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The Sick Man of Europe

For those of you who stayed awake during your high school world history class, you may remember something about the “sick man of Europe” – a term used to describe the unravelling of the Ottoman Empire during the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. The Ottoman Empire, centered in Turkey, stretched from North Africa through Western Asia and into Southeastern Europe. 

As the empire dissolved, the Great Powers of Europe (Great Britain, France, Germany, Russia and Austro-Hungary) began their international chess match of wars and diplomacy to determine who would control the territories that Turkey could no longer defend. Their chess match ended when Western Civilization was check-mated by World War I. 

Before their eventual death during WWI, the Ottoman’s demise was slow and punctuated with a series of small wars between Russia and the Turks as Russia attempted to takeover Southeastern Europe. These wars and other acts of modern aggression include the following:

Austro-Russian – Turkish War (1735-39) Russia gains control over eastern Ukraine

Russo – Turkish War (1768-74) Russia conquers Crimea, Ukraine and the Northern Caucasus

Russo – Persian War (1804-13) Russia gains control of parts of Georgia

Russo – Turkish War (1806-12) Russia gains control of Moldavia

Russo – Turkish War (1817) Russia takes the remaining part of the Caucasus

Russo – Persian War (1826-28) Russia gains further control of Geogia

Crimean War (1853-56) Russia lost to Great Britain, France and Austro-Hungary

Russo – Turkish War (1877-78) Russia gains control over Serbia, Romania, etc.

Russo – Japanese War (1904) Russia lost to Japan

Russian Revolution (1905) Russia loses to Russia

Russian Revolution (1917) Russia loses to Russia again

Russia acting as USSR (1918 – 1990) Russia loses the Cold War

Russo – Georgian War (1991-93) Repeat of 1804

Russo – Georgian War (2008) Repeat of 1804

Russo – Ukrainian War (2014 – present) Repeat of 1735

With Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine, some people have argued that Putin is trying to restore the “glory” of the old Soviet Union. They are wrong as the wars listed above attest. Russia’s aggression towards Southeastern Europe has much deeper historical and psychological roots. 

Putin is a 20th century-styled demagogue, trying to create a 19th century empire in a 21st century world economy. Maybe Putin should take advice from the 19th century British Prime Minister Lord Salisbury who said “The commonest error in politics is sticking to the carcass of dead policies.” By pursuing their historical hunger for the carcass of Ottoman territory, Russia has replaced them as the “sick man of Europe” who threatens to infect the rest of us. 

I’ll end with this observation. This past Sunday, I woke up to the video of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson strolling through the near-empty streets of Kyiv with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky – two confident leaders from Generation X – leaders born later in the 20th century whose visions are firmly focused on the 21st

Johnson dressed in suit and tie and Zelensky dressed in olive drab projected the kind of calmness under fire leadership that the West needs during this conflict. I cannot imagine Theresa May doing the same. But then the British have a way of producing the correct prime minister at the correct time for the crisis at hand. They had Thatcher during the Falkland War, Churchill during WWII, and Disraeli during the late 19th century expansion of the British Empire. 

America has done much the same historically. We have leaders who have risen to face crises except for maybe Lyndon Johnson with Vietnam or Jimmy Carter with Iran. Even George W. Bush rose to the occasion after 9/11. Yet, here we are with Biden and Trump, the acknowledged leaders of our two political parties, not realizing how generationally out of time and out of touch they are with the reality of the world that we live in – much like Putin. It makes me look forward to who might be waiting in the wings for us when we finally rid ourselves of our own two “sick men” of America. I put great hope in the unknown candidate who might arise out of nowhere to restore the American presidency.