Dutch passports found at the MH17 crash site
There is war in Europe. No, I’m not using the historic present tense to evoke August 1914. I’m talking about August 2014. What is happening in eastern Ukraine is war — “ambiguous war”, as a British parliamentary committee calls it, rather than outright, declared war between two sovereign states, but still war. And war rages around the edges of Europe, in Syria, Iraq and Gaza.
I do not say “Europe is at war”. I leave the hyperbole to Bernard Henri-Lévy. Most European countries are not directly engaged in armed conflict. Still, we should be under no illusions. For decades, we have lived with the comforting notion that “Europe has been at peace since 1945”. This was always an overstatement. In parts of eastern Europe, low-level armed conflict continued into the early 1950s, followed by the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 and of Czechoslovakia in 1968. In the 1990s, former Yugoslavia was torn apart in a series of wars — as a recent report by the European Union’s Special Investigative Task Force, credibly charging Kosovo Liberation Army leaders with “war crimes”, has just reminded us.
Kosovo was where I first saw the corpses sticking out of makeshift body bags and the blood in the snow. While that blood was still fresh, I talked to one KLA commander, Ramush Haradinaj, who memorably observed, “Me, I couldn’t be no Mother Teresa.” (He subsequently became prime minister of Kosovo, resigned when indicted for war crimes in The Hague, but was twice acquitted.) Then I would fly back to Western Europe, to find people arguing over which acronym had “kept the peace” in Europe. Was it the EU, NATO, or perhaps the OECD (i.e. economic interdependence), the OSCE (i.e. pan-European security structures), or even the UN? The premise was false then, and is even more so now. There is war in Europe, and around its ragged edge.
For all the differences, the dirty little wars of 2014 have an important connection to the horrendous ‘great’ one that began in 1914. Many of them involve struggles of definition and control over patchwork territories left behind by the multi-ethnic empires that clashed hundred years ago, and their successor states. Thus, for example, the battle for eastern Ukraine is about the boundaries of the Russian empire. Some of the Russians, from Russia itself, who are now leading the armed pro-Russian movement in eastern Ukraine, have characterized themselves as “imperial nationalists”. (From their point of view, they are not “separatists” but unionists.) In a fine piece of satire in the New York Review of Books, Vladimir Sorokin describes Putin’s Russia as being pregnant with Ukraine. “The infant’s name,” he writes, “will be beautiful: Farewell to Empire.”
During the Balkan wars of the 1990s, jigsaw pieces from the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires were fought over, and then reassembled into new, smaller puzzles, such as Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia. Many of the frontiers on today’s map of the Middle East go back to the settlement after World War I, when Western colonial powers spliced together disparate parts of the former Ottoman Empire into new protectorates — Iraq, Syria, Palestine. The big exception is of course the state of Israel; but that, too, can trace a lineage back to the deadly after-life of European empires. For Nazi Germany, which attempted to exterminate the Jews, was the last hideous fling of German racial and territorial imperialism.
So, what is Europe going to do now about its own long-term consequences? The first thing we must do is simply to wake up to the fact that we live in a dangerous neighbourhood. Being Greater Switzerland is neither a moral nor a practical option: not moral, because Europeans, of all people, should never be silent while war crimes are being committed; not practical, because we cannot insulate ourselves from the effects. Today’s fighters in Syria will be tomorrow’s terrorists in Europe. Today’s dispossessed are tomorrow’s illegal immigrants. Let these little wars burn, and you will be shot down out of the sky on your way from the Netherlands to Malaysia on flight MH 17. No one is safe.
Whereas in the past the irresistible wake-up call was the annexation of a territory, most West Europeans slept through Putin’s Anschluss of Crimea. As Stephen Holmes and Ivan Krastev point out in Foreign Affairs, the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner on July 17 was a turning point, not least because commercial air corridors are the place where businesspeople live. Without that transformative event, it is unlikely that Chancellor Angela Merkel could have persuaded German public opinion, and German business, of the need for tougher sanctions on Putin’s Russia.
But what use is the EU’s slow, soft economic power against the Kremlin’s rapid, hard power? Or, indeed, against all the rapid hard powers of the Middle East? What use is butter against guns? The answer is: more than you might think. Europe alone cannot stop war in the Middle East. Only working with the United States, and with some more cooperation from — of all places — Russia, can it bring peace to Syria or Gaza. It does, however, have the power to punish Russia for having its artillery shell the regular Ukrainian army, from Russian soil, while that army tries to reconquer its own territory — and to persuade and enable the legitimate Ukrainian authorities to make the most generous internal settlement possible, as soon as control over its sovereign territory has been restored.
Even the minor sanctions that Europe has thus far implemented have been gnawing away at the edges of the Putin regime. The larger sanctions Europe agreed recently will, with time, have a larger impact. Liberal democracies are usually more slow to act than dictatorships, and a voluntary community of 28 such democracies is bound to be slower still. Economic measures take more time to bite than military ones, but they can be more effective in the end.
One hundred years ago, we had “the guns of August”, in Barbara Tuchman’s resonant phrase. Now we have the butter of August. Note the different role played by Germany, then and now. Slowly, step by step, the Berlin government is doing the right thing. Germany is bringing the unique weight of its economic relationship with Russia to bear, while quite reasonably insisting that the pain is shared with France, Britain and Italy.
Some things do change. Some even get better.