by the vicissitudes of history. They lost their parents, their grandparents, and most of their siblings to the ravages of the Holocaust.
As I watch the unfolding horror in Ukraine, I keep thinking about the fact that the generation of their children, born just after World War II, is the first in a long line to enjoy relative peace and security. Though the lives of my parents were violently disrupted by political forces beyond their control when a state-sponsored anti-Semitic campaign drove them out of Poland in the 1960s, they never had to mourn a relative lost to war, starvation, or ethnic cleansing.
I once took for granted that my world would look a lot more like that of my parents than like that of their forebears. I was, I thought, lucky enough to be born in a more enlightened time, in which mutual understanding was on the rise, and dictators waging wars of conquest on the wane. But the lesson of Putin’s ruthless war on Ukraine is that even this modest hope may yet turn out to be an illusion.
I am not a religious man. But in these painful hours, I have found it impossible to resist a secular prayer:
May God be kind to the Ukrainian people.
May God be kind to all of us.
For there, but for the grace of history, go we.
Yascha Mounk is the founder of Persuasion.
We're trained by our religious heritage to believe that the world can be totally, magically transformed. Your generation fell for it, just as the generation before you fell for the belief in an Age of Aquarius. Real world progress doesn't work like that: it's messy, imperfect, and comes with times of backlash and often new (hopefully smaller) problems.
One of the reasons the boomers have been so demonized is that what they changed fell so short of what they thought they would. Yet looking back, is it possible to deny that they created an America that's *much* less racist sexist homophobic etc. than the one they were born into? Yet for some reason we can't take a win, and both left and right want to tear it all down because they can't see what has improved.
What the end of the Cold War improved was a lot less than what we once thought. The future of liberal democracy may depend on not falling for the counter-delusion that it was nothing.
What a poignant and informative piece. Thanks, Yascha.