This past March, German chancellor Angela Merkel said after a phone conversation with Vladimir Putin that he was “in a different world” and “not in touch with reality.” More than seven months later, it can rightly be asked whether it was in fact Merkel and the West that were out of touch with reality. Russia continues to take an aggressive military posture in Ukraine, and both Russia and China continue their military buildup, with signs of increasing aggressiveness against the West. Clearly the West has, at a minimum, failed to anticipate Vladimir Putin’s behavior in Ukraine and elsewhere. It seems to me that the West still does not fully appreciate Putin’s nationalistic ambitions and the lengths to which he will go to realize them. But the real problem lies not in a failure to understand Putin, but in the failure of people in the West to see the world through biblical eyes.
To understand what is happening with the resurgent nationalism and militarism in Russia and China, it is necessary to go all the way back to the formation of the nations of the world in Genesis 11:1-9. This passage describes how, at an early point in the history of the world after Noah and his family survived the Deluge in a ship, the entire human race came together at a place called Babylon (Babel). Their purpose in coming together was to glorify themselves, rather than their Creator, through a construction project of epic proportions, which would unite the people of the world into a single family instead of dividing them into many distinct nations and scattering them. Their intent was to build the mother city of the new world, from which man would rule himself—no longer recognizing God’s sovereignty—and would build a great civilization. Mankind was on the fast track to the next all-out rebellion against God, just like the situation before the Deluge, and had God simply let man go his own way, He would have been forced to wipe out the human race yet another time in another cataclysmic judgment. Thus, God interrupted man’s activity by mixing up human language (i.e., by making each family group speak a language that was completely unrelated to all the other languages), which destroyed the unity of the human race and prevented man from effectively working together in opposition to the will of God. The history of the world since Babel has been a history of distinct nations which have competed with one another, and thereby have prevented each other from accomplishing separately what all could accomplish together. World unity is a serious problem, for, left to their own devices, the vast majority of men will always give themselves over to their sinful desires, and will seek to give full expression to their wickedness (cf. Gen 6:5; 8:21; Ps 2:1-3).
The world has had as its goal ever since Babel to unite again as one in order to achieve sinful human ambitions and to glorify man. But there have been two great problems in the way of this evil dream. First and foremost is the problem of the lack of a common language and a means of global communication. This problem has been significantly lessened in modern times through a system of global communication and travel, the use of English as a common language, and the development of automated translation software. The second problem in the way of world unity still exists in a more serious way. This problem is the competing ambitions of nations and rulers with a national, rather than a global, identity. The history of the world since Babel has been a history of violent conflict between rival nations. There have been many rulers in the history of the world who have wished to unite the world, but they have always faced stubborn opposition from competing rulers and nations who want world unity to come on different terms.
The West, particularly Western Europe, has been enamored with the dream of creating a utopian world since at least the eighteenth century. While such dreams were temporarily placed on the shelf by two world wars and the Cold War, they quickly reappeared with the collapse of the former Soviet Union in 1991 and the subsequent rapid global adoption of the internet. The late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have been characterized by utopian visions of a world without borders, in which people would be “global citizens,” would travel freely from country to country without restrictions, and would enjoy the same rights and freedoms everywhere. The internet and other new forms of communication were supposed to be the ultimate instrument which would create world unity. However, this vision is quickly being reshaped due to the resurgence of strong and oppressive central governments in Russia and China, which are opposed to the Western world for the age-old reasons of nationalism and power-hungry rulers. It has been discovered that the internet and cell phones can indeed be controlled through a vigorous program of monitoring, blocking, and coercion of providers. It is currently being discovered that leaders such as Vladimir Putin are willing to use any means necessary, including brutal military force and nuclear brinksmanship, to achieve their objectives. The response of the West has been timid and tepid. The ultimate result will be a return to a world that is badly divided politically, though with strong economic and cultural linkages.
Vladimir Putin is delivering a reality check to a complacent West that has believed its own utopian wish. Too many people in the West had thought that the age of great wars was over, that liberal democratic values were inevitably taking over the world, and that people in developed countries would never have to fear another large-scale military assault. While there might not be a large-scale war between great powers before the end of world history (the seven-year tribulation period), there certainly will be smaller wars and a great military buildup as part of a new and more dangerous Cold War. It is apparent that Vladimir Putin has ambitions to rebuild the Russian Empire, and that he would ultimately like Russia to dominate the entire world. China would like to do the same. Putin has no qualms about the use of military force, and he appears poised to use his military power to gain as much territory as he thinks he is able to get. Since Europe and the United States do not have the stomach to challenge Russia on the battlefield, it appears that Putin and his successors will indeed successfully expand the new Russian Empire to include not just the territory of the former Soviet Union, but also any other lands beyond where he may be able to extend his reach (Iran? Finland? Africa?).
Tomorrow I am traveling to San Diego for the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. This is the largest gathering of evangelical Bible scholars in the world. I hope to have some insights from the conference to share on my next post.