Ukraine, Gaza wars reveal how, for the West, it’s a jungle out there

Feb 19, 2024
Ukraine and Israel flags together textile cloth fabric texture. Image:iStock

The idea of a Western garden under threat from the unruly jungles of the rest of the world is at the heart of today’s global rifts. The Ukraine conflict basically pushed Russia out of the Western garden, just as the Gaza conflict revealed that Israel, as a Western outpost, can commit atrocities with impunity.

Travelling in the deep jungles of Danum Valley in Sabah last month, I had little access to the internet and more time to reflect on why we are in a permacrisis.

In 2022, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell controversially described Europe as “a garden” where “everything works” in “the best combination of political freedom, economic prosperity and social cohesion” – unlike most of the rest of the world, which he likened to “a jungle” that “could invade the garden”.

“The gardeners,” he added, “have to go to the jungle. Europeans have to be much more engaged with the rest of the world.”

Last year, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan used “small yard and high fence” when talking about protecting critical US technologies from China. The idea of a Western garden under threat from the unruly jungles of the rest of the world is at the heart of today’s global rifts.

The beating of war drums at the borders of the West and the Rest not only draws a line between Western civilisation and the perceived barbarism of the Rest, it also shows the West’s emphasis on science and rationality as a cover for its raw emotions over its identity and power insecurities.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the Ukraine and Gaza wars. The West explains both conflicts in terms of standing on principle – the enemy struck the first blow and is therefore the bully – ignoring history and context. The Ukraine conflict basically pushed Russia out of the Western garden, just as the Gaza conflict revealed that Israel, as a Western outpost, can commit what much of the world sees as genocide on Palestinians with impunity.

The West draws its foundational ideas and philosophy from Christian, Greek and Roman culture. The Bible preaches that Man lived pristinely in the Garden of Eden, until Eve ate the forbidden apple and they were driven out into the wilderness. Yet in the 15th century, Europe emerged from its Dark Ages by largely learning from Arab, Christian and Jewish scholars in Andalucian Greek, Chinese, Indian and Persian philosophy, mathematics and science.

The fall of eastern Roman capital of Constantinople in 1453 cut off European trade to the East, forcing Genoan, Portuguese and Spanish traders to seek access via Africa and the Americas. Around this time, edicts from the Catholic Church granted colonial Portugal and Spain the rights of “discovery”, authorising them to seize non-Christian lands and subjugate non-Christian people.

Collectively known as the Doctrine of Discovery, these papal decrees were famously used in 1823 by the US Supreme Court to rule for the possession rights of those who had “discovered” land, despite the indigenous natives living there. This doctrine was repudiated only in March last year. Even the United Nations took until 2007 to adopt its Declaration of Rights for Indigenous People.

The West cannot deny that its rise to hegemony was built on the conquest of lands and seas whose resources were exploited to power its development. There are cases of the genocide of indigenous peoples throughout colonial history, the repercussions of which are still unfolding today. Decolonisation is a long process and the Rest are still seeking their own paths of sustainable growth.

For some, the history is fresh. Last month, the late Hage Geingob, former president of Namibia, took umbrage at Germany’s rejection of allegations that Israel was committing genocide.

He reminded the world of how imperial Germany “committed the first genocide of the 20th century in 1904-1908, in which tens of thousands of innocent Namibians died in the most inhumane and brutal conditions”. He called the German decision “shocking” and the case against Israel brought by South Africa at the UN a “morally upright indictment”.

Germany formally described the atrocities in Namibia as a genocide for the first time only in 2021, apologising and promising aid of over €1 billion (US$1.08 billion) for Namibian infrastructure and development.

One could conclude that the West is protecting its garden, exercising its right to eliminate the weeds and fight to keep out the jungle. The trouble with this argument is whether the garden can exist independent of the jungle when both are on the same planet. And there are those in the jungle who feel they are more civilised than those in the garden.

The point is that we should all live in peace and be tolerant of our differences, as war only begets more war. Israel can undertake its brutal action on the Palestinians in large part because it possesses nuclear weapons, whereas its neighbours do not. This only propels nuclear proliferation, which the West cannot fully control without negotiations with the Rest.

The United States can no longer afford “forever wars”; its military budget already exceeds its annual trade deficit. As for the European Union, the €50 billion facility set up to support Ukraine this year is equivalent to 26 per cent of the EU budget by commitments or more than a third by payments. War is being financed by printing money or incurring more debt.

Wars can end with a messy negotiated peace when both sides become exhausted. But, in a nuclear war, an unthinkable yet inevitable outcome given the current trajectory, no one’s garden will survive – all will return to nature.


Republished from the South China Morning Post, February 10, 2024


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