Most of the world’s conflicts take place without anyone noticing, unless you happen to be one of the unfortunates caught up in it. Even when other countries send in troops, the most anyone offers is fine words, and the casualties are accepted as collateral damage, or less than human when they flee to another country from events anyone can see on the news in that country.
When the Vietnam War was raging you never heard about the war in neighbouring Laos, which lasted almost as long. Few care about the frozen civil war in Peru, one of a string of them, despite it being between the two classic pantomime villains, corrupt capitalist elite and murderous Marxist guerrillas.
However some conflicts, such as the current Russian-Ukrainian one, fall into a different category. They are not necessarily worse, but are much more important to the rest of the world because they force realignment. Not of nations, but of what they represent.
Add it up to take it away
Politics is all about priorities, and every country has them. Most are transient, swept away by their own natural development or events beyond the country’s control, but some are considered fundamental to a country – “we wouldn’t be us if we didn’t believe in this”. Consequently alliances are formed around those countries which have, or like to pretend they have, the same unchanging priorities, and these are alignments it takes a major conflict to shake up.
For example, we can all name the countries which would say their fundamental priority is democracy. A certain definition of this term has been promoted and commonly accepted, and certain states are in alliance with other states because they wish to be identified as ones which will always be Western-style liberal democracies, and never any other sort of state.
These same countries are happy to attack any perceived backsliding in “democratic standards” in countries they feel superior to, even when they are fellow democratic allies However those same aggressive voices are strangely silent when it comes to introducing or protecting democracy in other countries they see as their friends. Why? Because they actually have other priorities in the short term – other things are more important than democracy, but the democracies would lose all credibility if they said it.
The pattern of news reporting, political posturing and grand gesture coming from the Russia-Ukraine conflict is following a predictable pattern. The people we would expect to be doing and saying certain things are saying them. Indeed, people are starting to wonder why they haven’t heard them more often, in relation to other conflicts if the speakers actually believe in the principles they espouse.
But we don’t hear them because what these words and actions are actually about is something different. Less important conflicts confirm priorities, more important ones change them. The reason we are hearing the same old shibboleths now is that no one wants us to hear how these priorities are changing, and what the consequences of that might be.
Black and white are not colours
One major priority of any developed country, whatever its ideological orientation, is anti-racism.
Few states are actually interested in non-racism, i.e. creating a situation where race has no more importance than what colour socks people wear. But every country wants to be seen to be anti-racist, and regard their preferred way of doing things as the highest embodiment of it.
During Cold War times anti-racism was a classic left-wing cause. Racism was seen as the inevitable product of capitalist exploitation, which only a centrally-directed socialism could cure. Early anti-racist movements were often populated by stereotypically quietly spoken, firebrand intellectuals whose anti-racism was proof of their broader leftist credentials.
Those on the right would often make fun of these fantasy socialists by pointing out to them how inherently racist they themselves were. The whole concept of developing socialist states relied on separating the Master Race of socialists, often defined with an overtly national character in socialist countries, from the congenitally inferior other races they wished to educate.
Nor were minorities treated any better in such countries than in the hated capitalist world, as whole ethnic groups were seen as implicitly enemies of the state, more inclined than others to go running to the other side. Yet none of this prevented leftists maintaining that anti-racism was theirs, didn’t belong to anyone else, and this was the only correct view in a civilized country.
As time went on, measures to promote racial harmony and inclusiveness did indeed become ever more central to countries who tell those inferior races how to run their own agriculture and political systems. So much so that anyone in any sort of public position had their views written for them – they had to say and support certain things to have a serious job. The agenda behind this was laid bare by the fact that no one ever bothered to say why racism is wrong – it was all about being on the right side, and by definition putting others on the wrong one.
None of this was ever about helping one single person from one single minority group. Racism is wrong because we are all made the image and likeness of God, because God says so, in the Bible. But say that and you are yourself branded a reactionary, out of touch with the modern non-racist world, or a bigot only interested in imposing your views on others. Hence the sad situation in several countries where racism is now being actively encouraged by many who wouldn’t otherwise go near it, simply because it is a backlash against being told what to do by “them who sit above”.
Being inclusive, or rather meeting the political definition of that, has been the priority of all states, and regarded as a tenet of bourgeois liberal democracy – “one person, one vote, no matter your race, colour or creed” – rather than imposed socialism, with its enforced segmentations of people. But if you are one of these racist or crypto-racist nations outside this circle, but give your uranium to Ukraine, will the racism matter now?
If you are a fully-fledged anti-racist country, but perceived not to be pulling your weight in the conflict with the Russians, will you be allowed at the same tables until the next priority-changing conflict comes along?
The rhetoric used by both sides in the Russia-Ukraine conflict does not suggest any new paradigm. But it is being used to disguise the fact that there will undoubtedly be one, and that enemies will become friends, and vice versa, simply because of that, even though the world said that they should never be allowed through the door if they behaved as they did.
Changing hats into hats
We have been down this road many times before, as each successive cause of the day has been hijacked. What starts out as a genuinely good ideal becomes a membership card, then a stick to beat everybody who isn’t a member, until the original idea has no meaning and the benefits it is supposed to bring are lost in a new “reality” no more real than the old.
Between the two world wars antifascism was the big thing. Some countries went down the fascist route, for what many of their citizens believed were good reasons, while the rest of the world, unwilling to confront the Soviet Communism as it had intellectual credibility at their posh schools, formed a bloc of “good”, i.e. antifascist, countries, ever alert for fascists under the bed.
How genuine this commitment was can be seen in what happened next. Hitler was allowed to walk into several countries before the Allied powers stood up to him.
British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s famous comment about the Nazi invasion of the Sudetenland being a “quarrel in a faraway country, between people of whom we know nothing” was far from isolated: all the central European states affected by the rise of Nazi Germany endured a steady drip of negative propaganda, branded as themselves fascist, or happy to appease them, whilst fascist movements in the “good” antifascist countries were openly canvassing for support.
Many of these countries fell under Soviet domination after World War Two. Despite the Cold War, and the antagonisms this fuelled elsewhere, little was done to stop this. Why? Because these countries, who had suffered greatly from fascism, were not members of the antifascist club, so were secretly fascist all the time, so it served them right.
Antifascism was nothing to do with protecting people from fascism. It had everything to do with creating a club only the best could join, whilst exploiting everyone else.
Portugal was a member of that post-war successor club, NATO, despite still being a neofascist dictatorship until 1974. Active Nazis escaped to South America on ratlines with the active support of the NATO countries, instead of being tried for crimes which exceeded in reality what antifascist propaganda accused them of.
Priorities were different, so fascism was no longer bad, although its nature and morality remained exactly the same. Serbs will remind you how few people cared about the links between Frano Tudjman’s Croatian government and supporters of the fascist Ante Pavelic, as long as they were anti-Serb. Nor do the laudation of David Bandera and his Ukrainian equivalents by post-independence Ukraine make any difference: being good and bad mean something different now, with no apology to those affected by previous conceptions of good and bad.
Weren’t millions of young men told to go out and die to prevent exactly what is tolerated now? There has been much comment about how Evangelical Christians can support Donald Trump in such large numbers when his conduct is all the things they profess to oppose. How long will it be before the most reviled of racists, the very people all the “good” countries demonise, are using that same racism to spearhead attacks on Russia which are purely racist in character, as long as they serve a wider agenda?
Red lines with no reds
Being anti-Russian won’t in itself be the new higher value which unites the “good” in a self-perpetuating conspiracy against the not-so-good. It will be presented in different terms, with buzzwords which lose all their meaning, just like “communism” did to those who knew it was bad, but never experienced what exactly was wrong with it because they never had to live under it.
Politicians who have some Russian connection, whatever it is, are now coming under scrutiny. This scrutiny was strangely absent from those who spied for Soviet countries during Cold War times, and got away with it.
But then it was about espionage for a foreign power, now it is all about money. Everyone who has accepted a financial donation from a Russian is accused of accepting dirty money, being corrupted by it and being a spy in all but name, regardless of where this money actually came from, and what it is being donated for.
Even without international sanctions, there are banking laws. If you let people bank dirty money, you pay more in fines, and the dismantling of your business, than you gain by having it there. Of course there are ways of laundering dirty money, but if the Russians were any good at it, they would have so many friends amongst the Western grandees who do it daily that they would be on the same side, and Russia, rather than the US, would be bankrolling the many NATO operations of this nature.
The good anti-racist countries do know that if they pursued this fight against dirty money too many of their own politicians and institutions would be destroyed. So that won’t be the new immoral crusade. Do we have any clues about what it could be?
There is only one thing which could legitimately bind the “good” countries together at this time – a hypocritical opposition to invading other countries. There is no Western country which has clean hands in regard to violating the borders and sovereignty of others, with the possible exceptions of Monaco, Liechtenstein, Andorra and Luxembourg. But with their combined experience at drawing maps, this will be the new mantra – keep out, or be thrown out by an invasion by the “good” people.
All the previous invasions will be justified somehow, as long as they didn’t involve the Russians, but as in post-colonial times, the focus will be on the better future the “good” countries are able to bring. No more border disputes, no more uninvited troops, no more redrawing of maps by force. After all, it’s also cheaper. If this can be defended on racist grounds, by unrepentant racists, fascists, communists or paedophiles, their behaviour will be an historical anomaly, with no effect on the world which told us all to oppose these things on principle.
The real sufferings of Ukraine, and the real grievances of Russia, will become yet more meaningless slogans while the rulers select who should be where and carve up the spoils. Countries always seek to be on the right side of history to gain friends. It never seems to occur to them, until it is too late, that to genuinely improve the lives of their citizens these are friends they should never wish to have.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.