Russia, Ukraine, familiar refrains and reflexesMar 20, 2022
It is no exaggeration to echo Tom Paine: “these are the times that try men’s souls.” It is an immemorial abode and custom, brought on this time by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a provocation undoubtedly deserving of outrage and indignation and just, legal, moral and ethical response.
All have been forthcoming, but some have clearly exceeded these parameters and the situation now is one in which reflection and understanding are overborne by popular passions.
Writing in 1944, but not about the war then under way for half a decade, but about the conflict which had sundered his own country’s self-congratulatory notions about itself some sixty years earlier, the American poet and biographer, Carl Sandburg, captured the times with typical sensitivity:
Basically, the libretto and score are variations on the need to discipline and punish Russia for crimes against an entity referred to as the Rules Based International Order (RBIO). While the evidence indicates it has certainly committed both war crimes and crimes against humanity in breach of international law, the basis for accusing it of breaching the RBIO is contestable, mainly because that order itself is a conceptual and empirical mirage.
Worse, many of those who denounce Russia are successors to the scribes and Pharisees of Matthew’s (23:27) so excoriating dismissal: “Woe unto you . . . hypocrites! For ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness.”
Specifically, the problem is that, although the RBIO provides an imagined regime, a Camelot, against which to juxtapose Russia’s actions, it just mystifies the events of the last two weeks without acknowledging that the RBIO is a ridiculous vantage point from which to proclaim the moral high ground because those who practice power politics offend it’s norms as a matter of political and strategic choice.
Consider this: The four principles by which international politics operate so as to provide an ecology of global political order are proclaimed with what is essentially a religious fervour: state sovereignty, self-determination, the need for constitutional governments democratically ordained, and the protection of individuals and groups by a global of respect for human rights.
These are dogma, revealed over time as incontrovertible truths. They are also delusional. Any close examination of them produces the conclusion that they are either inadequately defined for content (human rights), or simply contradictory (state sovereignty versus self-determination). No matter, neither the dogma nor the offensive in its name ever abates. Indeed, they comprise the dreadful constants of chronic grand strategic force and fraud.
An understanding along the lines in no way absolves Russia’s invasion and the prosecution of its war in Ukraine. It also requires that an undiscriminating ethical and political scepticism be applied to those habits of mind which inevitably accompany events such as we have just witnessed. To read and watch their coverage by the mainstream western media makes this imperative.
What is most concerning are pronouncements and strategies that reduce a just response to the level of Shakespeare’s proud, ignorant and “angry ape” – a caricature of a just person. The mechanisms effecting this are quite straightforward: a narrative presented as an unambiguous morality tale; absolute demonisation of the enemy; deliberate exclusion of all embarrassing history especially as they relate to contributory, but not exculpatory causes of the crisis committed by, inter alia, NATO, and the US, and the tendency to obscure these defaults by media more interested in presenting the war as a series of human interest stories rather than the widely distributed obscenities of geopolitics and geostrategy. The root causes are as important as the pitiful consequences.
At times vanity, farce, and intellectual confusion break through and question whether there are any sentient and sober adults in charge. For vanity look no further than the Australian National University’s Statement on Ukraine. It is, to be clear, a principled statement and to be commended; at the same time, it is, from memory, without precedent and unlikely to be a precedent. As power within such institutions tends to align with power without, candour is never pushed to the point of indiscretion.
ANU, as an institution has remained silent on many outrages and atrocities in the past and that has been thought appropriate. Hitherto it has not thought of itself as a foreign policy actor; indeed, the very suggestion that it could have one begs myriad questions as to how it would be formulated, expressed, and executed.
It us fair, therefore, to ask “why now?” Equally, does the Statement indicate that ANU has developed its own foreign policy and will inveigh against all offenders against international law and international ethics? Or might it be the case that, serendipity and coincidence are at play? In which case, while the Statement accords with positions previously taken by its current Chancellor, and former Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, an all-embracing position of giving moral witness is not to be anticipated because that would alienate some of its benefactors. Hence, once the current war is over, it will revert to its traditional role as ‘persona muta.’
Coincidence, however might be a stretch. It is worth recalling that the current Chancellor, and former Foreign Minister, has traveled this road before. In 2013, in the guise of the New Colombo Plan (NCP), a “signature initiative which aims to lift knowledge of the Indo-Pacific in Australia” by way of various study programmes which are “intended to be transformational . . . both at the individual level and through expanding university, business and other stakeholder links,” the intention was to enlist Australian students studying under its aegis as “young ambassadors.”
Quite explicitly the attentive public was to understand the NCP in particular, and other study-abroad arrangements more generally, as part of the Australian Government’s diplomatic efforts to advance the country’s grand strategic objectives of security and prosperity.
As for farce and confusion, look no further than attempts to cast Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky as an Eastern European Winston Churchill. A superficial likeness is apparent: as with Churchill, he is person of great personal courage but with a difference – he is not, as was Churchill a racist.
Whether he shares another of Churchill’s defining characteristics – that of being an incompetent and disastrous strategist is a debate for another day but it is to be hoped that he will not repeat anything like Churchill’s cavalier exchange with Stalin in October 1944 in Moscow which, unbeknown to his US ally, concluded the “Percentages Agreement,” which conceded the Balkans and Eastern Europe to the Soviet postwar “sphere of influence.”
From what we know already, Zelensky shares some of the Churchillian DNA in which is stored the impulse for recklessness. In the first instance, he is beseeching NATO and the US to operate a “no-fly” zone over – a development that would almost certain escalate the current conflict exponentially. And he should be aware of this.
Second, he has implicitly attempted to blackmail NATO. In the wake of the Munich conference in late February both he and Ukraine’s ambassador to Germany warned that, if their country was unable to become part of the alliance, then the only remaining option is to rearm with nuclear weapons.
Consolations and advice? These are question for the future. May they stay that way. The present is fraught. We might reflect upon both the Rabbinic saying that the suffering of the present hour is enough for it, and the Sermon on the Mount’s summation that “sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.”