From cold war to hot peace

Image: Eugenio Barboza


The first casualty of the war in Ukraine was universality

With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we are entering a new phase of war and global politics. In addition to an increased risk of nuclear catastrophe, we are already in a perfect storm of mutually reinforcing global crises – the pandemic, climate change, biodiversity loss, and food and water shortages. The situation exhibits a basic folly: at a time when humanity's very survival is threatened by ecological factors (as well as others), when addressing these threats should be prioritized above all else, our primary concern has suddenly shifted – again – to a new political crisis. Just when global cooperation is needed more than ever, the “clash of civilizations” returns in full force.

Why does it happen? As is often the case, a little Hegel can go a long way towards answering this question. At Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel describes the famous dialectic of master and slave, two “self-consciousnesses” who find themselves in a life-or-death struggle. If each of them is willing to risk his life to win, and if both persist in this goal, there is no winner: one dies, but the survivor has no one left to acknowledge his own existence. The implication is that all of history and culture rests on a fundamental compromise: in direct confrontation, one of them “looks away”, unwilling to go through with it, remaining a slave.

But Hegel would be quick to note that there can be no final or enduring compromise between states. Relations between sovereign nation-states are permanently under the shadow of potential war, for each epoch of peace is but a temporary armistice. Each State disciplines and educates its own members, guaranteeing civic peace among them. Now, this process produces an ethic that ultimately demands acts of heroism – a readiness to sacrifice one's life for one's country. The savage and barbaric relations between states thus serve as the foundation of ethical life within states themselves.

North Korea represents the clearest example of this logic; there are signs that China is also moving in the same direction. According to friends in China (who are to remain unnamed), authors writing in military journals now complain that the Chinese army has not had a real war to test its fighting prowess. While the United States is continually testing its military as it was in Iraq, China has not since its failed intervention in Vietnam in 1979.

At the same time, official Chinese media have begun to suggest more openly, given the diminishing prospect of Taiwan's peaceful integration into China, that a military “liberation” of the rebellious island will be necessary. As ideological preparation for action, the Chinese propaganda machine has increasingly encouraged nationalist patriotism and suspicion of all things foreign, with frequent accusations that the US is eager to go to war over Taiwan. Last fall, Chinese officials advised the public to stock up on enough supplies to last for two months "just in case". It was a strange warning that many perceived as an announcement that war was imminent.

This trend goes directly against the urgent need to civilize our “civilizations”, establishing a new way for countries to relate to their neighbors. We need universal solidarity and cooperation among all human communities, but this goal has become much more difficult to achieve due to the increase in sectarian, religious and ethnic, “heroic” violence. There is also a readiness to sacrifice oneself (and the world) fighting for a specific cause.

In 2017, French philosopher Alain Badiou noted that the contours of a future war were already discernible. He predicted that “…the United States and its western partners, plus Japan on one side, China and Russia on the other, atomic weapons everywhere. We cannot fail to recall here a statement by Lenin: “either the revolution will prevent war or the war will unleash the revolution”. This is how we can define the ultimate ambition of the political work to come: for the first time in history, the first hypothesis – the revolution will prevent war – must come true, but not the second – a war will unleash the revolution. It was effectively the second hypothesis that materialized in Russia in the context of the First World War, and in China in the context of the second. But at what price! And with what long-term consequences!”


The limits of Realpolitik

Civilizing our “civilizations” will require radical social change – a real revolution. But we cannot wait for it to be triggered by a new war. The far more likely outcome of such a course would be the end of civilization as we know it, with the survivors (if any) organized into small authoritarian groups. We must have no illusions: in some basic sense, World War III has already begun, although for the time being it is still being waged mainly through intermediaries.

Abstract pleas for peace are not enough. “Peace” is not a term that makes it possible to draw a key political distinction now needed. Occupiers always sincerely desire peace in the territory they occupy. Nazi Germany wanted peace in occupied France, Israel wants peace in the occupied West Bank, and Russian President Vladimir Putin wants peace in Ukraine. As the philosopher Étienne Balibar once said, “pacifism is not an option”. The only way to avoid another Great War is to avoid the kind of "peace" that requires constant local wars to maintain.

Who can we trust under these conditions? We must place our trust in artists and thinkers or even in pragmatic practitioners of Realpolitik? The problem with artists and thinkers is that they too can lay the groundwork for war. Remember William Butler Yeats's well-appointed line: "I spread my dreams beneath your feet / Tread softly 'cause you'll tread on my dreams." We must apply the lesson contained in these lines to the poets themselves. When they spread their dreams under our feet, they must spread them carefully, because real people will read them and act upon them. Recall that the same Yeats continually flirted with fascism, even going so far as to express his approval of Germany's anti-Semitic Nuremberg laws in August 1938.

Plato's reputation suffers because of his claim that poets should be expelled from the city. However, this is quite sensible advice, judging by the experience of recent decades, when the pretext for ethnic cleansing was prepared by poets and “thinkers” like Putin's ideologue Aleksandr Dugin. There is no more ethnic cleansing without poetry, as we live in a supposedly post-ideological era. Since the great secular causes no longer have the strength to mobilize people for mass violence, a greater sacred motive is needed. Religion or ethnic belonging plays this role perfectly (pathological atheists who commit mass murder for pleasure are rare exceptions).

Realpolitik, therefore, does not seem to be a better guide. It has become a mere alibi for ideology; behold, this often evokes some hidden dimension behind the veil of appearances to obscure the crime that is being openly committed. This double mystification is often announced by describing a conflict situation as “complex”. An obvious fact – say, a case of brutal military aggression – is relativized by evoking that there is a “much more complex background”. The act of aggression is actually presented as an act of defense.

That's exactly what is happening today. Russia obviously attacked Ukraine; as a result, it is obviously targeting civilians, thereby displacing millions. And yet commentators and pundits are avidly looking for the “complexity” behind it.

There is complexity, of course. But that doesn't change the basic fact that Russia has advanced on Ukraine. Our mistake was that we didn't take Putin's threats literally enough; we thought he was just playing a game of strategic manipulation, driven by intemperance. Remember the famous joke that Sigmund Freud once told: “Two Jews met in a train carriage at a station in Galicia. "Where are you going?" asked one of them. “To Cracow,” replied the other. “What a liar you are!” - Interrupted the first. “If you say you're going to Kraków, you want me to believe you're going to Nuremberg. But I know that you are actually going to Krakow. So why are you lying to me?”

Putin announced a military intervention; at the time, we should have taken him literally when he said the motive was to pacify and “denazify” Ukraine. Instead, the censure by disappointed but “profound” strategists amounted to uttering: “why did you tell me you are going to occupy Lviv when you really want to occupy Lviv?”

This double mystification exposes the end of Realpolitik. As a rule, this position opposes the naivety of linking diplomacy and foreign policy to moral or political principles. However, in the current situation, it is the Realpolitik which is naive. It is naive to assume that the other side, the enemy, is also aiming for a limited pragmatic compromise.


strength and freedom

During the Cold War, the rules of behavior of the superpowers were clearly delineated by the doctrine of mutual assured destruction (MAD, mutual assured destruction). Each superpower could be sure that if it decided to launch a nuclear strike, the other side would respond with full destructive force. As a result, neither side could start a war with the other side.

On the other hand, when North Korean Kim Jong-un talks about delivering a devastating blow to the US, one can't help but wonder how he sees his own position. He speaks as if he didn't know that his country would also be destroyed. It's like he's playing a whole different game called NUTS (Nuclear Utilization Target Selection), in which the enemy's nuclear capabilities can be surgically destroyed before he can strike back.

In recent decades, the US has oscillated between MAD and NUTS. While they act as if they continue to rely on MAD logic in their dealings with Russia and China, they occasionally dream of a NUTS strategy, at least with regard to Iran and North Korea. With his delirium about the possibility of launching a tactical nuclear strike, Putin follows the same reasoning. The very fact that two directly contradictory strategies are being mobilized simultaneously by the same superpower attests to their fantasy character.

Unfortunately for the rest of us all, the madness is right around the corner. The superpowers are increasingly testing each other, experimenting with the use of proxies as they try to impose their own version of global rules. On March 5, Putin called the sanctions imposed on Russia “the equivalent of a declaration of war”. But he has repeatedly said since then that economic exchanges with the West should continue, stressing that Russia is upholding its financial commitments, that it continues to supply hydrocarbons to Western Europe.

In other words, Vladimir Putin is trying to impose a new model of international relations. Instead of cold war, there must be hot peace: a state of permanent hybrid warfare in which military interventions are declared under the guise of humanitarian and peacekeeping missions.

Thus, on February 15, the Duma (the Russian parliament) issued a statement expressing “its unequivocal and consolidated support for appropriate humanitarian measures aimed at providing support to residents of certain areas of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions of Ukraine who have expressed a desire to speak and write in Russian. They want religious freedom to be respected, saying they do not support the actions of the Ukrainian authorities that violate their rights and freedoms.”

How many times in the past have we heard similar arguments for US-led interventions in Latin America or the Middle East and North Africa? As Russia bombs cities, as it launches rockets into a maternity hospital in Ukraine, international trade must continue. Outside Ukraine, normal life must go on. This is what it means to have permanent global peace underpinned by endless peacekeeping interventions in isolated parts of the world.

Can anyone be free in such a situation? Following Hegel, we must make a distinction between abstract and concrete freedom. Abstract freedom is the ability to do what one wants regardless of social rules and customs; Concrete freedom is freedom conferred and sustained by rules and customs. I can only walk freely down a busy street when I can be reasonably sure that others on the street will behave civilly towards me – that drivers will obey traffic rules and that other pedestrians will not rob me.

But there are moments of crisis when abstract freedom must intervene. In December 1944, Jean-Paul Sartre wrote: “We were never as free as under the German occupation. We had lost all our rights, and our right to speak in the first place. They insulted us to our face. … And that's why the Resistance was a true democracy; for the soldier, as for his superior, the same danger lurked, the same solitude, the same responsibility, the same absolute freedom within the discipline”.

Sartre was describing abstract freedom, not concrete freedom. The latter was established when post-war normality occurred. In today's Ukraine, those who are fighting the Russian invasion are free and are fighting for unrestricted freedom. But that raises the question of how long the distinction can last. What happens if millions more people decide they must freely break the rules to protect their freedom? Isn't that what prompted a “Trumpist” mob to storm the US Capitol on January 6, 2021?


Not so good game

We still lack an adequate word for today's world. For her part, philosopher Catherine Malabou believes that we are witnessing the beginning of the “anarchist turn” of capitalism: how to describe this phenomenon of the decentralization of currencies, the end of state monopolies, the obsolescence of the mediating role of banks, the decentralization of exchanges and transactions? These phenomena may seem alluring, but with the gradual disappearance of state monopoly, the limits imposed by the state on ruthless exploitation and domination will also disappear. While anarcho-capitalism aims at transparency, it also “simultaneously authorizes the large-scale but opaque use of data, to “Dark web” and the fabrication of information”.

To avoid this descent into chaos, notes Malabou, it must be seen that policies increasingly follow a path of “fascist evolution”; with it also comes an environment of excessive security and a growth of military power. Such phenomena do not contradict an impulse towards anarchism. On the contrary, they indicate precisely the disappearance of the protective state; once its social function is eliminated, the obsolescence of its strength is replaced by the use of violence. Ultranationalism thus signals the death throes of national authority.

Viewed in these terms, the situation in Ukraine is not one nation-state attacking another nation-state. Instead, Ukraine is being attacked as if it were a country whose ethnic identity is denied by the aggressor. The invasion is justified in terms of geopolitical spheres of influence (which often extend far beyond ethnic spheres, as in the case of Syria). Russia refuses to use the word “war” for its “special military operation” not only to minimize the brutality of its intervention, but above all to make clear that war in the old sense of an armed conflict between nation-states is not applies.

The Kremlin would have us believe that the Russian military is only guaranteeing “peace” in what it considers to be its geopolitical sphere of influence. In fact, it is also intervening through representatives in Bosnia and Kosovo. On March 17, the Russian ambassador to Bosnia, Igor Kalabukhov, explained that “if [Bosnia] decides to become a member of any alliance [such as NATO], that is our business. There will be a response from us. The example of Ukraine shows what to expect. If there is any threat, we will respond.”

Furthermore, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov even suggested that the only comprehensive solution would be to demilitarize all of Europe, with Russia and its army keeping the peace through occasional humanitarian interventions. Ideas similar to the latter abound in the Russian press. As political commentator Dmitry Evstafiev explains in a recent interview given to a Croatian publication: “A new Russia is born that makes it clear that it does not see you, Europe, as a partner. Russia has three partners: USA, China and India. You are for us a trophy that will be divided between us and the Americans. You still don't understand this, although we are already getting very close to that realization.

Dugin, Putin's court philosopher, grounds the Kremlin's position through a strange version of historicist relativism. In 2016, he said: “Postmodernity shows that all supposed truth is a matter of belief. So let's believe in what we do, believe in what we say. And that is the only way to define truth. So we have our special Russian truth that you need to accept…. If the United States fails to start a war, it must be recognized that the United States is no longer that single master. And [with] the situation in Syria and Ukraine, Russia is saying, 'No, you're not the boss anymore.' This is the question of who rules the world. Only war can really decide that.”

This raises an obvious question: What about the people of Syria and Ukraine? Can't they also choose their truth and their beliefs? Or are they just a playground – or a battleground – for the big “bosses”? The Kremlin would say they don't count in the grand division of power. Within the four spheres of influence, there are only peacekeeping interventions. War proper only happens when the four great chiefs cannot agree on the boundaries of their spheres – as in the case of China's claims to Taiwan and the South China Sea.


A new non-alignment

But if we are mobilized only by the threat of war, not the threat to our environment, the freedom we will gain if we win may not be worth it. We are faced with an impossible choice: if we make compromises to keep the peace, we are fueling Russian expansionism, which only a “demilitarization” of the whole of Europe will satisfy. But if we endorse all-out confrontation, we run the high risk of precipitating a new world war. The only real solution is to change the lens through which we perceive the situation.

While the liberal-capitalist global order is obviously approaching a crisis on several levels, the war in Ukraine is being falsely and dangerously oversimplified. Global problems like climate change play no role in the hackneyed narrative that there is a showdown between barbaric, totalitarian countries and the free, civilized West. And yet, new wars and conflicts between great powers are also reactions to these problems. If survival on a troubled planet is at issue, one must secure a stronger position than others hold. Far from being a time for just clarifying the truth when basic antagonisms are exposed, the current crisis is a time of deep disappointment.

While we must strongly support Ukraine, we must avoid the fascination with war that has clearly gripped the imagination of those pushing for open confrontation with Russia. Something like a new non-aligned movement is needed, not in the sense that countries must be neutral in the ongoing war, but in the sense that we must question the whole notion of the “clash of civilizations”.

According to Samuel Huntington, who coined the term, the stage for a clash of civilizations was set at the end of the Cold War, when the "iron curtain" of Western ideology was replaced by the "velvet curtain of culture". At first glance, this bleak vision might seem the opposite of the end-of-history thesis advanced by Francis Fukuyama in response to the collapse of communism in Europe. What could be totally different from Fukuyama's pseudo-Hegelian idea? For him, the best possible social order that mankind could conceive of had finally turned out to be liberal capitalist democracy!

We can now see that the two views are fully compatible: the “clash of civilizations” is the politics that comes at the “end of history”. Ethnic and religious conflicts are the form of struggle that fits global capitalism. In an era of “post-politics” – when politics proper is gradually replaced by specialized social management – ​​the only remaining legitimate sources of conflict are cultural (ethnic, religious). The rise of “irrational” violence stems from the depoliticization of our societies.

Within this limited horizon, it is true that the only alternative to war is a peaceful coexistence of civilizations (of different “truths”, as Dugin put it, or, to use a more popular term today, of different “ways of life”). The implication is that forced marriages, homophobia or the rape of women who dare to go out in public alone are tolerable if they take place in another country, provided that country is fully integrated into the global marketplace.

The new non-alignment must broaden the horizon by recognizing that our struggle must be global – without ceasing to stand against Russophobia at all costs. We must offer our support to those who are protesting the invasion within Russia itself. They are not some abstract circles of internationalists; they are the real Russian patriots – the people who truly love their country and have been deeply ashamed of it since February 24th. There is no saying more morally repulsive and politically dangerous than “my country, right or wrong”. Unfortunately, the first casualty of the war in Ukraine was universality.

*Slavoj Žižek, professor of philosophy at the European Graduate School, he is international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities at the University of London. Author, among other books, of In defense of lost causes (boitempo).

Originally published on the portal Project syndicate.

Translated by Eleutério Prado.


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