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A grotesque auction in bellicose rhetoric

In a multipolar world Nato’s repeated violations of other countries’ borders were bound to provoke a reaction, argues KEVIN OVENDEN

YOU know you are in a dangerous international crisis when almost the entire British media and every parliamentary party embarks on a grotesque auction in bellicose rhetoric.

Among the cliches bandied about are “appeasement” and the “new Hitler.” How many of those have we had now? Why always a Hitler, by the way? Why never a Franco or a Pinochet or a Shah of Iran or a Suharto, or...? Perhaps we ought not enquire too deeply.

And the more the public become aware of a rational approach that can prevent war, the greater the drumbeats to drown out such dangerous thinking.

In 2003 the simple proposition that the weapons inspectors in Iraq should be allowed the few weeks they required to finish showing there were no weapons of mass destruction was met with “we have waited long enough – now is the time for action.”

The approach to avoiding war today is as simple as it is obvious. It is that simultaneous Russian withdrawal from the breakaway regions in Ukraine and Nato declaring it will not expand further towards Russia could create a climate for de-escalation, demilitarisation of the region and negotiations on regional autonomy, neutrality and genuine self-determination.

But to raise this is to invite charges of treachery and being a fifth columnist from a body of opinion straddling the mainstream political spectrum whose lust for confrontation ought to frighten all of us. It is performatively echoed by some on the left, sadly.

While mythologised chronicles are ever mined – just how long is the British Parliament going to live in the summer of 1940? – examining actual and more recent history is off limits. Everything started yesterday. At the same time it is Munich, Dunkirk and the Blitz all over again. Ludicrous comparisons are allowed. Relevant ones are dismissed as whataboutery.

It is in no way to justify Vladimir Putin’s government or the Russian state to understand what has brought us to this and thus how to get out of it.

It is not true that to understand everything is to excuse everything. Among the things that we must understand is why a relic of the Cold War not only continues to exist, but has expanded, increased its military spending and has projected itself way beyond the North Atlantic.

The Soviet Union lost the Cold War. Its military alliance was dissolved. Nato was not. Instead it has extended eastwards and has projected its unrivalled military might way beyond any claim to be a defensive pact. It invaded Afghanistan and destroyed Libya as a coherent nation-state.

The drive to the east in the 1990s breached undertakings given to the last Soviet government and was part of a fanciful plan to reorder the world.

Neoliberal globalisation was to dissolve outstanding international questions and bring an end to history itself. In a backhanded acknowledgement of reality, however, this process could not be left to the hidden hand of the market. It required the mailed fist of military force.

With it came a new doctrine to legitimise war. “Responsibility to Protect” cited contemporary humanitarian crises and localised wars to appeal to a world of “international values” to justify military action in violation of the sovereignty of states. Indeed, the very idea of sovereignty was taken to be an outdated hangover of the Westphalian settlement at the dawn of the modern state system and a vestige of the Cold War.

The implications were spelled out by Tony Blair in a speech to 1,400 business and financial executives in Chicago during Nato’s war on the rump Yugoslavia in 1999. His adviser Robert Cooper went on to theorise it as a kind of postmodern Three Worlds model.

A postmodern (post-political) world of transatlantic liberal democracy intervening to enlighten a second, merely “modern” world unevolved from 19th-century sovereign nation-states and a pre-modern world of tribalism that was incapable of running its own affairs.

Look at what this has meant over the last two decades or so.

Nato went to war against Yugoslavia without even trying to get a UN resolution in 1999. The UN security council has been an organised hypocrisy since its inception. But as some of us wrote at the time, in not even attempting to get agreement with the other big powers at the UN, the Nato war on Serbia signalled a new, more dangerous and equally hypocritical order.

Then the US, Britain and allies went to war on Iraq, having failed to get a UN resolution in 2003 and being forced to rely on a special relationship between a neo-conservative US administration and a Third Way social-democratic British one.

In 2011, the US, Britain and France (with a few others) managed to get a limited UN security council resolution over Libya. They breached the scope of the resolution with much more far-reaching military action within two days of it being passed. It was little remarked upon at the time, but China and Russia both made clear in the months and years afterwards that they had been conned and would not be falling for it again.

In Britain, the Libya war enjoys a unique position. Just a dozen or so MPs voted against it. Five years later one of the most damning reports any parliamentary committee has produced savaged the entire operation and the political responsibility for it. And now... it is down the memory hole. Not to be mentioned in polite society. An example of whataboutery.

But all these things did happen and had impacts whose effects we are feeling now.

The anti-war movement said among other things in 1999 that if Nato arrogated to itself the right to intervene in another country to resolve one of the very many internal disputes over national rights that arc through the Balkans, eastern Europe and the Caucasus, then why shouldn't other relatively strong states?

Why, say, shouldn’t the Russian state intervene somewhere citing the rights of Russian-speakers who identified as Russian?

And when that does in fact happen in parts of Ukraine, we find that the dead dog of state sovereignty is now suddenly the highest principle in international relations. There are so many countries where that is greeted with grim laughter when uttered by those powerful states, or their surrogates, who have brushed aside that principle and replaced it with new ones as it suits.

For those on the left foolishly giving cover for this, the Marxism they are looking for is Groucho’s: “These are my principles. And if you don’t like them, I have others.”

It is not for the first time. Woodrow Wilson, the president of a US founded on genocide, slavery and colonialism, proclaimed towards the end of World War I the “right of nations to self-determination.”

Actual self-determination was being achieved anyway, via the methods of the Russian and anti-colonial revolutions. Wilson’s rhetoric was to counter that and to cement rising US power against its older rivals.

Thus in the name of a new liberal-capitalist order the victorious powers imposed upon defeated Germany what the British liberal economist John Maynard Keynes denounced as a Carthaginian Peace at the 1919 Versailles talks. With uncanny accuracy he predicted it would lead to a major European war 20 years later.

As for the last 25 years there has been recognition, even among those responsible for Western policy at the start of the process, of the mistake of Nato expansion and just batting away the concerns of any Russian government on the grounds that it was weaker and could in effect be ignored.

William Perry was Bill Clinton’s defence secretary from 1994 to 1997 as more of eastern Europe was absorbed into Nato. Looking back in 2015 after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, he said that while Russia’s actions were immediately at fault, “if you look over a 20-year period and put the scoreboard together there are at least as many American mistakes as there were Russian.”

It is true that we are not in a unipolar world of singular US power. But some who parrot that in the name of not opposing Nato and its policy are saying that there is a unipolar world of moral right. Russia is apparently singularly to blame – though tomorrow it will again be China, the central target of US policy even if it gets waylaid in Ukraine and the Middle East. The main enemy is always over there. It is the other camp.

And an unpopular government that you recognise as a bunch of liars at home should be supported abroad and urged to escalate.

We must have sanctions! goes the cry. But we must not mention the disaster of previous sanctions as a prelude to war. Nor is it permitted to ask why we do not sanction other states we are allied with. Oligarchs are terrible. But British billionaires and corrupt corporations are not like “oligarchs.” For that means Russian rapacious capitalists, not ours.

Above all, working people in Britain are pressed not to ask at times like this why they should support war talk from a billionaire-owned press and politicians who have presided over a massive squeeze on wages and now a cost of living crisis which is getting worse as oil and gas prices surge precisely in response to the Ukraine crisis.

Instead of patriotically freezing at home in the false name of internationalism (and the true purpose of saving Boris Johnson's career), there should be intensified struggle over the cost of living crisis allied to a simple message – no to war, pullback now, and stop this military expansionism.

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