[David Koyzis is a Global Scholar with Global Scholars Canada and has a PhD in government and international studies from the University of Notre Dame. He’s the author of Political Visions and Illusions and We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God. The following transcript has been edited for space and clarity.]
The American Commons: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us – even in this somewhat truncated format. Now, although your academic specialty lies outside the realm of international conflicts and foreign policy, you have consistently demonstrated through your published works that you are a remarkably adept thinker. Your approach is often inter-disciplinary. We would love to pick your brain, as an interested observer, regarding the Ukraine-Russia conflict. In the simplest possible terms, how would you summarize the present Ukraine-Russia Crisis to your young child?
Koyzis: Well, my daughter is 23, so she doesn’t need to have this explained to her. But let me approach the question more generally. Parents with young children can hardly avoid talking about the events of the day, especially something of this magnitude. I grew up during the height of the Cold War in the United States, when Kennedy and Khrushchev went face-to-face over Berlin and Cuba. A neighbour of ours had spent the ten years following the Second World War in Soviet forced labour camps, and knowing his history made an impact on me.
The world is an even smaller place than it was six decades ago, as we are so thoroughly interconnected by our communications technology. So shielding children from the worst becomes that much more difficult. If my daughter were still young, I would tell her that a large country is trying to take over a smaller one and that this is unjust. And then we would pray together for an end to the conflict. I would answer any questions she had in ways appropriate to a young child.
The American Commons: From your vantage point, how do you anticipate the sudden onset of war between Russia and Ukraine to affect life for North Americans?
Koyzis: Well, I think the most immediate consequence will be a spike in the rate of inflation, which was already higher than we’ve seen in recent years because of the pandemic. The price of oil has risen, and with the resulting increase in transportation costs, the prices of food will rise too, especially of imported goods.
To dampen inflation, our central banks will be raising interest rates, which will make it more difficult for people to buy such “big-ticket” items as houses and automobiles.
But I think there will be a psychological effect as well. Many of us have relatives in Europe, some of whom may be in Ukraine or nearby. During time of war there is a different feel to ordinary life. Suddenly life feels much more precarious. We go about our daily business but with a vague sense of anxiety constantly following us. Watching footage on television and hearing people’s stories bring tears to our eyes. I find myself praying constantly for those caught up in this conflict and that God would bring it to an end.
The American Commons: We often talk about the “hidden costs of war” – given your own field of study, do you foresee any surprise consequences stemming from the conflict?
Koyzis: Well, yes, I think so, but it’s in the very nature of a surprise that we don’t know what it is until it’s come. One thing I hope will come of this is that North Americans will put aside their ideological differences and begin to consider what they have in common with their fellow citizens. War can often bring a people together, but it can just as easily divide a nation, as Vietnam did with Americans half a century ago.
I had hoped that the COVID pandemic would bring people together against a common threat, but that hasn’t happened of course. I’ve been greatly disappointed to see the pandemic so thoroughly politicized. It could happen with the present war.
The American Commons: Your primary field of study rests at the intersection of faith and culture. How do international conflicts such as the Ukraine-Russia crisis tend to shape mainstream culture in the long-run? Although these things are impossible to predict, do you anticipate any particular shifts in the North American psyche to emerge as a result of this?
Koyzis: It’s difficult to say, of course, but wars generally disrupt stable customs and mores. The two world wars may well have been catalysts for the secularization of Europe over the past seventy-five years. But adversity may also send people back to the churches for consolation. In the wake of the 9-11 attacks, Americans flocked to the churches, but that didn’t last long. We don’t know how long the current conflict will last, but if it drags on for years there will have to be changes as we build our lives around it as well as we can.
The American Commons: In what way does the Christian tradition change the way we should think about the Russia-Ukraine conflict?
Koyzis: I am tempted to allude to what the Bible says about “wars and rumours of wars” (Matthew 24:6). Human beings are sinful, and we tend to want more than what we have a right to. There will always be tyrants who abuse their positions of authority to enrich themselves and their friends at the public expense. And there will always be rulers with dreams of imperial grandeur who would happily extinguish countless lives to achieve their ambitions. The current conflict is the clearest example in my memory of an obvious war of aggression fuelled by sheer covetousness.
The American Commons: In his book, “The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade,” Phillip Jenkins chronicles the rather horrifying story of how the churches of Europe and North America contributed – and perhaps even drove – the continuing escalation of the Great War, often framing it in apocalyptic terms. Each country painted their armies in Messianic terms, while ascribing classic Biblical motifs – like “The Beast,” or “The Abomination of Desolation” – to the leaders of opposing countries. In the short term, church attendance skyrockets, and a sort of religio-patriotism took root among even formerly irreligious citizens. In the long-term, though, it proved to be a death blow to the credibility of religious institutions in general – especially in Europe. While the Ukraine-Russia conflict is not directly comparable to the early stages of the Great War, it is worth asking: How might religious institutions – and especially churches – today approach the Ukraine-Russia conflict in a more fruitful way?
Koyzis: The runup to the Great War did indeed see the churches egging on their respective leaders. It made for a sorry spectacle that we should never wish to repeat. The current conflict is making especially the Orthodox churches look bad. In fact, a split between the Ecumenical and Russian patriarchs in 2019 may have been a precursor to this war. It is especially sad to see Moscow Patriarch Kirill call for peace without taking Vladimir Putin to task for starting the bloodshed. But Kirill is an ally of Putin, a relationship that compromises the former’s Christian witness.
As for the churches on this side of the pond, I think we should rally to help people affected by the conflict by providing necessities that they may currently lack.
The American Commons: A frequent talking point lately has been that Vladimir Putin’s goal seems to be that of “reconstituting Mother Russia’s imperial greatness.” While we often discuss the morality (or lack thereof) of Imperial Expansionism, do we know much of anything about the “economics” of Imperial Expansionism? What might we tentatively expect the fiscal ramifications of a Putin-led expansionist campaign to be?
Koyzis: This is where would-be imperialists typically miscalculate costs and benefits. Even Vladimir Lenin, founder of the Soviet Union, thought that western imperialism was giving a dying capitalism its second wind by allowing the bourgeoisie to buy off the domestic proletariat with riches looted from the colonies. But that’s not the way it turned out. Colonial holdings almost always turn out to cost the mother country more than they benefit it. Empires are thought to enrich the motherland with resources from the colonies, whereas in fact they drain precious resources from the motherland to prop up colonial rule.
Russia may succeed in conquering Ukraine. It’s a possibility. But it has now antagonized so many Ukrainians, even those otherwise sympathetic to Moscow. How will it rule a country whose people do not want them there? Russia may face an insurgency that will make it impossible for them to stay over the long term.
The American Commons: It is a truism that the deep interconnectedness of the modern global economy maintains a powerful check on the prospects for all-out warfare. For years prior to the invasion, there was debate over whether Ukraine would – or should – join NATO. They did not. How much of a difference do you think factors such as NATO membership would have altered the course of events?
Koyzis: I myself thought it unwise for NATO to accept Ukraine as a member. The Soviet Union’s breakup left so many border disputes in its wake including those relative to Ukraine. Taking in a state whose borders were unclear would have committed the Atlantic alliance to taking sides in one of these disputes. Not a good idea. Given the soft sense of Ukrainian identity in the eastern and southern parts of the country, I thought that committing the entire country to a western alliance would only exacerbate regional tensions and could lead to its division.
Obviously all this has changed. There is nothing like a foreign invasion to knit previously antagonistic people together in a united front. If Putin intended to discourage Kyiv from joining NATO, he has failed. With this naked display of Russian aggression, I would not be surprised to see Finland, Sweden, and Austria seek NATO membership. And who could blame them?
The American Commons: What are some questions that you feel should be asked, but you have yet to see addressed in the mainstream of the Ukraine-Russia discourse?
Koyzis: Well, a major question is over the western alliance. What should NATO’s purpose be? Is it to protect its members against Russian aggression? Or is it to provide a comprehensive security umbrella that will prevent members fighting each other? These questions should have been asked already during the 1990s with the demise of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. NATO has successfully prevented Turkey and Greece coming to blows for 70 years. Might a post-communist Russian Federation have become part of a NATO reoriented to prevent war among members? Future historians might view that as a lost opportunity.
The American Commons: What have you read, watched, listened to lately – articles, books, podcasts, documentaries, etc. – that you found helpful in understanding the Ukraine-Russia crisis?
Koyzis: I’ve found several commentaries compelling, including this by Ian Birrell, Putin’s grand plan is failing; Chrystia Freeland, My Ukraine; Thomas L. Friedman, We Have Never Been Here Before; and Derek Thompson, How the Crisis in Ukraine May End.
The American Commons: Where can our readers find more of your work?
Koyzis: Well you can start by ordering a copy each of Political Visions and Illusions and We Answer to Another, my two published books To follow my commentary on the current crisis, I will refer readers to the special wartime edition of my monthly Global Scholars newsletter where they will find the appropriate links.
The American Commons: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us today!
Koyzis: You’re very welcome.