Nationalism means War

Álvaro Vasconcelos[1]

In Jean Giraudoux’s play, The Trojan War Will Not Take Place, Cassandra warns Andromache that war, and the barbarism that it generates, will return. He had written the play as a pacifist manifesto in 1935, two years after Hitler had proclaimed himself Führer in Germany. But that was also the same year in which Benito Mussolini, realising the impotence of the League of Nations and of the democracies amongst its members, invaded Ethiopia. And it is that experience that comes to mind when António Guterres says that the United Nations is not involved in finding a solution to the current crisis in Ukraine.

Today, however, we should also recall that François Mitterrand, in his farewell speech to the European Parliament, proclaimed that: “nationalism is war”. Indeed, how can we not remember his claim when we see images of thousands of tanks on the borders of Russia and Ukraine; when a nationalist discourse justifies war once again and extols its virtues? How can we ignore its import when we see nationalist politicians preaching once again racial superiority alongside militarism?

Yet, for Western Europeans, the idea of war on European soil is unthinkable. The result has been that many Europeans have simply handed over the fate of peace in Europe to America and President Biden without apparently even thinking twice about the implications of doing so.

Even so, with the end of the Soviet Union at the start of the 1990s, Kant’s utopia of democratic peace had seemed achievable in Europe, from the Atlantic to the Urals as the space for democratic peace and prosperity appeared to be expanding eastwards. By 2007, therefore, eleven countries that had been part of the Soviet empire were already part of the European Union. However, the West, although victorious in the Cold War, was not only the bearer of democratic ideals, but it also introduced an ultra-liberal economic model that was not only socially devastating in Russia, but also encouraged an alternative nationalist narrative for an oligarchy thirsty for power and wealth.   The success of that alternative narrative in Russia, for instance, was to delay Mikhail Gorbachev’s project for a Common European Home for many years.

Instead, a counter-project has asserted itself in Russia, which has built upon one of the tragic legacies of European history. It has turned out to be a project that promotes nationalism, political illiberalism and war in the service of an imperial plan of domination. Vladimir Putin consolidated his power with destructive wars, first between 1994 and 1996 and then again between 1999 and 2009 in Chechnya.  In 2008 he invaded Georgia, and in 2014 he annexed Crimea and militarily supported separatism in Eastern Ukraine, in the Donbass. The war in Ukraine has, so far, claimed 13,000 lives.

The democratic and anti-nationalist ideals of Western Europe have come to be seen as a threat, no doubt because the enlargement of the European Union up to Russia’s own borders brings with it the danger of an alternative model and the danger of contagion, not to speak of the potential to threaten autocracy.  And, for Vladimir Putin, the threat of contagion is an ever-present reality as  the  democratic demonstrations in Belarus in 2020 against the massively fraudulent electoral process there were to demonstrate. Yet what Putin most fears is the success of democracy in Ukraine, a nation linked to Russia by deep historical, cultural and human ties. And to prevent this success he claims the right to interfere in its politics and for this reason he threatens to extend the war to the entire territory of Ukraine.  At the same time, however, none of this means that Russia’s security perceptions should not be taken into account in the search for a peaceful solution to the conflict there.

The problem is that Putin’s Russia does not accept the order established after the end of the Soviet Union and, like any revisionist power, wishes to change it.  After all, in the 1990s, instead of a geopolitical project for democratic unity in Europe with the European Union at its centre, no alternative vision emerged. Russia had no place in the European Union, agreements with NATO did not give it the voice that, given its military power, it had expected. The pan-European organisations to which Russia belonged – the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe – proved unable to structure a European order. At the same time, the enlargement of NATO that has accompanied democratisation in the East has merely fuelled nationalism and militarism in the great Russian nation, particularly when the possibility of Ukraine joining the Atlantic Alliance was carelessly proposed.  Now we have to live with those errors of judgement.

So Russia’s brutal military pressure on Ukraine’s border, the continuing war in the separatist Donbass region and the possibility of a Russian military intervention should be taken seriously. A new violation of Ukraine’s borders could trigger an escalation with unforeseeable consequences.  But, today, it is a question of trying to achieve whatever peace is possible to counter the claims of Giraudoux’s Cassandra Instead, common sense and a sense of humanity should prevail so that war in Ukraine does not take place.

The European Union, marginalized at the negotiating table by Russia, must regain its rightful place by affirming its own views on NATO strategy and  developing diplomatic initiatives at the European and United Nations level. The Union must integrate measures designed to deter war – Germany, for example, must declare that if the Ukrainian border is violated, the Nord Stream II gas pipeline will not come into operation – with the longer term perspective of reviving Mikhail Gorbachev’s project for the Common European Home. The European Union should aim in building  a new European order, as Emmanuel Macron suggested in the European Parliament and as he has since tried to negotiate.

Indeed, the gradual integration of Ukraine into a democratic Europe is the best guarantee for peace.  This, in turn, implies support for Ukraine’s economic development, an intensification of the rule-of-law and guarantees to protect the rights of the 17 per cent-strong Russian minority of the population, as well as a major commitment to Ukraine’s human rights organizations  and  civil society .

Autocratic nationalism is, as we know, a threat to democracy in many NATO member countries – even in the United States. So, by opposing Putin’s autocratic nationalism, Europeans and North Americans are also defending their own democracies.

Putin, like Donald Trump, supports the European far right, as shown by the funding of France’s far-right leader Marine Le Pen’s 2017 presidential campaign. It is no surprise that Le Pen and Zemmour voiced their support to Putin’s ambitions over Ukraine.

Everything we know about Putin’s policy would make it incomprehensible that politicians who call themselves left-wing could justify Russia’s interference in Ukraine.  Whoever was against the war in Iraq must necessarily be against the war in Ukraine. In short, to reject nationalism and the extreme right in Western Europe, is to fight for peace overall!


[1] Founder of Forum Demos, former Director of the European Uninon Insitut for Security Studies

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