In recent days, experts have begun laying out the potential hardships the Russian invasion of Ukraine might inflict here in the United States, thousands and thousands of miles from the battle zone. As former White House national security official Richard Clarke bluntly put it, “Russia will bring the war to our homeland.” He pointed to potential damage in two particular realms, possible Russian cyberattacks and disinformation meant to unsettle our domestic politics. Similarly, economists and financial firms are predicting what an ongoing war in Ukraine could mean in terms of rising prices for wheat, vegetable oil, and oil and gas, among other commodities.
How different this sense of potential damage is than that expressed when, in the wake of 9/11, America went to war globally with its invasion of Afghanistan and its war on terror. As the president of that moment, George W. Bush, insisted so confidently in 2001, Americans should simply “go shopping” and not be distracted by the country’s distant battles. As he later put it, “We will fight them over there so we do not have to face them in the United States of America.”
At the heart of those claims was the thought that foreign wars could be fought by a great power without damage at home — or put another way, that the theaters of conflict for the Global War on Terror were somehow eternally separable from the daily lives of Americans. But tell that to the country that elected Donald Trump as president 15 years later and has been coming apart at the seams ever since.
With the invasion of Ukraine by Vladimir Putin’s Russia, a possible Potemkin superpower, it already seems clear that Bush’s notion no longer holds (if it ever did) when it comes to war on this planet, no matter where it takes place or which power initiates it. Even though the current conflict isn’t directly our war, one thing is guaranteed: its outcome will be of major significance to the well-being of this country and the international order, thanks to an all-too-basic reality — that the global and the local in today’s world are now virtually indistinguishable. This will, in fact, be the key lesson the ongoing war in Ukraine holds for us as a nation.
THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY
From the American perspective, the inseparable and dangerous nature of the relationship between the US and the world has been creeping up on us ever since this century began. The post-9/11 installation of airport screenings, perpetually reminding us of the threat of the global war on terror, was one early sign. Since then, the number of life-threatening dangers has swelled immeasurably.
Even though the current conflict isn’t directly our war, one thing is guaranteed: its outcome will be of major significance to the well-being of this country and the international order, thanks to an all-too-basic reality — that the global and the local in today’s world are now virtually indistinguishable.
After all, our children, like those the world over, have been going to school for nearly two years now wearing masks. While the discomfort and distancing those face shields represented may have been burdensome, the underlying reality was the fear of becoming infected with COVID-19, given the six million deaths it has caused worldwide. And among other dangers in our American world, even the wave of shootings at our schools and other public places in these years has had a global dimension, linked as some of them were to white extremist attacks abroad. Notably, in April 2019, the synagogue shooter in California praised an avowed white supremacist who had murdered Muslims in Christ Church, New Zealand, earlier that year (as did the gunman in the 2019 Walmart shootings in El Paso, Texas). And since then, the global ties among white supremacists bent on anti-immigrant violence have only escalated.
Within such a context of war, disease, and fear in which the local and the global continue to merge, there are now some simmering realities the Russian war in Ukraine has exposed in new and powerful ways.
THE NUCLEAR THREAT
Like the pandemic, the threat of nuclear warfare has long recognized neither boundaries nor borders. Remember, for instance, that President Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq was premised on the lie manufactured as a pretext for war that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Beyond that the Iran nuclear deal and concern about North Korea’s growing nuclear capabilities have been constant themes in the international news in these years.
Ukraine, however, threatens to take the fear of a nuclear disaster to a new level. There was, of course, Vladimir Putin’s ominous announcement that he was putting the Russian nuclear arsenal on “high alert,” as well as the drills the Russians conducted with land-based missiles and nuclear subs. As spokespeople for the Nuclear Threat Initiative pointed out, that was his grim way of trying to “deter outside interference with his invasion of Ukraine.”
Unfortunately, such a threat only increases the risk of catastrophic mistakes. In addition, within 24 hours of the invasion, Russian troops had gained access to the still-dangerous remains of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant buried in concrete after a meltdown in 1986 that took 47 lives, devastated crops in Ukraine and neighboring countries, and led to an estimated exposure of 530,000 people to nuclear fallout. Later, they seized and burned part of Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, which happens to be the largest in Europe.
Imagine that, in our future, the equivalent of the duck-and-cover drills of my childhood may once again become a reality.
CLIMATE CHANGE AND CLEAN ENERGY
The Ukraine crisis has exposed the inseparability of the local and the global in another way: energy policy and threats from climate change. As much as this conflict may be about the post-Cold War order, NATO, and Putin’s appetite for heightening the stakes, it’s also about oil and gas. The new Nord Stream 2 pipeline Russia has built to Germany was specifically intended to bypass Ukraine and so deny it the profits that might come from transporting Russian fossil fuels to Europe. (Under the auspices of Nord Stream 2, by the way, the profits of the oil and gas industry in the region were expected to double, enriching both Russia and Western oil enterprises.) Opponents have argued that the pipeline “would make Germany and a few other countries slaves to Russian gas.” As Eric Reguly, the Berlin-based European bureau chief for the Globe and Mail, explained, the move to build Nord Stream 2 was seen as “intensifying Europe’s fossil fuel reliance when it should be devoting its might and creativity to renewable energy.”
It’s no mistake that Putin launched this campaign during the cold of winter. He was well-aware of Europe’s dependence on Russian natural gas for its heating in a world in which the threat of climate change has failed to substantially redirect the energy policies of either our country or so many others in significant enough ways. Despite President Biden’s attempts to address climate change — including rejoining the Paris climate accord, empowering the Environmental Protection Agency to restrict greenhouse gas emissions, and aiming to get the US to “net-zero” by 2050 — his remedies have not been equal to the task. Many of his moves have been thwarted, of course, by Republican opposition in Congress, with even worse possibly to come in the near future from a right-wing Supreme Court.
Democrats have proposed a Climate Civilian Corps to address the climate emergency and our younger generations have indeed displayed an urge to counter the warming of our world. In May of 2021, a Pew Research poll showed that “32% of Gen Zers and 28% of Millennials have taken at least one of four actions (donating money, contacting an elected official, volunteering or attending a rally) to help address climate change in the last year.” Significantly, the poll indicated that, even among Republicans, 49% of Gen Zers and 48% of Millennials “say action to reduce the effects of climate change needs to be prioritized today, even if that means fewer resources to deal with other important problems.”
Yet the move to clean energy in this country is, at best, creeping along at a snail’s pace. And no matter how forward-thinking the green-energy movement itself may be, the megadrought in the Southwest (of a sort not seen in 1,200 years) and California’s raging mega-fires that have destroyed hundreds of thousands of acres of woodlands are indications of just how far short this country (and the rest of the world) are falling in terms of responding to climate change.
Whatever else happens, the pressing need for energy independence and non-greenhouse-gas-producing fuels should be one of the key lessons learned from the Ukraine-Russia crisis. With nuclear threats in the air, profits seem to diminish in importance. With the onset of this conflict, in fact, the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline was halted by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.
We are so much more interconnected than we care to acknowledge and, with that in mind, we need new norms and protections in place of those that have led us to this point on an all-too-new and dangerous planet.
The Ukraine-Russia conflict has brought energy policy to the forefront of world affairs not because of fires or flooding or the erosion of beaches or intolerable temperatures or even the recent devastating Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, but because the threat Russia poses to world stability has suddenly clarified the stakes involved in not prioritizing clean energy.
A third issue of both local and global importance to which the Ukraine crisis has instantly lent a new level of awareness is the potential damage cyberattacks could cause — in Ukraine, of course, but far beyond as well, including in the United States. As Richard Clarke pointed out recently, Vladimir Putin could bring the global danger of cyberattacks home to each and every one of us. “Russia could attempt to prevent anyone’s online access to key parts” of the global and local financial system, he pointed out. Cyberattacks could similarly target our power grids and so the electricity that runs our homes, businesses, trains, and more.
Beyond fears of running out of cash or losing electricity, there’s yet another danger posed by the weaponizing of cyberspace — information warfare. “Russian trolls, bots, and disinformation experts,” Clarke reminds us, have been used to stoke conflict in American politics for years now. Old videos of bloodshed, published as if they were part of the current Ukraine conflict, have started filling social-media sites as Russia attempts to use disinformation to counter resistance in that country with its own online version of military successes.
Dealing with such social-media disinformation is a global problem that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later via laws, international accords, and new regulations. For now, Facebook’s parent company Meta and several other social media giants have actively thwarted with the spread of false information on Ukraine, removing both accounts and websites. But far more will need to be done.
Yet another arena where the overlap of the global and local has been highlighted by the Russian war is the world’s ever-expanding population of displaced people, including refugees. In November 2021, there were an estimated 84 million of them worldwide.
The plight of Ukrainian refugees is increasing those numbers exponentially. In just the first days of that conflict, they have already reached an estimated million and a half. Experts are currently predicting that such refugee flows could hit five million as the war plays out. Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Hungary, and Moldova have offered to take in such refugees, largely women and children, for the time being, but their long-term sustenance will undoubtedly pose significant challenges, especially if the situation in Ukraine isn’t settled soon.
The United States, too, has been challenged by a refugee response recently. Dozens of American agencies have become involved in helping the 76,000 Afghans who have arrived here since the US withdrew its troops in August, after defeat in our war there. Across the country, from Philadelphia to Texas to Seattle, help has been offered for their sustenance, shelter, medical care, and even schooling. However, in a country that, in the Trump era, has been increasingly riven by the very idea of refugees and immigrants coming here, tensions may only continue to rise.
Once again, in the context of refugees, the local and the global are merging in worrying ways, underscoring the urgent need for new strategies and policies.
FACING THE FUTURE FROM THE PRESENT, NOT THE PAST
In search of explanatory paradigms for the current crisis, experts and pundits keep rummaging through the past — Hitler’s annexation of the Sudetenland at the beginning of World War II, the Soviet incursions into Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, not to mention the Cold War paradigm that infuses Vladimir Putin’s thinking and increasingly Washington’s as well. In all too many ways, unfortunately, such invocations of the past fail to offer us help. They are distractions rather than guideposts.
The current conflict in Ukraine demands that we look to the present and the future on this increasingly endangered planet of ours. It’s time to recognize that, whether you’re talking about nuclear weapons, cyberattacks, refugees, pandemics, or the fate of a fast-warming planet, that conflict stands in for the most pressing global and local realities of this century, not the previous one.
The war there should be a wake-up call. Its unmistakable directive: accept the realities of the twenty-first-century world. We are so much more interconnected than we care to acknowledge and, with that in mind, we need new norms and protections in place of those that have led us to this point on an all-too-new and dangerous planet.
Karen J. Greenberg is the director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law and author of the newly published Subtle Tools: The Dismantling of Democracy from the War on Terror to Donald Trump (Princeton University Press). Julia Tedesco helped with research for this piece.
This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.