For centuries, the West has prided itself on its rationality, reliance on science, and devotion to fact. This self-conception dates back to the Enlightenment, and it informed the “civilizing mission” of imperialism. Shaken by the world-historic savagery of 20th-century Europe, it gained a new lease on life after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Terror attacks and the rise of groups like Al Qaeda led many to conclude that the pluralistic, secular West was in conflict with a more conservative, traditional, and religious slice of humanity, mostly located in the Middle East. Traditional religion was viewed with a mix of tolerance and condescension; the assumption was that all humans would eventually transcend the various irrational taboos to which they still sadly clung, such as the Islamic prohibition against representing the Prophet Muhammad.
But in recent years, it has become difficult to ignore the growing prevalence of taboo and superstition in the West itself. Defenders of the current order have shed the veneer of detached rationality and instead embraced something quite different. The West’s new taboo-driven politics are nowhere clearer than in the sanctions regime imposed on Russia in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine.
Germany still has one functioning pipeline through the Baltic Sea but refuses to use it, because this would be a concession to Vladimir Putin. The problem is that the alternative approach to meeting its energy needs means buying liquified natural gas, which is transported by ship and therefore more expensive—and some of this gas comes from Russia. In other words, Germany still buys natural gas from Russia, less efficiently and at a higher cost, in order to maintain a quasi-ritualistic prohibition against use of the pipeline.
A similar operation takes place with Russian oil, which is now sent to India or China before being imported by Europe, as if the act of mixing it with other oil in a foreign refinery removes the evil spirits contained in it. The end result isn’t just Europe still paying Russia for oil, but paying more and enriching various middlemen along the way. Yet the absurdity of this doesn’t bother European leaders: Arrangements that ultimately lead to money flowing into Russia are acceptable as long as they conform to the new geopolitical superstitions.