Part Two: All is pure and simple until you touch it
In a complicated world, aggression is always the easy answer. But when aggression is the answer the world becomes more complicated.
When you look at things through a gun sight, things are simple. There is a narrow field of vision, an unambiguous focus and a single, unambiguous decision – pull the trigger or don’t pull the trigger. Choices don’t get more straightforward than ‘look at one thing, make a binary decision’. But there is a world beyond the field of vision of a gun sight.
So it is easy for the west to make the argument that the outcome from this war is that the western forces must spend more on their militaries, surround our enemies and ‘ensure that another Ukraine never happens’.
I am well aware that it is almost a jailable offence right now to come from the left and to suggest that there may just be a little bit of blame to apportion to Nato for its actions over the last three decades, deliberately militarising Russia’s border. That doesn’t make it less true.
It is also true that it was not, initially, Russia which was the aggressor. In the decade after the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia was too much of a mess to have time to threaten the west. Even when Putin arrived on the scene he wanted to integrate with the west (as stated by the then-Nato boss). He made a number of approaches to explore Russia joining Nato. It was Nato that escalated first.
And since there really isn’t much difference between Nato and broader US foreign policy it is also the case that, for all China has menaced its neighbours, it has studiously avoided a hostile military stance towards the west. It is the US and its allies who are escalating tensions through the militarisation of the Indo-Pacific Ocean, Nato by extension. Inevitably, China will respond.
So the first example of ‘complicated’ to raise is the simple statement ‘but the countries which hosted Nato and so encircled Russia with a hostile military build-up are sovereign states with the right to do so’. Sure, and Cuba was a sovereign state with the right to host Soviet nuclear weapons. And Iran and North Korea are sovereign states with the right to develop nuclear weapons.
I have a right to talk loudly and swear a lot in the pub irrespective of your feelings. You have a right to put your seat back in an airplane even though I have long legs. There are many things that we can do legally that we should not do morally or where wiser voices would persuade us not to because of the consequences.
If we build a world in which every nation pushes its sovereignty to the point where it deliberately impacts on others, conflict is inevitable. The word Realpolitik is not a pejorative, it’s a statement of how the world works. Bismark said that diplomacy was the search for “the next best thing”. What you have a right to do matters less than the consequences of your actions.
If we build a world in which every nation pushes its sovereignty to the point where it deliberately impacts on others, conflict is inevitable
My second instance of ‘easy until you do it’ is sanctions. The economic elites who had always extracted wealth from their own societies created a globalised world because it facilitated them extracting the wealth from other people’s societies. Thus we exist atop a precarious network of trading relationships.
When you look at outrage and horror like that Russia has been inflicting on Ukraine it is only human to believe that ‘something must be done’. And so it must, but once you do it it is complicated. Thus it proved surprisingly easy to produce western consensus around an aggressive sanctions regime – but the consequences are anything but easy.
Russia’s actions were always going to exacerbate a pre-existing global food crisis because of the critical role Ukraine had in wheat exports – but Russia’s food exports are also critical to world food supply, and so is Russian-derived fertiliser. People are dying in Ukraine and so we must do something, and then the thing that we do starts to kill people in the global south because of food shortages.
The sanctions have hurt Russia, but not as much as people believed they would. Now they are hurting parties innocent in this crisis and are doing so more than we expected. The use of aggressive sanctions looks like an easy no-brainer, but that disguises a much more complicated reality.
A third example of the complexity of what we are dealing with is the global power balance. Irrespective of what contexts were created, Putin’s choice to invade was his alone and that is the reality. He was in no way justified. But the conflict is a conflict of choice for others too. The US position is now officially to use this war as a means of degrading the military capabilities of an opponent using Ukrainian lives.
There is a reason for this; the US is in trouble. It is the most indebted nation in the history of civilisations and can sustain that only because the Dollar is the global reserve currency. But that has been under increasing threat for a while, not least because of the role of Chinese capital in the global economy.
The US treated China in particular as a low-wage manufacturing plant which fuelled the growth of its corporations – but then China grew and became too powerful. That left the US overly reliant on China for manufacturing capacity and the consequences of that ranged from the election of Trump on the back of the votes of former manufacturing workers to the fore-mentioned military build up in the Indo-Pacific.
That is the promise you’re being offered by the Nato advocates, easy solutions – but there are no easy solutions, only a world of ‘next bests’
It is the US which has been raising the temperature against China and that is because the US feels its global dominance is threatened. And the more it has felt threatened the more aggressive it has become in relation to China. This too is a dangerous loop.
Because one of the responses has been to ‘militarise’ the global financial system which the US by default controls through the power of the Dollar as a global reserve currency. It had already taken steps to isolate Russia after the invasion of Crimea and had taken even more aggressive steps to isolate Iran.
But the world was watching. If the US can cut you off from the global financial system as and when it chooses to, how can people rely on a US-policed financial system? They can’t, which is why Russia, China and India have all been quietly building alternative banking structures and their own payment systems which the US does not control
As a result the US feels even more threatened and becomes even more belligerent, round and round in a circle. Using the Dollar as a weapon has almost certainly hastened the point at which the Dollar is no longer used as a global reserve currency, and the implications for the US of that are genuinely worrying.
In every one of these instances the case to be made for the action taken is rock solid, almost unquestionable. If a nation want’s to join Nato they are free to do so. If Russia engages in atrocities then sanctions which hurt it are more than justified. The world chooses to use the Dollar as a reserve currency but it is still the US’s currency to do with as it sees fit.
And yet in each case we are already in a spiral of escalation which leads us to a place we should not want to get to.
War and horror create a lens of good and bad, right and wrong, and when we look at the world through that lens it looks simple, justice easy to identify. But if you want justice then buy an airport novel. There has been no justice for countless victims of nation state aggression and five hundred years on we’re still discussing what justice for Africa for colonialism and slavery might look like.
And that is the promise you’re being offered by the Nato advocates – easy solutions. He just escalated so we must escalate and that will definitely stop him. But there are no easy solutions, only a world of ‘next bests’. We live in a world of next bests and saying so does not make me an apologist for anything, just a realist.
What we do next must be based not on what we did once before and not on where we are now but on how it will change the future. A rush to militarisation may look like a good idea to you just now. Sadly, it is almost certain you will live to regret it.
We may look at the present with the innocent eyes of a child but we must look to the past and the future with the weary eyes of a grown up.