By Jonathan Power
By one of those quirks of opportunity, I was able to spend most of the morning of a Good Friday talking with Jose Saramago, that year’s winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, a near neighbour to my daughter’s home in the Canary Islands.
The writer, who left his native country, Portugal, because of the outcry over his book, “The Gospel according to Jesus Christ”, was outraged at the bombing of Yugoslavia, angry in particular at those who tried to put a moral gloss on it.
“We are in the hands of inconsequential people. Sensible people have little influence in the world. We do what we can, we can’t do much.” “What irony”, I replied, “that an anti-Vietnam war protestor who went to Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship should have re-ignited the Cold War.”
Today, if Saramago were alive, I’m sure he would be saying the same thing about the war in Ukraine. When I talked to him, he was also down on Clinton for starting the expansion of NATO up to Russia’s borders at a time when Russia and the West were living in harmony. This, as the Pope recently put it, was “poking” the Russians. And I’m sure Saramago would have wanted President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to say that Ukraine wanted to remain neutral and not join NATO (as does Austria) and so have avoided this war.
As usual in wartime, the anti-war faction is in the minority. It is painful to see how the relatively cultured (never have there been so many good books read) and now very broadly educated Western peoples still rally instinctively to their leaders’ call to war, for no better reason than their chauvinistic juices are being stirred. If only patriotism were the last refuge of scoundrels such as Slobodan Milosevic and Vladimir Putin, but sadly all-over western Europe and North America war is making a lot of people’s blood run faster.
It was the same at the onset of the war in Vietnam, a state of affairs seemingly wiped from the consciousness of our present leaders. Never has a generation so quickly taken on the sins of the fathers, despite having been nurtured on their mistakes. Are we no better than those human beings whom Erasmus chided for being worse than animals “who don’t in packs hunt their own kind”?
The lesson of millennia of war-making is that war doesn’t take us very far: that the cost in the blood of our loved ones is rarely commensurate with the outcome. Who today can put up a case for the First World War or Vietnam or the three wars between India and Pakistan, or Iraq or Afghanistan?
World War II still remains the only defensible war of the last most bloody of centuries (in which the Anglo-Saxons have fought more than anyone else)—because of the concentration camps, which, in point of fact, were nothing to do with the initial reasons for declaring war. Hitler, at first, was merely applying a larger-than-life version of the Wilsonian principle of self-determination for German minorities outside the Reich.
Only when it came to Hitler trying to reclaim Danzig and the West Prussian corridor from Poland did Britain say “enough”. Even then, as a number of historians pointed out, a workable compromise was available, but Britain and France would not countenance it. War fever clouded their leaders’ judgement.
President Bill Clinton, Prime Minister Tony Blair, “Green” German foreign minister Joschka Fischer and Barack Obama’s secretary of state, John Kerry, have all in their time struggled against the kind of war-making they later supported. But once in office they discarded their beliefs in the face of the juggernaut of “professional” foreign policy advice, possibly over-awed by the sophistication, knowledge and self-confidence of this class when meeting them face to face in a sustained way for perhaps the first time in their lives.
It is true that the intellectuals of the foreign policy establishment, whether they be the late Zbigniew Brzezinski of the US, Pierre Lellouche of France, Pauline Neville-Jones of the UK or Henry Kissinger of the US, are no fools.
There is nothing wrong with the size of their brains or their skill (the “fatal felicity”) in presentation. Yet they are all profoundly both amoral and philosophically short-sighted. Amoral because although they may appeal to moral sensibilities by underlining the need to stand up to dictatorship or the humanitarian crisis brought on by the growing numbers of refugees, they discount the appalling consequences of going to war—the obliteration of much of Vietnam and Cambodia, leading in the latter case to creating the conditions in which the genocidal Khmer Rouge thrived. Or the suffering of the children in contemporary Iraq. Or the destruction of major infrastructure and housing in Ukraine today.
Not to mention, with the fallout from Vietnam, the social disturbances that are still at work in the U.S. today—the drug-taking culture, the destabilised families, the omnipresence of the gun culture, all of which, of course, had antecedents but which were given an enormous boost by the wars.
For all their academic self-discipline, these foreign policy professionals and their friends in the military-industrial complex and the intelligence services are often incapable of taking the long view either forward or historical. Just to take the most obvious casualty of the war with Belgrade—could there be any good reason for discarding the central and most important policy aim of post-Cold War Europe, to integrate Russia fully into the Western world?
How do we get out of the hole we have dug for ourselves? The first law of holes is to stop digging.
We always have to keep the malevolence we are against in perspective, asking ourselves a hundred times over, do the means justify the end? Are we making a bad situation worse? Have we over-exaggerated the power of the opponent—as with the false presumption that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction? Has our side done most of the provoking as with Al Qaeda’s raid on the Twin Towers in New York and with Russia today?
What price are we paying for the policies we self-righteously pursue? And, most important, how what we do will look in the cold light of twenty years hence?
There are two glimmers of hope with the present Ukrainian imbroglio, each of a very different kind. One is that Russia seems to be losing the war. In which case President Vladimir Putin may be in the mood to compromise. But for that to happen the NATO powers need to offer their compromise—a neutral Ukraine and a map for future stability in Europe that involves Russia—a request that Russia has long made.
The other bit of hope is the stance of senior statesman, 99-year-old Henry Kissinger. Most scholars of foreign policy agree that his academic work is peerless. Also, although he was a Vietnam hawk when he served as secretary of state President Richard Nixon, as he has got older, he has more profoundly understood the perils of confrontation and so has argued for more rapid nuclear disarmament.
Only the other day, he was speaking at the prestigious US institution, the Council on Foreign Relations. He made the point that the West has undervalued the close attachment Russia has long had with Ukraine. They were ruled as one country for 600 years and shared the same church. Intermarriage is very common.
He also argued that expanding NATO was not the greatest of ideas—at least the way it was done without involving Russia. And fighting today is not the answer, and a way had to be found that took Russia’s attitudes into full account.
The media occasionally report what he says but just as often don’t. As it happens, I only knew of this speech because of RT, the Russian overseas station—the one that the Labour Party argued should be closed. In fact, Western media sometimes appear to be as one-sided as Russian media. It is difficult to get an anti-war article published in important papers like the Financial Times, the Guardian, the Washington Post, and the New York Times. The BBC almost ignores the anti-war lobby.
Recently, Putin made an astonishing remark: “If you want us to meet up in hell, it’s up to you”. That was the mother of all statements. We in the West should think about it.
About the author: The writer was for 17 years a foreign affairs columnist and commentator for the International Herald Tribune, now the New York Times. He has also written dozens of columns for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times. He is the European who has appeared most on the opinion pages of these papers. Visit his website: www.jonathanpowerjournalist.com