Escalating tensions in Ukraine raise the concern that the “firebreak” between conventional and the tactical nuclear weapons potentially available to all parties in the conflict could be breached, with unforeseen consequences.
Loren Thompson spelled out in Forbes Magazine how the Ukraine crisis could go nuclear: through faulty intelligence, through the opposed parties sending mixed signals to each other, through looming defeat for either side, or through command breakdown on the battlefield.
In its simplest form, the complex Ukraine situation boils down to conflicting interpretations and value systems: for Putin, the NATO-izing of Ukraine was an affront to the Russian homeland that could not go unacknowledged, especially given the history of repeated invasion of Russia by foreign forces. From the West’s perspective, Ukraine had the right as a sovereign nation to join NATO and enjoy its protection, though the crisis begs the question of why there is still a NATO at all given our remove from the long finished Cold War. Is NATO a bulwark against Putin’s revived Russian imperialism, or was NATO’s overreach right up to Russia’s borders the initial cause of his paranoid response?
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While sovereignty and democracy are significant political values, one has only to reverse the scenario in Ukraine to begin to understand, if not sympathize with, Putin’s macho posturing. The most relevant reverse example already happened way back in 1962. It is of course the Cuban Missile Crisis, where the United States felt its “sphere of influence” unacceptably penetrated, the Monroe Doctrine writ nuclear. Fifty-three years later the international community appears to have learned little from coming within a hair’s breadth of annihilation.
The crisis is an instructive example of why the blithe delay of the great powers to meet the their obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty could end in a worst-case scenario. Our strategists have not begun to comprehend how much the presence of world-ending weapons reconfigures the role of military force in solving planetary conflicts.
It helps with this reconfiguration to acknowledge the evolutionary biology of male (female too, but mostly male) interaction in conflict—our fight or flight reflexes. Governmental officials and press commentators dignify this position or that by diplomatically phrased rationalizations, but beneath all the rhetoric we are still in a schoolyard space, or perhaps a zoo, beating our chests and roaring like gorillas.
It is a vast understatement to say that a new paradigm of masculinity is needed. In the old one, I am manly because I protect my position, my turf. In the new, I protect ongoing life on the planet as a whole. In the old, I am credible because I back up my threats with megatons of destructive (though ultimately self-destructive) power. In the new, I acknowledge that the rigidity of my convictions could end up ending the world. Given that the alternate is mass death, I look for reconciliation.
Is such a radical change possible in the present climate of masculine violence that so dominates world media, sports and video games, and hyper-competitive, often corrupt capitalism? But the looming reality of more Cuban Missile crises, assuming the world survives them, will pressure men to broaden out to the planetary level what it now means to be a winner, to be a protector not only of a family or a nation, but of a planet, home of all we share and value.
It is not as if there is no precedent for this emerging masculine paradigm. Think Gandhi, Cesar Chavez, and Dr. King. Were they wimpy or weak? Hardly. The capacity to expand identification to include care for the whole earth and all humanity lies within all of us, waiting for opportunities to take creative form.
One underpublicized example of the new paradigm emerging in creative tension with the old is Rotary. Rotary was begun by businessmen. Business by nature is competitive—and often politically conservative because markets require political stability—but the values of Rotary transcend the schoolyard aspects of competition, in favor of fairness, friendship, and high ethical standards that include asking one question implying planetary identification: will a given initiative be beneficial to all concerned? Rotary has more than 1.2 million members in over 32,000 clubs among 200 countries and geographical areas. They took on the extraordinarily large, seemingly impossible task of ending polio on the planet, and they have come very close to success. Perhaps organizations like Rotary will become the gymnasiums in which a new masculine paradigm will wrestle the old one into obsolescence. What might Rotary be able to do if it dared to take on ending war?