Europe - one hundred years of solitude

Image: Alexey Demidov


Today, Europe is a corner of the world, and the war in Ukraine will make it even smaller.

One hundred years after the First World War, European leaders are sleepwalking towards a new total war. As in 1914, they think that the war in Ukraine will be limited and short-lived. In 1914, it was said in the ministries that the war would last three weeks. It was four years and more than 20 million dead. As in 1918, today the position dominates that it is necessary to exemplarily punish the aggressor power in order to leave it prostrate and humiliated for a long time.

In 1918, the vanquished power was Germany (and also the Ottoman Empire). There were dissenting voices (John Maynard Keynes and others) who felt that the total humiliation of Germany would be disastrous for the reconstruction of Europe and for lasting peace on the continent and in the world. They were not heard, and 21 years later Europe was at war again. Five years of destruction and more than 70 million deaths followed. History does not repeat itself and apparently teaches nothing. But it serves to illustrate and show similarities and differences. Let's look at both of them in the light of two illustrations.

In 1914, Europe had lived in relative peace for a hundred years, with many wars, but circumscribed and of short duration. The secret of this peace was the Vienna Conference (1814-1815). At that conference, it was a matter of putting an end to the cycle of transformation, turbulence and war that had begun with the French Revolution and worsened with the Napoleonic wars. The pact with which the conference ended was signed nine days before Napoleon's final defeat at Waterloo.

At that conference, conservative forces dominated and the period that followed was called Restoration (of the old European order). The Vienna meeting has, however, another characteristic that reminds us of it now. It was presided over by a great Austrian statesman, Klemens von Metternich, whose main concern was to incorporate all the European powers, both winners and losers, in order to guarantee a lasting peace. Of course, the losing power (France) would have to suffer the consequences (territorial losses), but the pact was signed by it and by all the other powers (Austria, England, Russia and Prussia) and with conditions imposed on all in order to guarantee lasting peace in Europe. And so it was fulfilled.

There are many differences in relation to our time. The main one is that this time the theater of war is Europe, but the parties to the conflict are a European power (Russia) and a non-European power (the US). War has all the characteristics of a proxy war, a war in which the contenders take advantage of another country (Ukraine), the country of sacrifice, to achieve geostrategic objectives that far transcend those of that country and even those of the region in which it is integrated (Europe).

Truly, Russia is only at war with Ukraine because it is at war with NATO, an organization whose Supreme Allied Commander for Europe is “traditionally an American commander”. An organization that, especially after the end of the first Cold War, has served US geostrategic interests. Russia illegally and brutally sacrifices the principles of self-determination of peoples, of which it has already been an important herald in previous geopolitical contexts, to assert its security concerns after not seeing them recognized by peaceful means and by an undisguised imperial nostalgia .

For its part, the US has been committed since the end of the first Cold War to deepen Russia's defeat, a defeat that was perhaps more self-inflicted than provoked by the adversary's superiority. For a brief period, the diplomatic dispute in Washington was between “partnership for peace” and “the expansion of NATO to guarantee the security of the emerging countries of the Soviet bloc”. With President Bill Clinton it was the latter policy that prevailed.

For different reasons, also for the US, Ukraine is the country of sacrifice. Ukraine's war is subject to the aim of inflicting an unconditional defeat on Russia which, preferably, has to last until it provokes the regime change in Moscow. The duration of the war is subject to this objective. If the British Prime Minister is entitled to claim that sanctions against Russia will continue whatever Russia's position is now, what is Russia's incentive to end the war? After all, is it enough for Vladimir Putin to be removed (as happened to Napoleon in 1815) or is it Russia that has to be removed to stop China's expansion? there was also regime change in humiliated Germany in 1918, but its course would end in Hitler and an even more devastating war.

The political greatness of President Volodymyr Zelenskii could be construed as the courageous patriot who defends his country from the invaders to the last drop of blood, as well as that of the courageous patriot who, faced with the danger of so many innocent deaths and given the asymmetry of military strength , manages, with the support of its allies, a strong negotiation and a dignified peace. The fact that the first construction prevails today is not due to President Zelenskii's personal inclinations.

The second illustration for seeing similarities and differences with the recent past concerns Europe's geopolitical position. During the two world wars of the 4th century, Europe was the self-proclaimed center of the world. That's why the wars were worldwide. About XNUMX million of the “European” troops were in fact African and Asian and many thousands of non-European deaths were the price of sacrifice for being inhabitants of colonies of distant countries involved in wars that did not concern them.

Today, Europe is a corner of the world, and Ukraine's war will make it even smaller. For centuries it was the extreme of Eurasia, that great land mass between China and the Iberian Peninsula, where knowledge, products, scientific innovations, cultures circulated. Much of what was later attributed to European exceptionalism (from the scientific revolution of the 1800th century to the industrial revolution of the XNUMXs) is neither understood nor would have occurred without this centuries-old circulation.

The war in Ukraine, especially if it continues, runs the risk not only of amputating Europe from one of its historical powers (Russia), but also of isolating it from the rest of the world and, most especially, from China. The world is immensely larger than what you see through European glasses. Seen through these glasses, Europeans have never felt so strong, so united with their larger partner, so confidently on the right side of history, with the world of the “liberal order” dominating the planet and so strong enough to venture out in the future. to conquer or, at least, neutralize China, after having devastated its main partner, Russia.

Seen through non-European glasses, Europe and the US stand proudly almost alone, perhaps capable of winning a battle, but certainly on the way to defeat in the war of history. More than half of the world's population lives in countries that have decided not to impose sanctions on Russia. Many of those who voted (and rightly so) at the UN against the illegal invasion of Ukraine did so with justifications based on their historical experience, which was not that of being invaded by Russia, but rather by the USA, England, France, Israel .

His decisions were not the result of ignorance, but of precaution. How can they trust countries that, after having created a system of financial transfers (SWIFT) with the aim of defending economic transactions from political interference, expel a country for political reasons? In countries that claim to be able to confiscate the financial and gold reserves of sovereign countries like Afghanistan, Venezuela and now Russia? In countries that proclaim freedom of expression as a sacrosanct universal value, but resort to censorship as soon as they feel unmasked by it? In supposedly democracy-loving countries that don't hesitate to provoke coups whenever those elected don't suit their interests? In countries for which, according to the conveniences of the moment, the “dictator” Nicolas Maduro could suddenly become a trading partner? The world has lost its innocence, if it ever had one.

*Boaventura de Sousa Santos is full professor at the Faculty of Economics at the University of Coimbra. Author, among other books, of The end of the cognitive empire (authentic).

Originally published in the newspaper Public.


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