by Lynda Goetz
Photo credit: Ralph (Ravi) Kayden, Unsplash
The events of the last few weeks in Ukraine have brought home to many in the West the realities of what we now call the geopolitical situation. Sadly, it no longer appears to be the “broad sunlit uplands” that Sir Winston Churchill made our parents and grandparents dream of in his ‘Their Finest Hour’ speech in 1940 or the even more optimistic dreams of the early post-Cold War era. In an interesting article in the UK Sunday Telegraph, Daniel Hannan, the writer, journalist and former Conservative MEP, wonders whether perhaps in the West our current focus on identity politics is taking us back to the “tribal instincts encoded deep in our DNA”. Liberty, he concludes, does not come naturally.
This is something of a scary thought to those who have perhaps been brought up with the rather more comforting idea that with every decade that goes by humans are becoming ‘better and better’. The Better Angels of our Nature: the decline of violence in history and its causes by Steven Pinker, published in 2011 and quoted by Daniel Hannan in his article, argues that global commerce, the rise of the state, the increased role of women, not to mention the increased role of reason, have all reduced the need for mass violence. His data backs this up. However, have we now reached ‘peak globalisation’? Are we heading backwards towards ‘tribal’ in-fighting and worse?
Much is being made currently of the need to reduce the West’s reliance on Russia’s oil and gas exports. However, as numerous commentators have pointed out, is it honestly preferable to be reliant instead, as the BBC’s satirical The Now Show put it, “on a whole selection of murderous dictators”? Energy security has, somewhat belatedly one can’t help feeling, become a matter of national concern. Food security and defence spending have also featured as topics recently. In a world where wars have tended to be localised neither of these topics have really headed up the agenda, although there have been a number of objections about the planned reductions in the size of our armed forces and the UK’s National Farmers Union have been quite vociferous on the subject of food security (see Shaw Sheet article Diddly Squat). For many British people there appears to have been more wish, at least in the various media, to discuss Black Lives Matter, the issues of feminism and transphobia, ‘decolonising’ our history, the problems of the Royal Family and even the merits of mask-wearing. Similar culture and identity wars have occupied the minds of many other Europeans and North Americans.
Many commentators have made much of the fact that this attention to matters which Russia and other autocratic rulers view as trivial and with disdain has enabled Putin to conclude that the West is weak, degenerate, decadent and disunited. Our inaction over his annexation of Crimea (2014) and over enforcing a no-fly zone in Syria (2015), inter alia, have emboldened a man whom some have labelled mad, but whom those in the know seem more disposed to call cold, clever and calculating. He is well aware of the West’s desire to avoid a real, hot war. He appears to have no such qualms - which is what makes him so terrifying. Whereas the West is horrified by the Russian shelling of schools, hospitals and civilian apartment blocks and most recently the indiscriminate firing into a crowd of civilians protesting at the Russian occupation of Kherson, Putin seems to see all the casualties of these events as entirely expendable if the actions help him to achieve his aims. His attitude is so far removed from the way Westerners now see the world that we are all shocked by what feels like a completely anachronistic war. His people, the majority of whom support him, are kept in the dark and have been cut off from all but state media which simply feeds them his propaganda.
Although there was some agitation in the Twittersphere over Prince William’s comments about the Ukrainian war, with some suggesting that they were racist, it is undoubtedly the case that the proximity of this war and the fact that Russia, a major nuclear power, is the aggressor, does make it feel different for most of us in Europe. No-one thinks, for example, that the Tigray war in Ethiopia or the situation in Myanmar or Afghanistan are okay or in any way less horrific for those involved, but for those of us living here, none of these have the immediacy of war in Europe. This is not racist. It is an aspect of the tribalism which Daniel Hannan points out is deeply innate in all humans. It is inevitably easier to identify with those we feel closer to or we feel are ‘like us’. Knowledge of history may be limited, but most western and central Europeans have studied World War II at some level and the sight of thousands of (eastern) Europeans streaming out of cities with children, pets and what they can carry away from their destroyed homes is shocking and rather closer to home than those other conflicts.
Pictures of refugees from World War II abound. We are now seeing almost the very same thing nightly on television. Stories from teachers, doctors, actors, company directors, beauticians, lawyers and others of lives turned inside out, bring home to us, even more forcibly than those more distant conflicts, the precarious nature of existence – existence which we had come, complacently, to feel was relatively secure, if not always certain. That it is not is profoundly troubling to all those who, possibly mistakenly, considered that we were moving towards a better world for all and that the most serious problems were related to climate change and the environment. These are clearly problems which have not gone away, but the possibility of all-out war, millions of displaced refugees and how to deal with Russia in the future have all become more immediate problems.
Is this a wake-up call for the West? Will it make us appreciate our own freedoms or will we simply continue to trash our past and allow the loudest voices to ‘cancel’ those with whom they disagree? This form of tribalism should surely be overshadowed by the recognition of more serious events in the world? Our future may well be more tribal and less global, but the example set by Ukraine in fighting for its freedom as a sovereign nation should surely inspire us to recognise the fights which matter and to concentrate our efforts on the present and the future which we can influence – rather than the past which cannot be altered. We do not need internecine tribalism if we have to contend with the real thing inflicted on us from outside. Some other words of Churchill’s in that same 1940 speech may be relevant, although spoken in a very different context:
“Of this I am certain, that if we open a quarrel between the past and the present, we shall find that we have lost the future.”