three wars

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By BOAVENTURA DE SOUSA SANTOS*

Russia's war of military aggression against Ukraine is the most visible, but it is neither the only nor the most serious for the future of the world.

We think with our knowledge and our language, but also with our body, from our roots, with our emotions, in the place and time where we are. We also think with our ignorance as long as we are aware of it, with our doubts as long as we do not convert them into cynicism, with our anxieties as long as we do not allow ourselves to be paralyzed by them. Thinking is therefore difficult whenever it is not a question of repeating what others think or what has already been thought. There are times in society when thinking becomes particularly difficult. These are moments of excessive triumphalist joy or excessive anguish in the face of an imminent tragedy, or even excessive confusion in the face of events so blindingly obvious that they produce blindness.

At such times, reflective thinking is not just thinking against the grain. It's thinking against the avalanche with the imminent risk of being swept away by it. In the last two years, we have gone through two moments of this type and it is natural for society to feel exhausted and perplexed and almost on the verge of giving up thinking. The two moments are of a very different nature, but they are equally overwhelming, at least for those who live in Europe.

The first moment was starred by the pandemic and translated into an excess of anguish in the face of an imminent tragedy, the threat of death of oneself or loved ones, a tragedy that came up in society by surprise and could hit us personally at any time. The second moment is the ongoing war in Ukraine, a moment of tragedy for those who unjustly suffer the consequences of the war and of perplexity at the way in which an event that is certainly complex has been analyzed in such a crudely simplistic way and with so much media unanimity. It is not excluded that the close succession of the two moments contributes to the intellectual and even emotional disarming that we are experiencing. But it is important not to give up thinking, thinking about the unthinkable (because it is absent from what is heard or read) and even the unthinkable (because it conflicts with the obsessive media narrative). My exercise in this text focuses on the second moment, the war in Ukraine, not least because I have already dedicated a book to the first, the pandemic (The Future Starts Now. From Pandemic to Utopia. Editions 70).

The unique narrative, bombarded 24 hours a day in the media of the North Atlantic axis, in which we must include Brazil, Australia and Japan, has the following characteristics: the unprovoked invasion of a defenseless country in violation of international law and caused by an unscrupulous dictator; the serious consequences of the return of war after nearly eighty years of peace; a conflict in which civilization confronts barbarism, democracy confronts dictatorship; the moral imperative to take sides, with conditional and even less neutral positions not being admissible; it is a crusade against evil and evil is not negotiated, it is eliminated. To think about the current context is to subject this narrative point by point to the scrutiny of reason and reflection. It involves many risks, namely that of being considered a traitor, perhaps in the service of the enemy. Certain of these risks (by the way, already realized), I dare to think. But first, I want to mention the three main mechanisms that are triggered to discredit the critique of the single narrative.

They are: to contextualize is to relativize; to explain is to justify; to understand is to forgive. The cumulative objective of the three mechanisms is not aimed at destroying the arguments invoked against the single narrative, but rather at destroying or neutralizing those who invoke them. This is called in communication theory character assassination. Discrediting or demonizing the author rather than refuting the arguments. This objective has an enormous expansive potential because through it many other motives can be mobilized, not related to the theme, but related to the author: resentments or personal revenge, discrediting political options (namely from the left) or others, conveying ethnic- racial or gender. These mechanisms are known, but their effectiveness is relative.

It tends to be greater the more destabilizing the narrative they seek to silence is, that is, the greater its subjective gravity. For example, the severity of the death toll in a tragedy is more or less intense the closer we feel to the dead or the more details we know about their death. Aware of this, what I intend to analyze in this text is not intended to relativize, justify or forgive the illegal invasion of Ukraine or its tragic consequences. It aims, on the contrary, to elucidate the reasons that make them particularly serious manifestations of the dangers facing the world.

 

Several wars in one war

Russia's war of military aggression against Ukraine is the most visible, but it is neither unique nor the most serious for the future of the world. There are three ongoing wars: the military, the economic and the media. Military war is only formally between Russia and Ukraine. In fact, it is a military war between Russia and the US fought in Europe and using the martyr Ukraine as a sacrificial country for the proxy war between the two powers. A proxy war it is the war in which the contenders use third countries so that the confrontation between them is not direct. Russia is at war with the presence of NATO on its borders and NATO is a military organization currently serving US geopolitical interests. Suffice it to recall that NATO's supreme commander for Europe is “traditionally a US military”. It is under US pressure that arms and fighters are being sent to Ukraine and all European countries are raising their military budgets. This military war is a sign of the posthumous life of the Cold War, since, like this one, it is dominated by the doctrine of zones of influence.

Russia continues to imagine the countries around it (that belonged to the Soviet Union and, before that, to the Russian Empire) as countries in its zone of influence, just as the USA considers Central and Latin America as its zone of influence, in fact, recently upgraded from backyard (backyard) the garden in front of the house (front yard). I hope this promotion is not a poisoned gift. The two contenders have in common a very relative vision of the self-determination of peoples. They only promote it when it suits them.

The gravity of this dimension of the military war lies in the fact that, although Russia (then the USSR) recognized the USA's zone of influence in 1962 (the missile crisis), the latter did not recognize the Russian zone of influence. They assume that the end of the Soviet Union was a defeat for Russia and a victory for the US, which was obviously not the case. For the US, all of Europe (which for them does not include Russia), not just the former “Western Europe”, is now its zone of influence. What does President Biden intend with the regime change in Russia it is not democracy, it is rather the recognition of this zone of influence.

The second ongoing war is the economic war. This war is between the US and China. Russia is a great military power (greater number of nuclear warheads), but its GDP is lower than that of Texas. On the contrary, China will be the largest economy in the world in the early 2030s and is already today the great rival of the USA, the “existential threat” to this country. It could even be said that in this war there may also be a proxy war, but in this case the country of sacrifice is Russia itself. Russia is China's most important ally and the overland path for China's westward expansion.

Defeating Russia means stopping China, just as in the coup in Ukraine in 2014, encouraged by the US, it was about blocking Russia's rapprochement. Seemingly unstoppable, China's economic expansion is an existential threat to the US, in the most literal sense of the term, because it could spell the end of the only factor that maintains US primacy in the world: the dollar as the international reserve currency. That alone explains why, at this moment, at least 25 countries are subject to US economic sanctions and that these more or less seriously affect their economy. Ongoing negotiations between China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iran, and between India and Russia, to use other currencies in their transactions pose a threat to this status quo. But the ongoing economic war has yet another dimension: making Europe more dependent on the US economy and increasing military spending that fuels the current tree of the US military-industrial complex.

Finally, a media war is underway, and it is in this war that Russia's defeat occurs most quickly and most resoundingly. The war in Ukraine is a live, incessantly live war. In no recent war has it been possible to see so closely the horrible sacrifice of those who are victims of it. Many other wars are ongoing in our time dominated by information and communication technologies, but never before has it been possible to see the horror of war live as in this war, above all the horror of civilians, by definition, innocent.

In the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Palestine, Somalia, Western Sahara, reporters (mainly Western) only saw it later (when they saw it) or saw it from afar. There were many red lines that journalistic ethics or military security did not allow crossing. Many times, journalists were only authorized to report with the allied army and to transmit images authorized by it (embedded journalists). We didn't see bloodied faces or bodies torn apart, or bombed hospitals, or thousands of fleeing refugees, not so many bloodless children crying, not so many abandoned dolls. We also never saw reporters include in the relevant information the color of the interviewee's eyes, “the eighteen-year-old girl with blue eyes sitting at the station”. Even if the report was intended for audiences where blue eyes are rare.

But above all, we have not seen the horror of war in Ukraine itself, between 2014 and 2022, in the Donbass region conducted by neo-Nazi militias against civilians with the same eye color; nor the same hospitals with the same scenes of blood and refugees fleeing (albeit in another direction). As I said and I repeat, for me, life is an unconditional value and before it the number of deaths is always relative, but even so, in the Ukrainian civil war in Donbass, between 10 thousand and 14 thousand civilians died, also Ukrainians and probably with blue eyes. By the end of March, about 1000 civilians died in the war with Russia.

*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).

 

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