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The Financial Express

The Ukraine war: is it civilisational?


Smoke and flames rising over during the shelling near Kyiv during a conflict between Russia and Ukraine –Reuters file photo Smoke and flames rising over during the shelling near Kyiv during a conflict between Russia and Ukraine –Reuters file photo

In most of the narratives of the ongoing war in Ukraine, a common refrain that appears in print and electronic media of Europe and America is about its  'civilisational' character. While TV commentators of BBC and CNN repeat ad infinitum that Russian missiles are battering the 'European city' of Kyev, the politicians are driving home the point that Russia has unleashed its lethal weapons against western values of freedom, democracy and human rights. The latest to add to this barrage of agit prop (propaganda) is by an Ukrainian member of parliament. In a BBC-organised talk in Warsaw (March 31), she said that her country was fighting a 'civilisational war' on behalf of Europe. The implication of her assertion was loud and clear: Ukraine, an 'European nation', was fighting against Russia, a non-European nation that did not uphold and share the values of European civilisation while Europe was standing and staring. She was obviously trying to shame Europe into doing more to defend Ukraine. There was nothing wrong in urging friendly countries to do more to help her country with arms and ammunition but she was baiting European countries of NATO to participate in the war more actively in the name of European civilisation and all the values it stands for. The moot point is: is the war in Ukraine civilisational?

The sort of utterances and comments referred to above resurrects  'the clash of civilisation' hypothesis of Samuel P. Huntington who divided the world into nine civilisations, beginning with ancient Egypt, Greece, Assyria, Babylon, China and followed by the rest. The validity and relevance of his hypothesis about the 'western civilisation' facing clashes against others will be commented on later. First, let the issue of who are Europeans (Western) and who fail to qualify to be so should be clarified. It is obvious that American and European leaders and the media in the West are bracketing all central and east European countries as 'European' as against Russia and Belarus. If by Europe is meant a commonality of parameters that make for a nation, then it will be seen that none of these countries share anything with West-European countries that bind them together as a national entity. Not to speak of linguistic roots, neither racially nor by the crucible of religion are the central and east European countries the same as their western neighbours. Racially, the Serbian, Slovakians, Ukrainians, Belarussian and the Russians are the same, Slavs. In religion, they, including Greece, a NATO member, belong to Orthodox Christianity, a factor that divided them as east and west Europe during the declining stage of the great Roman empire. This historical divide cannot be glossed over by the force of rhetoric now because of expediency. Ukraine, Poland, Serbia etc. are no more European than Russia or Belarus. By emphasising their dubious European pedigree, the Anglo- American and West-European leaders are simply driving hard the wedge between Russia and the former Soviet bloc  countries for realpolitic (to be elaborated later). The motive is more than increasing the members of European family-- to isolate and encircle Russia with new NATO members breathing down her neck. By strengthening the new east- west divide the western leaders want to accentuate the adversarial relation between the former Soviet bloc countries and Russia. In their world view, there are two civilisations, the western (including European) and the eastern (oriental) and 'the twain shall never meet'. This view of the West is as much racist as it is belligerent to the 'other'--'the barbarians at the gate'. The West, used to conflicts and wars (the two world wars) require this divide to serve their geo-political interests. The former Soviet bloc countries are simply being used as pawns, boosting their morale by anointing them as European nations.

The irony of this whole make-believe game about former Soviet bloc countries being European nations is that  they have believed this to be true and like chickens coming home to roost, reminding their new found neighbours of their obligations to be treated as equal members of the family. To conclude, the strategy of enticing the central and east European countries away from the sphere of influence of their former leader (master?) has led to aggressive reactions from him that saw invasions in Georgia, annexation of Crimea and now a full scale war in Ukraine that has resulted from its taking seriously the idea of being a European nation. The spite and distrust of Russia by the West even after it imploded without sanguinary fallout has created a formidable enemy whose wrath is now destroying a prospering country and threatening the global economic recovery.

As for conjuring up the idea of western civilization in a purported 'clash of civilisations', it has to be regarded as a figment of imagination. The history of the world does not record any such phenomenon, even though western historians have promoted one in their writing of history. Nor is there a niche for 'European civilisation' in actual history because the continent of Europe (and the rest of the world)  inherited the achievements of ancient civilisations of Greece and Rome, which in turn borrowed ideas and institutions from earlier civilisations Egypt, Babylon and others. The concepts of western and European civilisations are political constructs of imperial powers to justify the policy of aggrandisement and colonisation.

To settle the issue of whether or not there has been an western civilisation (including European civilisation) one may revisit the trajectory of all past civilisations and find out how the important ones merged with each other through absorption and adaptations It will be seen that what is being termed as the western civilisation is the culmination of all past major civilisations through assimilation and should be called the universal civilisation. The political, economic and military power of America, Great Britain and some countries of Europe gave them the prerogative of sequestering what was a universal heritage of humanity as the property of the west. The civilisational values like democracy, freedom and human rights that are being touted as the product of western civilisation were actually the cumulative achievements of the past major civilisations. This distortion of history and its ownership gave the arrogant west the advantage to consider them as superior and the rest of the world as the inferior 'Other'. The end of imperialism did not bring humility to the west and make it humble in relation to treating other countries. Rather, the concept of western civilisation was kept alive for exercise of power based on economic and military strength. It has been regarded by policy makers in the west as a cause for conflict with other emerging power blocs (Islam, China etc.) designating it as the 'clash of civilisations'. Thus, the concept of a superior western civilisation, used in the past to occupy and rule foreign countries, is now being seen as besieged by and pitted against other 'civilisations'. This imaginary clash of civilisations has given the rationale to the west to develop weapons of mass destruction and foment armed clashes among countries as proxy wars. In the case of Iraq and Afghanistan, the west led by America invaded directly to 'save' western civilisation, ruining those countries economically and politically. Before these invasions, during the cold war era, the west, led by America, unleashed wars in Korea and Vietnam to fight against a new civilisation (Sidney and Beattrice Webb).

The hollowness and hypocrisy of using civilisational clash as a rationale for war have been exposed time and again in history. The two world wars that went on for years, mainly in Europe, taking heavy toll in human lives were fought by European countries and America, all belonging to the west. Did they fight to defend the values of western or European civilisation? The question does not beg for an answer.

The Germans coined a term to explain the cause of all armed clashes and wars of the present and the past, between and among nations. They simply called it Realpolitik. In German language 'Real' does not have the same meaning as it does in English. It means 'things', that is, practical and concrete matters. So  Realpolitik  connotes practical politics or policy. It means a pragmatic, no-nonsense view of objective reality and by implication, a policy of adaptations to things as they are. Realpolitik disregards considerations of ideology, morality or ethics. It is the hard-headed, ruthless and brutal pursuit of power and national interests. Almost all the wars in the past, in recent times and now, are and have been waged either for exercising power or to promote national interests of nations engaged in them. It is not only delusional, but also self-serving to say that there is a higher moral purpose behind a war. Russia has invaded Ukraine not only for security concerns, though it is one of the reasons. Russia is in Ukraine, with arms and men, to assert its Realpoltik, its power to be reckoned with. Ukraine, on its part, may say in public, to garner sympathy of western countries that it is fighting the 'civilisational war' on behalf of Europe. But it knows, and to the world it is no secret, that it is fighting to defend its national interests (joining NATO, overriding the objection of Russia).The countries that have advised it to stand firm to protect its sovereign right to decide about joining NATO and promised help if push came to shove, have done so, not for grandiloquent exultation of civilisational values of democracy, freedom and human rights. They, too, have interests of Realpolitik, the show of power against their arch enemy, Russia. The comedian- turned politician, has put up the best performance of his life. But at what cost and for whose Realpolitik?

 

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