War has become very close to Western Europe and some reactions are surprising: there is a new ‘enemy’ (though it is the old one from the cold war), refugees are very welcome (contrary to the thousands of Afghans and Syrians from the past years), rearmament becomes obvious (while there was quite some resistance in the recent past).
It is obvious the invasion by Russia has to be condemned, as well as the atrocities committed since the end of February. Questions also have to be asked about the past and current role of NATO and about the economic tensions that have been developing between Russia and Ukraine since 1991. More arms, more destruction and more human suffering cannot be the way to solve this crisis. The path necessarily points to negotiations in which all parties will have to compromise. The way forward should not be about winners and losers, but about sustainable and lasting peace. The future cannot be built on amassing lethal weapons and a (new) balance of fear.
Apart from these general points, some lessons can already be learned from this war.
First of all, emerging right after the COVID-19 crisis, this war points once again to the interconnectedness of many important issues. Peace is at the centre of all our endeavours, both as a means and as an end. Without peace there can be no social justice and no ecological transition. Without a just transition, we can never guarantee peace. It means we necessarily have to tackle these problems jointly.
If not already started, urgent research is needed on the practical implications of this statement. One has to be aware of the enormous environmental damage this war is having. Military activities have been excluded from the obligatory measurements of greenhouse gas emissions, which gives a totally biased picture of what happens. More data is needed on the influence of the military on climate change and on how to reduce it.
Clearly, war is the most harsh violation of social justice for all the people who have to leave their homes and their country and who have to try and start a new life somewhere else. This is far beyond a lack of rights to decent housing or to vaccines. Rights of asylum-seekers and refugees are constantly violated in the European Union, often coupled with open racism or xenophobia. Ukrainian refugees are now welcomed and one has to hope this warm welcome will last as long as it is needed.
A second lesson relates to the developments within the peace movement in Europe. True, after the Cold War, many of these movements entered a kind of winter sleep and are now very weakened. The many conflicts in the Middle East and Africa were not the centre of attention and this new war in Europe took them by surprise.
Very rapidly, a clear divide appeared between the peace movements: those who declare themselves against this war, as they had always been against all armed conflicts; and those who promote the supply of arms to Ukraine as the country has the right to defend itself against its aggressor. Both sides have good arguments but it is surprising and a characteristic of the new times we are living in that a ‘peace movement’ declares itself in favour of a war.
What it means is that a peace movement, in the same way as many other social movements of the 21st century, has to re-define itself in the evolving geopolitical context in having to re-examine its objectives and strategies.
My third point becomes more political. A major part of the peace movement has always been against NATO and considers the alliance superfluous since the Warsaw Pact has ceased to exist. Without being resolutely pacifist, one accepts the need for a defence policy, but what is the alternative to NATO? An important debate has taken place in Europe between the ‘Atlanticists’ (pro NATO) and the ‘Continentalists’, preferring more regional cooperation. The development of a ‘Europe of Defence’ is particularly difficult within the European Union, though the link with NATO has been confirmed in the treaties.
The paradoxical situation of today is that those who declare themselves against NATO are the same as those who have always been against a European pillar of defence and even against a political European Union itself. What, then, is the alternative to NATO? Is it plausible to promote a purely national approach? This might be more or less understandable for major countries like France or Germany, but what about the numerous smaller countries? Would that not become a major waste of money and resources, and is it possible in these times of technological progress?
Defining its geopolitical position, in favour or against NATO, in favour or against the European Union and defining alternatives for the alliance(s) one rejects seems to be a second important mission for the peace movement.
A fourth point is in fact a question about autonomy and natural resources. Many voices today are calling for a boycott of Russian oil and gas, an understandable demand knowing how much European countries are paying to Russia for natural resources they all badly need, but at the same time financing the war they are so much against.
Clearly, there are alternatives. But are they better than Russia? Can we be happy with the alternative of Qatar, a country where approximately 6,500 workers have died building the infrastructure for the World Cup, where several basic rights do not apply to women, where Sharia Law is a main source of legislation and people are flogged as punishment for alcohol consumption or illicit sexual relationships? Can we be happy with the expensive liquid natural gas obtained by environmentally damaging fracking in the US or the coal obtained from mountain top removal in Appalachia? Can we be happy with gas from the conflict-ridden regions in Mozambique or Nigeria?
These are just a few examples. This war is very much about natural resources, not only gas and oil, but also grain and many others. Maybe the time has come to seriously reflect on natural resources as global public goods. Very interesting research had begun some twenty years ago at UNRISD (UN Research Institute on Social Development), but the debate rapidly derailed when the World Bank not only looked at health and education but at financial stability.
Is it acceptable in times of globalisation to continue to consider States as the sole owners of the resources hidden in their soils? Not only gas and oil, but also water and rare earth? Has the time not come to extend our reflection from the law of the sea to our concepts of sovereignty? Can we envisage the concept of sharing instead of owning? We now live in a world where some have all the rights and others have some resources, where some can issue extraterritorial rules and others have to face conflicts over their resources, where some have reserve currencies and others have only debts? Indigenous people know perfectly well how difficult it is to solve the problems of extractivism and how ‘national sovereignty’ not only limits access to resources we all need, but can also hide predatory and unsustainable practices.
These are not easy questions but what we should be aware of is that the rules governing our world are of our own making. Goods are not private or public by nature, but by design, as a result of deliberate policy choices.
This war is not about civilisational ‘western values’, but at its heart we find old issues such as energy and nationalism. Today, we are still struggling with the unsolved consequences of the First World War, the break-up of two major empires and the arbitrary definition of borders. The same happened with the colonial empires fifty years later. The question is whether the principle of the ‘self-determination’ of peoples still offers enough guarantees for peace at a time when globalisation has strengthened history in a constant movement of people. Do we not have to develop new thinking about the formation of States and about a new internationalism?
The self-determination of people always suffered from the impossibility to define what ‘people’ is. Central and Eastern Europe, but also Africa, Asia and America are patchworks of peoples and there are no countries or regions with cultural hegemony. Trying to change national borders has always caused wars and conflicts and should be avoided at all costs. However, that does not mean people have no rights, that people should not be able to define their own values, traditions and rules or to determine who they are.
Much research has been done these past decades on the role of States and the relevance of ‘sovereignty’. We already have several international bodies and rules that limit the power of States, though they remain the major actors in today’s world. It does not seem reasonable to do away with States and replace the two hundred Member States of the current United Nations with ten thousand local entities with far more important risks for conflicts.
The plurinational States of Latin America might be a good example of the path to follow. Some thinking has started on omnilateralism. More research on world federalism is another possibility. Sovereignty, after all, is just like the public character of goods, a social construct. It is made by humans and is a relationship more than a thing. Sovereignty never can be absolute. We already have frameworks that go beyond it, such as human rights. We can make similar frameworks for other policies, preserving the power of regions, within and without states, to define their own particular rules. People do not need States, they need governance and political participation at different levels. They need power to co-decide on their policies; they need self-rule and shared rule.
This articulation of different policy levels from local to global, with governance structures at every level is the only way to organise and structure our interdependence.
Easy it is not and will never be. A lot of research needs to be done. But we really are one humankind living on one single planet. We therefore need common rules while all States, regions and people need the power to define their own specific governance. At this stage, all one can do is point to the need for political articulation in order to guarantee a life in dignity and peace for all.
Today, we need to re-think geopolitics and start to shape a new world order, away from idealism and cultural hegemony, away from narrow localism and nationalism, focusing instead on peace, the common good and the survival of humanity. This is a vast agenda to which progressives have to make a substantive contribution.