Portrait of Cardinal Richelieu by Philippe de Champaigne and workshop. Image: National Gallery London Archive

“Russia and China, mon ami, are doing the West a favor,” said Cardinal Richelieu – or, rather, a virtual-reality avatar of Richelieu hovering a couple of feet above my living-room carpet.

 I had first consulted the Ghost of Cardinal Richelieu in the lower depths of the Paris sewers, conjuring his shade with a magnum of Chateau Petrus lapped out of a brass spittoon instead of the sheep’s blood with which Odysseus nourished the shade of the seer Tiresias.

The experimental Oculus headset I obtained covertly from a Metaverse engineer made the journey unnecessary. The CGI cardinal still sounded like Maurice Chevalier, but the image in cheerful pastels lacked the sneer of cold command in Phillipe de Campaigne’s portrait.

“I don’t understand,” Eminence, I stammered. “Putin and Xi are humiliating the West. Putin is threatening to take over Ukraine and Xi is pushing the United States out of the South China Sea.”

“You Americans understand nothing about the world. Putin and Xi are saving the West from its own follies,” he countered.

“That makes no sense at all!” I protested.

“You Americans understand nothing about the world. What precisely is it that Putin requires?” Richelieu sniffed. “Merely that Ukraine does not accede to NATO. And what is NATO? The North Atlantic Treaty Organization – a defensive alliance against the Soviet Union. After the fall of the Soviet Union, you Americans expanded NATO to include Albania, Croatia, Romania, Slovakia and the Baltic States, little countries a thousand miles from the Atlantic Ocean, and too dispersed to defend. If you can’t defend everyone in an alliance, you can defend no one.”

“Why do you think the Germans have all but dismantled their military?” continued Richelieu. “Because you Americans turned NATO into a bloated, indefensible swamp. You are as stupid as the Austrian Hapsburgs, who acquired Spain, Flanders, Naples and Sicily with clever dynastic marriages. They had twice the population of France during the Thirty Years War, and all the silver of the Indies, but France bled them dry and erased Spain for all time from the list of great powers.”

“But surely NATO still has a mission,” I protested.

US President Joe Biden tries to reassure NATO. Photo: AFP / Olivier Hoslet

Richelieu’s virtual mustache twirled furiously.

“A mission! A mission! It has every mission! Here is NATO’s official statement of mission regarding what it calls ‘human security’: ‘The concept of human security is one such result. Human security is a multi-sectoral approach to security that gives primacy to people and includes topics like combatting trafficking in human beings; protection of children in armed conflict; preventing and responding to conflict-related sexual violence; protection of civilians; and cultural property protection.’ It is tasked with protecting people against ‘cyber threats and climate change.’ It is an orphanage, a morals police, a museum curator, a nunnery, a traveling circus—but it is not a military organization!”

“But surely it is still a military organization, too,” I insisted.

“It is a tasteless pantomime, a show,” railed the Cardinal.  “NATO does not have a single unit above battalion strength to oppose the 280,000 well-armed and well-trained soldiers of the Russian Army. What threats can Washington direct at Russia? Economic sanctions, when the Germans have closed their nuclear power plants and will freeze without Russian gas? Or when China will buy all the energy that Russia can ship overland, out of the reach of the American Navy?”

“What will happen?” I whispered.

“Idiotic question! What will happen is whatever best suits Russia’s interests! If common sense prevails in the West, Putin will get what he wants – what he thought Russia already had in 1991 – and that is a guarantee that Ukraine will stay out of NATO. Otherwise, Putin will get what he wants by other means. Putin thinks what I did during the Thirty Years War—commit ground forces only as a last resort. I paid the Danes to fight the Austrians, and when they failed, I paid Gustavus Adolphus to invade the German Empire, and only when the Swedes were bled dry did I send French troops.”

Cardinal Richelieu at the Siege of La Rochelle, 1628, by Henri Paul Motte. Photo: Wikipedia

“But why, Eminence, do you say that Putin is doing the West a favor?”

“Because, you silly American, he will push NATO back to its core territories and its original mission. Why did Washington turn NATO into a transnational agency of everything and everybody? It was obsessed with universal perfection, with the End of History, with the imagined millennium of liberal democracy and free markets, with the remaking of the world in America’s image.

“The same millenarian madness is destroying America from within; if you attempt to legislate that no one shall fail, then no one will succeed, either. A sharp slap from Putin might help America wake up from its utopian pipe dream and do something about its own problems.”

“Eminence, isn’t China violating the human rights of its Uighur minority? You said Xi is doing America a favor as well. How can that be true?”

Richelieu’s avatar blew steam out its cartoon ears. “Let me count the ways,” he said.

“To begin with, China is keeping America’s economy afloat: Its exports of durable goods to the United States now exceed the orders for durable goods at US manufacturers. Without imports from China, America’s inflation would be far worse than it already is.

“Second, China and Russia are cleaning up the mess left by America’s meddling in the Muslim world. Washington is outraged by China’s treatment of its Uighurs. But the separatism of the Uighurs is a side-effect of American blunders. First, you destroyed the Iraqi state, to the great benefit of Iran, and forced Iraq’s Sunnis to embrace non-state actors like ISIS.

“Then you overthrew Qaddafi and shipped his Libyan armory to the Sunni rebels in Syria. You overthrew your own ally Mubarak in Egypt, and you supported the Muslim Brotherhood regime that replaced him. Then you fled Afghanistan, leaving US$80 billion of your weapons in the hands of the Taliban,” said the cardinal.

“You ignited a Sunni insurgency from Noshaq to Nabi Yunis, and destroyed the balance of power that contained Iran. Do you imagine that this went unnoticed in Xinjiang? The so-called Arab Spring raised the hopes of Uighur separatists; thousands of them fought with the Sunni jihad in Syria. Of course, your Western sensibility revolts at China’s way of forcing assimilation on minorities.

Police patrol as Muslims leave the Id Kah Mosque after morning prayer on Eid al-Fitr in the old town of Kashgar in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. Photo: AFP / Johannes Eisele

“But recall that Chinese who write with the same characters still speak hundreds of mutually-unintelligible dialects, which is to say that the Yue, Hakka and Wu and scores of other minorities have preserved their ethnic identity better than the Welsh, Bretons, or Wends. Your wars to bring democracy to Iraq, Afghanistan Syria and Libya killed perhaps a million civilians all told. One pities the Uighurs under the hard hand of Beijing, but pities even more the Afghans who will starve to death this winter.”

“Of course,” the Cardinal added, “the Russians and Chinese are angels of mercy next to your humble servant. I starved whole provinces into cannibalism; when the Thirty Years War came to an end there were half as many Germans as when it began.”

“Please, Eminence—tell me what America should do now!” I implored.

“You foolish Americans – always in search of the simple solution!” Richelieu hissed. “In fact, there is one simple thing that you can do today that will solve all of your problems …”

Before the avatar could finish the sentence, sparks flew from the headset; the cardinal vanished and in his place there appeared a dirigible-size CGI image of Donald Trump. The avatar of the former president shouted and gesticulated, but his words were drowned out by the theme from “Rocky.”

I awoke among a pile of empty cans of Bud Light.