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The Reality of War

The Reality of War

The 24th of February, the Russian invasion of Ukraine rather slowly awoke Europe to the forgotten reality of war. Despite the numerous armed conflicts all over the continent and in the world at large in which Westerners have been involved during the last three or seventy decades, Europeans in particular have forgotten the primary meaning of war. War as part of human nature, war as politics, war as a social state. This is due to something more than the usual dose of “Western hypocrisy” and double standards. Far from constituting an irrational choice, as narrow self-interested ideologies suggest, war has generally been viewed throughout most of human history as a character building activity on par with many others of a more peaceful nature, in which individuals were cultivated and through which societies were forged, maintained, expanded or destroyed. The paradox of contemporary Europe is therefore not that it denies war, its political and social function, but that the European identity is nothing but the product of the repressed memory of war. This is why it takes longer for Europeans to absorb the new reality: they must not only look at the facts around them, but also look inside them and accept their true selves as well. 

Politics by Other Means 

In the aftermath of World War Two, European existentialist philosophers – awed by the astonishingly rapid pace of technological development in the first half of the 20th century, which culminated with the appearance of nuclear weapons of mass destruction and their first use in Hiroshima and Nagasaki – have surreptitiously redefined the Hobbesian state of nature, in which every man is at war with one another, as an absurd human condition in an incomprehensible artificial or man-made universe. In the existentialist world, man is no longer subjected to his fallen nature and politics is no longer a rational constraint on his violent nature. The distinction between the natural and the artificial state of society is completely erased and, as a result, politics is no longer a regulatory instance of the former. There is no “beyond nature”, no rational comprehension of an original violent state, no politics as such, only a general state in which man and his machines interact in ever more unpredictable, erratic and incomprehensible ways. The existentialist man is completely socialised from outset, he is free and alone in a universe of his own making, whose rationality escapes him and to everyone else.

This line of thought is, obviously, at odds with the previous tradition of political philosophy that viewed war as part of human nature, for sure, but a part of human nature to be shaped, disciplined, guided or controlled by politics. Instead of viewing war as a subset of political action, that is a rational domain of organised violence, as “politics by other means” in the famous words of Carl von Clausewitz, the existentialist philosophy has instead produced only a feeling of despair with rather vague political implications. The existentialist malaise has often favoured pacifism in political discourse, its dogmatism leaving it vulnerable during the Cold War to accusations of defeatism and even collaboration with the enemy, but it has equally favoured a kind of bravado moral resignation that has promoted the arms race to the absurd heights of a near civilizational collapse.

It was not simply the vanishing of nature at the hand of physicists and engineers that led to the destruction of politics in the existentialist philosophy. Nature has been incomprehensible before, in times of sorcerers, shamans and priest-kings. In fact, it always is to some extent. It was the very conquest of nature by many of our fellow human beings, with knowledge then democratized and freely dispensed to millions, that produced the infernal existentialist dread in which man finds himself against his will. The realist postulates of a fallen, base, violent man that politics had to shape for the better only makes sense if there are some people who can master themselves first in order to master the others. For it is often forgotten that the very word “real” in “realism” refers not to the anarchy of nature, but – through its root Spanish etymology – to the philosopher-kings who can master it. 

Of Mars and Venus 

In 20th century post-war Europe, the “great men” who were previously thought to be chosen to master and educate all others generally no longer commanded any faith. The existentialist philosophy, despite the many differences in ideological inclination between its various proponents all over the continent, was squarely democratic in this regard. The New World colonists were soon dismayed, on their return on the old continent, by what they viewed as widespread amoral political cynicism and took what was left of Europe under their wing. They propped-up new political movements that were viewed as moral, simple and American-like, such as the Christian Democratic movement; allowed some leaders to indulge in the posture of the great men of yore and taught Europeans their values and civic pedagogy. But much of Europe never reversed course and rejected the old habits. Of course, as time went on, political escapism into extreme forms of politics – the dark side of the existentialist despair, that in the 1930s gave birth to a widespread desire of finding meaning in collective fusion and tribalism – that some fear greatly at first receded. Europe became an amusement park with a frontline, its nations generally incapable of conducting rational politics involving the recourse to force, although the use of force never disappeared from politics. Europeans were right that the world changed too much to be intelligible, to fit neatly into the old compartmentalized patterns of action, to be mastered without the unqualified risk of the machine-world steering off-course and devouring itself. But life – the life of men as well as that of polities – goes on, never-knowing, never-ending. And life belonged to the young.

The disputes regarding military spending within NATO between the United States of America and its European members, which began well before the Trump Administration and continue, in a more muted form, under the current Biden Administration, constitute only one, rather small but visible, side of the cultural and political divergence between the Old and the New World. The American reproach to Europeans – that they don’t share the burden of defence and instead spend their resources on generous (in the US Democrats’ view), or rather dysfunctional (in the Republican Party’s view), welfare spending and safety nets, which has gained increasing popularity lately – might be true in a strictly accounting sense, but it misses the larger picture. Europe – the European Union specifically – doesn’t actually share the United States’ concept of global strategic dominance, in fact the organisation was at its core built to challenge it or, more precisely, to balance it, as the many commercial and regulatory disputes between the two sides of the Atlantic made it clear since the Clinton Administration. Moreover, notable European NATO countries – such as France and, to a lesser extent, Germany – partially reject some of the United States’ foreign policy priorities, approaches and goals, as was seen in the debates preceding the invasion of Iraq, which seriously divided even Great Britain, usually viewed as America’s closest ally in Europe (also known on the other side of the Channel as the 51st state since Brexit took effect). The recent US-EU toughening stance on China’s ambitious foreign economic policy goals is a real act of coordination and cooperation between the two sides, but it masks important differences in the nature of the interest and of the interest groups behind it. The tensions between the two Western blocs mounted again over how to handle Iran’s program to enrich uranium, which is suspected of military use, while they are hidden beneath the surface but ever present, since the rudiments of a common European foreign policy were sketched in the late 1980s, to everything related to Israel’s policy of occupying and settling the Palestinian territories. 

The Spell of the West 

The “West” which political commentators often use today, despite growing reservations, to denote the multifaceted cooperation between the countries of Europe, or most of them anyway, and of North America, within formal organisations like NATO but also informally, is a postwar political, ideological and cultural construct. The umbrella-concept was designed to reinforce and self-explain the historical bonds between the societies on both the shores of the North Atlantic in the face of the Soviet or Communist threat, although it is not uncommon today to stretch its limits even to the other side of the globe, so that it encompasses countries such as Japan and even South Korea. In the spirit of crusade of the late 1940s, the idea of the West resurrected what in the late Middle Ages and until the Reformation many Europeans clearly identified as Roman Catholic Christianity, besieged, or so it was thought, by Arabs, Pagans and devious, heretic Byzantines. Nevertheless, the geopolitical concept was quickly turned into a pop-slogan, personifying rebellious youth culture on the streets of Western Europe’s cities, with only a university course of “great books” making it into rural American universities. This tradition continues to this day, with more Claremont college camps, universities and institutes in the West of the US than the initial crusade candidates answering to pope Urban II’s inaugural 11th century call to arms in Clermont (Comté de Clermont, France), and more American bands and Hollywood movie stars touring Europe than ever before.

The American presence in Europe, following the triumph of isolationism after World War One, the post-war reconstruction of Western Europe and anti-communist alliance with former friends and foes alike gave birth to American world hegemony. The World War Two victory in Europe and in the Pacific established it, but the fall of Communism and the disintegration of USSR revealed it in all its splendour. The United States of America became the Roman Empire of our times. Many things could have gone astray in the brief history of this remarkable achievement. It is a history of blood as well as industry, although the first part is often overlooked, since the very beginning. The conquest of the major part of the North American continent by a few rebellious and initially disunited colonies of eccentric settlers had its stumbling blocks, particularly the Civil War of secession, which could have derailed the whole enterprise, just like Rome could have remained confined to Italy at best, absent its capacity to resolve the demands of the plebeians. But, just like the Roman Empire, the United States emerged after every crisis better equipped mentally and institutionally to handle the next adversary, as did Rome on the eve of the Punic Wars. The new polity’s flexible and creative dominance continued after the initial stages of empire. Its presence in Europe was wanted and sought after, Charles de Gaulle’s expulsion of US troops after the liberation notwithstanding. At first, the United States not only defended Western Europe, but also arbitrated between the conflicting interests of European states and even between the various constituencies and organised social groups that composed each one of them, not unlike imperial Rome arbitrated its many client kingdoms. The relation between the Empire and its clients continually morphed after the initial setting, generally in a tactful and smooth manner. This strengthened American leadership in Europe in the long term since the flexibility of its dominance allowed all sides to better read its intentions and to continue to gain mutual advantages from cooperation (something that never really happened within the Soviet empire, despite China’s successful policy of emancipation from Moscow, in part due to the Nixon Administration’s détente policy). The proud United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland – the only undefeated Western European power in World War Two, which actually possessed an imperial title in far-away India and even claimed moral and intellectual leadership in the alliance – conceded all pretence of independent initiative following the 1956 Suez crisis, the Falkland war notwithstanding, while France – a defeated partner, therefore more hurt in its ego – refused to accept the reality of its downgraded role in the world for much longer, perhaps even to this day, at least in rhetoric, because it is well too aware of it in practice. 

Europe Grows-Up 

After the crises of the 1960s and early 1970s, more realistic Western Europeans began to envision the replacement of American world hegemony with an American-European condominium. It is this idea that energized the European Union and turned it into an actual policy force on the continent, as well as the only organisation other than NATO capable of welcoming former communist countries after 1989, more than the initial, 1950s, aspirational statements (which had a more limited range, a narrower focus and as a matter of fact were mostly rejected by national politicians). The 1980s European Commission of Jacques Delors was something of an alien spaceship in Europe’s landscape, not only with regard to the architecture of the new European quarter it gave birth to in Brussels. Delors capitalized on the strength the office had gained previously, during Walter Hallstein’s tenure marked by a war of attrition with Charles de Gaulle’s attempt to subordinate it in a show of reactionary French sovereignism. However, he was no less preoccupied in extending French power and influence than the founder of the Fifth Republic, but he realized that the best way to do this was not to reject supranational executive bodies but, paradoxically, to reinforce them. He remodelled the Commission so as to resemble ever closer the prestigious élite-schooled French high civil service and stuffed it with French haut fonctionnaires. In his view, the institution was an enhancing arm of France’s foreign policy in a rapidly changing world and in order to bolster its standing the office was endowed with all the pomp of state protocol and etiquette as the French government, as if representing a government in its own right. Moreover, as a subject of international law, but totally independent of the American dominated and British inspired Breton Woods institutions, the European Commission also presented for Delors the additional advantage of constituting an impregnable fortress from which to supervise and pressure for needed internal economic and institutional reform in his native country, without falling into the reach of powerful French vested interests groups. The European Left is right to call the European Commission the propagation machine of neoliberalism on the continent, although the depth of its neoliberal commitment is to a certain extent overstated. It was the Delors Commission which completed the common market, unified the European bureaucracy, streamlined its workings on the basis of modern corporate management theories and challenged the mighty US dollar – heavily shaken by the break-down of the original Bretton Woods agreement, which defined its value in gold – with the planned launch of a new global reserve currency.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the American-European world condominium became almost a tangible reality. In Europe, a division of labour was instituted between the Empire and its preferred grown-up clients. The US had veto powers in all maters related to security, which meant not only admission into NATO of new Central and Eastern European members but – after the terrible performance of independent-minded France and, to a lesser extent, Italy as well in the early stages of the Yugoslavian civil war – the American veto extended to conflict resolution as well, as the Western intervention in Kosovo will later show. Outside Europe, the European allies assembled in the EU often provided critical soft power to the American hard power, in the form of diplomatic mediation (as has happened with the Oslo Agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, for instance, which put an end to decades of violence, including the first spillovers of terrorism from the religious conflicts in the Middle East), foreign aid assistance (not least for the Palestinian territories) and the negotiation of trade and regulatory standards (which led to the establishment of a permanent World Trade Organisation and the successful conclusion of the now frozen trade agreements between North and South, poor and rich countries). The two sides, Mars and Venus, got along pretty well, but the honeymoon suffered a serious blowback when the George W. Bush administration decided to invade Iraq on spurious, probably knowingly false, pretexts that Saddam Hussein’s dictatorial regime not only harbours Al Qaeda terrorists but can also furnish them weapons of mass destruction. 

The New Kids on the Block 

The rift between the United States and some of its old European allies, particularly France (which is sentimentally called “the first US ally” on White House visits), during George W. Bush’s tenure over the conduct of the US War on Terror has led Washington to double-down on more loyal allies like Britain, re-evaluate smaller ones like Denmark and search for newer, more willing allies. The former Warsaw Pact countries of Central and Eastern European answered the call in bulk, although not all of them were even NATO members at the time or had any other formal obligations to do so. The Eastern Europeans’ embrace of some of the US’ most controversial foreign policy acts since the covert program of targeted assassinations and coups d’état against legitimate, sometimes even elected, governments in Third World countries during the Cold War, astonished critical Western Europeans and enchanted American conservatives.

In a memorable Q&A episode at the time, specifically related to military equipment purchases, French President Jacques Chirac – who was actually viewed as a genuine supporter of Romania’s accession to NATO in 1998, when Bill Clinton and Madeleine Albright opposed it – could not hide his irritation towards the “new Europeans” and called Romanian politicians “mal élevés”. Given that the acting Romanian President was the re-elected former communist Ion Iliescu, how could the formidable and omnipresent French diplomacy misread the situation so much?! The short answer to the question is that the Romanian political establishment, like the one in apparently more Westernized Eastern European nations such as Poland (also mentioned in that press room quarrel), did not regard Western Europe as capable of ensuring the country’s security, especially when France’s President shakes the hand of the Russian President, then as now, Vladimir Putin, no matter how much they might seek their cooperation in other areas. Americanism was the default inclination of Eastern Europeans after 1989, even though few of them ever travelled on the other side of the Atlantic but live, work, study or visit in Western Europe by the millions, because the public and the elites in these countries overwhelmingly believe that it was the United States of America which, indirectly, put and end to the communist regime.

American conservative observers soon concluded that the “New Europe” is quite different from “Old Europe” and a natural ally in keeping and extending US influence in Europe. Despite being poorer, these countries are more akin to the American Midwest, where traditional values, including a more martial ethos, are still valued and well regarded by the broader society, unlike in places of decadent self-indulgence such as the metropolitan areas of the US East and West coasts. The observation is not exactly incorrect, although a hypocritical form of rugged individualism here coexists with the marasmus of communist transition, which generally deprives people of their sense of agency. Moreover, since the fall of Communism here too most intellectuals have promoted a Liberal cultural agenda, based on relativism, secularism and cosmopolitanism. And this is why first wave Eastern European countries such as Hungary and Poland have since become the scene of the most intense American-style culture wars between a new local Conservative movement, in good part inspired by the American religious right, and a Liberal intelligentsia dating from the Clinton era, American-like educated in places such as the Central European University, previously in Budapest now in Vienna, or the Free University in Berlin. 

The Peaceful Empire 

Contemporary Europeans are, by and large, simply no longer habituated to conceive war as a calculated, measured, rational political activity, but they are also incapable of conducting it. This state of things is not actually due to naiveté, for they are often all too aware of the numerous armed conflicts that happen elsewhere on the planet, but due to the traumatic premises of the way they define the European identity and the conclusions they draw from it. True, the Lisbon Treaty introduced a mutual defence clause for all the countries making up the European Union – neutral, unaffiliated, even divided ones like Cyprus as well as the majority that are also NATO members – and, in its desire to promote European strategic autonomy, France, now more closely integrated in the North Atlantic security structures than before, made use of it after the November 13th, 2015 Paris terrorist attacks. There are also some European army, naval and air transport units, made-up of military personnel from some Member States, as a form of enhanced intergovernmental cooperation, which have sometimes been deployed during humanitarian crises, but they do not constitute a sizeable operational force and do not posses anything close to the integrated command and control military structures of NATO, on which most EU countries base their defence planning. The European Union is supposed to entrench eternal peace on the continent, or most of it anyway, but it pursues this centuries-old elusive goal by striving to bring plenty, wealth, joy and maybe a greater sense of freedom to its inhabitants, not by armed vigilance against external or internal threats. This is the reason why, in EU decision circles, all wars and armed conflicts are almost by definition viewed as derived from poverty or abuse of power, therefore easily fixable with financial assistance and better governments.

The war in Ukraine has revealed just how unprepared European countries are to deal with the spectre of war, despite the impressive – but by no means flawless or self-understood – show of unity that European leaders have put on in its aftermath, with regard to economic and political sanctions above all. In France, one of the EU’s most ambitious member in a military sense, the military intelligence apparatus doubted that the Russian invasion on the 24th of February was anything more than a bluff, although the material data available to it must have considerably overlapped with that of the more alert and anxious American intelligence apparatus. Once the Russian tanks started rolling towards Kyiv, two of the largest EU members, Italy and especially Germany, as well as several other midsize and smaller nations, risked being diplomatically blackmailed due to their heavy dependency on Russian gas and, to a lesser extent, oil. This state of augmented energy dependency on Russia was the result of highly criticized decision making in the previous years, including those that have elapsed since Russia’s condemned and unrecognized annexation of Crimea, and the race to fuel the tanks for the coming winter triggered a summer price congestion in the energy markets. Finally, after Ukraine survived the initial Russian attack on its capital, and most European countries adopted a more proactive attitude in the face of the continued war, by deciding to gradually supply to the Ukrainian military munitions and different types of weapons, one by one defence ministers became aware of how thin their reserves really were and how limited their war-material production really is (not to mention hindered by all sorts of unexpected trademark and supply chain issues, such as munitions produced in neutral Switzerland banned from export in Ukraine that were used by German armoured vehicles offered to the Ukrainian Army).

Europeans might want to think of themselves as better at making peace than at making war. French President Emmanuel Macron’s numerous calls for peace negotiations and busy diplomatic schedule since the start of the Russian war in Ukraine indicates that he’s already prepared to host a new Versailles Peace Conference. But a lasting peace in a region that might as well be called the “Wild East of Europe” is no easy matter to consider. In the meantime, war, no matter how unpleasant this may sound, has its own rationale: sometimes you must first live in order to fight another day. 

Photo source: World History Encyclopedia (Wild Hunt of Odin, by Peter Nicolai Arbo, 1872 CE, National Gallery of Norway)




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