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BACK TO WHO BLINKS FIRST

A spectre now haunts Europe. These words are famous as the opening of The Communist Manifesto written by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in 1848. The authors identified the spectre as that of communism. Those opening words have a resonance now, except that the spectre is that of the Cold War. Those years stretching across the better part of the second half of the 20th century — from the end of the Second World War to the collapse of communism in 1991 — when a bipolar world seemed perpetually poised on the brink of war seem to have risen, phoenix-like, in Europe. The threat of a new cold war arises out of the uncertainty in Ukraine and the movement of Russian forces into Ukraine to secure strategic locations. A military intervention — prima facie this is the only way to describe Russia’s actions — has resurrected another ghost that many fondly believed had been exorcized from global politics. This is the ghost of imperialism.

To be honest, this is not the first time in recent history that Russia has sent troops in to protect what it perceives as its strategic interests. In 1956, Russia, then under communist rule, invaded Hungary; in 1968 it sent its tanks into Czechoslovakia; and in 1980 it invaded Afghanistan. The record of its great Cold War rival, the United States of America, is no better in this regard. It is difficult to forget its actions in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and covert actions in many Latin American countries. In all these instances the ostensible reason was the protection of interests. Imperialism is an integral part of the history of the 20th century and of the opening years of the 21st. The irony is that in public discourse, military intervention by Uncle Sam is always condemned as imperialism, but the same derogatory epithet is never used when the Russian bear embraces another country in its fatal hug. This double standard is on show regarding Russian intervention in Ukraine. The only caveat that can be added is that this time round there is a greater awareness of the dangers involved in a re-emergence of the chilling atmosphere of the Cold War.

There is no denying that the situation in Ukraine is very complex and that Russia has good reason to feel alarmed about what could happen to its security locations. But this cannot justify the haste with which Vladimir Putin has acted. Foreign policy is more often than not driven by the desire to further or protect self-interest. But behind this desire is the consciousness of power. All countries cannot meet the aims of their foreign policies through a show of military power. The attempt to fulfil foreign policy priorities by the use of military power is what separates imperialism from the pursuit of self-interest through diplomacy. The US and Russia have never hesitated to blur this distinction. The spectre will continue to haunt.