Through the fog of war, it is difficult to see blue sky. So it is with Ukraine. Pessimists and poets who have long argued that we humans are unfit for purpose have more grist for their mill.
But let’s step back from the Ukrainian conflict.
Mankind got rid of African slave trading. It got rid of duelling. It got rid of torture. In some European countries it was abolished over 200 years ago. Even in the Second World War the allies did not systematically use torture. Regrettably, when President George W. Bush came to power, torture was reinstated – a reminder that although there has been progress it can slip back. Likewise, slavery has found new life with the rise in child and female trafficking. But usually things slip back only to rebound with renewed momentum.
As for war it is abundantly clear that since the end of the Second World War the number of conflicts and battlefield deaths has gone down. After the end of the Cold War the number took a sharp dip again, although the last few years the trend has turned up somewhat- but that’s mainly small-scale civil wars in Africa. Wars between states remain a rarity, which is another reason for judging the Russian invasion of Ukraine a major setback for Western civilisation. Some of the most distinguished military historians now think that the age-old connection between war and states may be on its way out. Pace Ukraine/Russia.
The European Union has shown the way. The part of the world that used to be the most violent has effectively banned the clash of arms. Between 1648 and 1789 the European powers fought 48 wars. Even when there seemed to be peace, as when no wars were fought between 1871 and 1914, the colonial powers fought both each other abroad and the natives who they colonized. The British army was at war in some part of the world throughout the entire nineteenth century.
Then came the carnage of World War 1. David Lloyd George, the wartime British prime minister, wrote that, “The nations slithered over the brink into the boiling cauldron of war without any trace of apprehension or dismay”.
The seeds of World War 2 were sown during World War 1. The map of Europe had been partly redrawn to German’s disadvantage. Germany was bled almost dry by reparations. The great economist, John Maynard Keynes, argued that the harsh peace imposed on Germany would create “an inefficient, unemployed, disorganized, Europe”. It did. Hitler rose to power.
World War 2, although ending on a positive note with forgiving victors magnanimously handing out money to the defeated (why was this not done with Russia?) had, as its last act, the unforgiveable and quite unnecessary nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Since then there has been no sign of a new world war- until this month when there has been wild talk about introducing a non-fly zone above Ukraine’s sky. (Fortunately, President Joe Biden rules this out, saying this would lead to Russian and NATO troops facing off, thus precipitating World War 3, probably a nuclear one.)
Despite all this the European Union today remains the world’s prime example of peace among nations.
Europe may too often walk in lockstep with American foreign policy, as with its stance against Russia, not least on agreeing to NATO expansion which has provoked Russia to start this war, but by and large it is a very unwarlike body. The European idea among its electorate is, as James Sheehan has written, “not full of national enthusiasm and patriotic passion but of a widespread commitment to escape the destructive antagonisms of the past. Because the European Union does not claim the monstrous capacity, the power of life and death, it does not need citizens who are prepared to kill and die.” Europe has become a super civilian state but not a superpower.
If violence does threaten Europe again it will not come from inside the European Union but from outside. To avoid this it means it should return to the first post-Cold War days when it was beginning to think Russia’s idea of building together a “single European house” (in the words of Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev and Russia’s president Vladimir Putin) was perhaps a good one.
Regrettably, that moment has passed for now, even though some of America’s great strategic thinkers, the late Zbigniew Brzezinski for instance, thought it was a goal to be aimed for. Putin’s attempt to create a quasi-dictatorship, increasingly repressing independent opinion, and the West’s foolish, ill-thought out, attempt to bolster Ukraine against Russia, have created an atmosphere of what I term “geo-political negativity”.
As for the threat from extremist Muslims intent on their jihad, they do not threaten Europe or America. As one wag wrote, more people in the West have died falling off a ladder than they have from terrorist attacks.
Has Kant’s state of perpetual peace finally arrived, despite the Ukrainian war and despite terrorism? Never before have so many of the European peoples lived so well and so few died because of political violence
We have not lost the capacity for going forwards even as, on the present occasion, we can still go backwards. Despite the historic mistake of NATO expansion- which governments, including all EU governments, except Sweden and Finland, decided over their people’s heads- a large number of ordinary people in every EU country are welcoming the mass of refugees who are fleeing Russian cruelty. Here’s some blue sky. The European people by and large didn’t know about NATO expansion, but they do know about its consequences. They don’t know why the Russians attacked Ukraine, but they are reaching out to help those who are suffering. Knowing how secure they are within the EU, they are mentally ready to do good and help the refugees. This is progress. This is how humanity should be.