War in Ukraine – the conjuncture and the system



The cosmopolitan, pacifist and humanitarian project of the 1990s was trampled by American power

“Throughout history, two things have become clearer: first, wars increase the ties of integration and dependence between the great territorial powers of this system that was born in Europe from the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries; secondly, the expansive powers in the “game of wars” cannot destroy their competitors/opponents, or are obliged to recreate them… And this is perhaps the greatest secret of this system: the “expansive power” itself is the one who creates or invents – ultimately – its competitors and adversaries, indispensable for its own accumulation of power”. (José Luís Fiori. “Formation, expansion and limits of global power”, in the american power, Ed. Voices).

It is very common to talk about the acceleration of historical time, although nobody knows exactly what this means, or why this happens. Everyone recognizes, however, that these are moments when important facts and decisions are concentrated and precipitated, significantly altering the course of history. And today there is a great deal of consensus that something like that happened at the turn of the 1990s, causing a radical change in the global geopolitical landscape in the last decade of the XNUMXth century.

It all began in a surprising way, in the early hours of November 9th to 10th, 1989, when the gates were opened and the wall that divided the city of Berlin was knocked down, separating the “liberal West” from the “communist East”. The most important, however, occurred soon after, with the chain process of socialist regime change in Central and Eastern Europe, which led to the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the reunification of Germany on November 3, 1990, culminating in the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War in 1991.

At that moment, many celebrated the definitive victory (which later was not confirmed) of “liberal democracy” and the “market economy” against their great adversaries and competitors of the 1991th century: “nationalism”, “fascism” and, finally, , "communism". However, what actually materialized at that turn in history was an old almost utopian dream or project of philosophers and jurists of the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries, and of international theorists of the XNUMXth century: the emergence of a global, quasi-monopoly political power, capable of imposing and protecting a peaceful world order guided by the values ​​of “Western civilization”. A thesis that could finally be tested after the overwhelming victory of the United States in the Gulf War, in XNUMX.

Thirty years later, however, the world scenario has changed radically. In the first place, the States and the “great powers”, with their borders and national interests, returned to the epicenter of the world system, and the old “geopolitics of nations” returned to function as the compass of the interstate system; “economic protectionism” was once again practiced by the great powers; and the great “humanitarian objectives” of the 1990s, and the very ideal of economic globalization, were relegated to the back burner of the international agenda. More than this, the ghost of “right-wing nationalism” and “fascism” has returned to haunt the world, and what is more surprising, it has penetrated American society and the political system, culminating in the victory of the extreme right in the 2017 US presidential election.

In these thirty years, the world has witnessed the vertiginous economic rise of China, the reconstruction of Russia's military power and the decline of the global power of the European Union (EU). But perhaps the most surprising thing was the way in which the United States itself began to ignore, attack or destroy the global institutions responsible for managing the international liberal order established in the 90s, under its own tutelage, from the moment it declared war against the Afghanistan, in 2001, and against Iraq, in 2003, outside – or explicitly against – the position of the United Nations Security Council.

Finally, and perhaps most intriguing, is that the unipolar power of this new system, which would theoretically be responsible for safeguarding world peace, was at war during almost all three decades after the end of the Cold War. Starting immediately with the Gulf War, in 1991, when the American Armed Forces presented to the world their new war technologies and their “new way of waging war”, with the intensive use of weapons operated at a distance, which allowed them an immediate victory and devastating, with a minimum of losses and a maximum of destruction of its adversaries. There were 42 days of continuous air strikes, followed by a swift and forceful ground invasion, with about 4 American casualties and about 650 Iraqi dead. A demonstration of strength that made clear to the world the difference in strength that existed within the international system after the end of the Soviet Union.

After that, the United States made 48 military interventions in the 1990s and engaged in several “never-ending” wars on an ongoing basis during the first two decades of the 24st century. During this period, the Americans made 100 military interventions around the world and carried out 2016 aerial bombings, and in 26.171 alone, still during the government of Barack Obama, they dropped XNUMX bombs on seven countries. simultaneously.[1] This ended, definitively, the expectation of the 1648th, 2008th and XNUMXth centuries that a “superstate” or a “hegemonic power” would finally manage to ensure lasting peace within the interstate system created by the Peace of Westphalia in XNUMX. in the period when humanity would have been closer to a “perpetual peace”, tutored by a single “global power”, what was witnessed was an almost continuous succession of wars involving the dominant power itself (Fiori, XNUMX).

These are numbers that leave no doubt as to the fact that the cosmopolitan, pacifist and humanitarian project of the 1990s was trampled by American power itself. An extraordinarily intriguing finding, particularly if we take into account that it was not an accident on the way, or just a dated defensive reaction. On the contrary, everything points to the unfolding of a central tendency that was unveiled through a succession of wars, be they defensive, humanitarian, combating terrorism, or simply preserving the positions of power of the great powers within the international system.

The analysis of these wars that preceded and partly explain the current Ukrainian War, added to the wars of the XNUMXth century, allows us to draw some conclusions or hypotheses that transcend this conjuncture, projecting themselves on the long-term history of war and peace through the evolution of human societies. First, the vast majority of wars are not aimed at achieving peace or justice, nor do they necessarily lead to peace. They seek above all the victory and submission or “conversion” of the adversaries, and the expansion of the power of the victors.

“Peace” is not synonymous with “order”, and the existence of an “international order” does not guarantee peace. Just look at what happened in the last 30 years, with the “liberal-cosmopolitan order” that was tutored by the United States after the end of the Cold War, and which became one of the most violent periods in American history. As had already happened, also, with the “international order” that was born after the Peace of Westphalia, a period in which Great Britain, alone, started a new war every three years, between 1652 and 1919, the same periodicity that would have the American wars, between 1783 and 1945 (Holmes, 2001).

Within the interstate system, the “dominant power”, even after conquering the condition of a “superstate”, continues expanding and making wars, and needs to do so in order to preserve its already acquired monopoly position. The involvement of the US, for that very reason, the “dominant power”, has no obligatory commitment to the status quo that it protects and helped to create. And, many times, they are forced to modify or destroy this status quo, once its rules and institutions begin to obstruct the expansion of their power (Fiori, 2008).

Peace is almost always a period of “truce”[2] that lasts the time imposed by the “expansive compulsion” of the winners, and by the need for “revenge” of the defeated. This time may be longer or shorter, but it does not interrupt the preparation process for new wars, whether on the part of the victors,[3] be on the part of the defeated.[4] That is why it can be metaphorically said that every peace is always “pregnant” with a new war.

In every time and place, war appears undisguisedly associated with the existence of hierarchies and inequalities, or more precisely, with the existence of “power” and the “struggle for power”.

If these hypotheses are not refuted, we could conclude that the Kantian project of “perpetual peace” is not just a great utopia; it is in fact a “square circle”, that is, an absolute impossibility. Despite this, “peace” remains a desire of all men, and appears in the plane of their individual and social conscience, as a moral obligation, a political imperative and an almost universal ethical utopia. In this plan, war and peace must be seen and analyzed as inseparable dimensions of the same contradictory, perennial and agonizing process of men's yearning and search for a moral transcendence that is very difficult to achieve.[5]

*Jose Luis Fiori Professor at the Graduate Program in International Political Economy at UFRJ. Author, among other books, of Global power and the new geopolitics of nations (Boitempo).



ABBE DE SAINT PIERRE. Project to perpetuate peace in Europe. Brasília: Editora UnB, 2003.

BOBBIO, N. The problem of war and the paths to peace. São Paulo: Editora Unesp, 2002.

FIORI, JL “The capitalist interstate system in the first decade of the XNUMXst century”. In: FIORI, JL et al. The Myth of the Collapse of American Power. Rio de Janeiro: Editora Record, 2008.

HOBBES, T. Leviathan, or Matter, Form, and Power of an Ecclesiastical and Civil State. São Paulo: Victor Civita, 1983 (Collection Thinkers).

HOLMES, R. (Edit) The Oxford companion to military history, Oxford University Press, 2001



[1] According to data presented by Micah Zenko, an expert on US foreign policy, published on the official website of the Council of Foreign Relations (www.cfr.org).

[2] “[…] peace is just a long truce, obtained through a state of growing, persistent and progressive tension” (Bobbio, 2002, p. 73).

[3] “For as the nature of bad weather does not consist in two or three showers, but in a tendency to rain which lasts several days at a time, so the nature of war does not consist in actual fighting, but in the known disposition to it, for as long as there is no guarantee to the contrary. All the remaining time is peace” (Hobbes, 1983, p. 76).

[4] “The desire to make amends for an injury that one believes he has suffered, to avenge himself by reprisals, to take or regain what is considered his property, envy of power or reputation, the desire to mortify and demeaning a neighbor whom one thinks there is reason to hate: these are the many sources of quarrels that arise in the hearts of men and that can only produce incessant clashes, whether with reason and with a pretext, or without reason and without a pretext” (Abbé de Saint Pierre, 2003, p. 18)

[x] This article brings together excerpts from the preface of the book edited by JL Fiori, about peace, published by Editora Vozes in 2021. Its original title is “Kant’s paradox and the lightness of peace”


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