Take it from me – the words “Lehman” and “moment” are words that no one should ever want to see in the same sentence ever again. Yet they’ve been making a collective comeback lately (see, e.g., here, here, and here), signaling in the process that the determination of the United States and other countries to help Ukraine achieve its goal of expelling Russia from the territory it’s lost could backfire disastrously.
This specific risk has emerged not because the conflict could spread beyond Ukraine’s borders and embroil the big new concentrations of U.S. and other NATO military forces right next door – and therefore all too easily escalate to the nuclear level. It’s also emerged because of the growing economic hardship and potential political instability in major world regions created by the disruption of global energy and food trade triggered by Russia’s invasion and the sanctions it’s triggered.
The phrase “Lehman moment” refers to the time when the national and global financial systems and economies nearly collapsed because so many of the world’s major banks and other lenders had engaged in such reckless practices, and because they were so interconnected that the failure of one – America’s Lehman Brothers – threatened to topple the whole house of cards that had been created.
Today’s Lehman moment is feared to be coming in Europe’s energy sector – also dominated by huge, closely connected institutions and also endangered by contagion. But this time the culprit hasn’t been greedy executives or asleep-at-the-switch regulators. It’s been the price of natural gas. The Russian invasion of Ukraine itself, the duration of the fighting, Russian supply curbs and threats of cut-offs have pushed it so high that many European utilities have been forced to buy the increasingly scarce fuel on the very expensive spot market and sell it to customers at the much lower prices stipulated by the contracts they’ve signed. (See here for a useful explanation of all of the above.)
As with the original Lehman moment, government bailouts are likely to save the day – at least for the foreseeable future. But the costs are shaping up to be astronomical, and even if they’re paid by all of the continent’s well- and less well-off countries alike, enormous national debts are sure to grow. Moreover, Europe’s near-term energy, and overall economic, future looks so grim because major shortages and towering prices this winter seem both inevitable and bound to bring on a serious recession and all the suffering and anxiety that accompany such downturns.
That sure sounds like a formula for even more political instability than Europe has already seen lately, including a loss of public faith in national and regional establishments and institutions of all kinds, and a further strengthening of the sort of political movements – on the right end of the political spectrum in particular – that globalists keep warning are grave dangers to the democracy and even the peace the continent has enjoyed until Russia’s attack on Ukraine.
Nor is Ukraine War-rooted turmoil confined to Europe. As the Biden administration has just warned, “protracted conflicts – including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine” have been developments that have “disrupted global supply chains and dramatically increased global food prices.” As a result, “world leaders [need] to act with urgency and at scale to respond…and avert extreme hunger for hundreds of millions of people around the world.”
Sub-Saharan Africa, one of the areas of greatest risk, has (rightly) never been seen as a high U.S. foreign policy priority. The other area, though, is the Middle East, which has become much less important even to America’s economic well-being because of the energy production revolution at home, but which continues to attract considerable attention from globalist U.S. leaders.
Hence the backfire risk – and a gigantic irony. Globalist backers of the current Ukraine strategy justify it as necessary to protect what they call a “rules-based international order” they believe has been essential for preventing great power conflict, as well as for promoting impressive degrees of prosperity and democracy around the globe. I’d give far more credit to the balance of nuclear terror that’s prevailed for nearly all of that period, but that’s not the main point. The main point is that, along with great power conflict, the widespread international turbulence being fueled by the duration of the Ukraine War per se is another major geopolitical nightmare that globalism has striven to avert.
It’s true that incurring great risks to protect specific, concrete interests the U.S. considers vital – like the security of Western Europe and, more recently, Taiwan (because of its leadership in manufacturing the world’s most advanced semiconductors) – by definition are worth running. This logic also holds for objectives like fostering and maximizing stability the world over, even though they’ve always been more dubious because they’re so much gauzier and less realistic. For whatever the damage possible from attempting to safeguard any of these interests, the term “vital” means that failure can generate even greater dangers – particularly national survival and independence.
But running such risks on behalf of Ukraine’s independence – which was never seen as remotely vital U.S. interest even at the height of the Cold War, which was habitually described as a Manichean struggle for the entire world’s future – is a different matter altogether, and indeed makes no sense at all.
During the Vietnam War, a U.S. Army officer is supposed to have told a reporter after one battle that “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.” The Lehman moment references and mounting signs of tumult in several major regions long seen by Washington as bearing at least significantly and even vitally on America’s safety and well-being indicates how close U.S. Ukraine policy – even if it simply prolongs heavy but geographically contained fighting – is moving toward achieving that absurdly self-destructive goal.