[Column] Forget the Cold War – welcome to hot peace

Posted on : 2022-04-04 17:35 KST Modified on : 2022-04-04 17:35 KST
When global cooperation is needed more than ever, the “clash of civilizations” has returned with a vengeance
Slavoj Žižek
Slavoj Žižek
By Slavoj Žižek, Global Eminent Scholar at Kyung Hee University

With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we are entering a new phase of what war means. What is new is not just that both sides have nuclear arms, and that new rhetoric is arising with Putin making it clear that Russia is ready to use nuclear weapons first. We are approaching a perfect storm in which a whole series of catastrophes — a pandemic, global warming, food and water shortages, wars, and so on — are reinforcing each other, so that the choice is not simply war or peace but a global emergency state in which priorities change all the time.

What needs an explanation is the basic madness of our current situation. At a time when it is generally admitted that our very survival is under threat for ecological (and other) reasons, and when everything we are doing should be subordinated to cope with this danger, all of a sudden our primary concern has become a new war which can only shorten the passage to our collective suicide.

When global cooperation is needed more than ever, the “clash of civilizations” has returned with a vengeance, and to explain this with the frames of the interests of big capital and of state control falls too short.

With regard to Ukraine, what we are dealing with is not one nation-state attacking another nation-state. Ukraine is being attacked as an entity whose very ethnic identity is denied by the aggressor, and whose government is disqualified as a group of drug-addicted neo-Nazis. The attack is justified in the terms of geopolitical spheres of influence which often reach well beyond ethnic spheres (like Syria).

This is why it is important to examine why Russia doesn’t use the term “war” for its military intervention in Ukraine. It does so not just to downplay the brutality of its intervention but above all to make it clear that “war” in the old sense of the armed conflict between nation-states no longer fits here. Russia is just securing “peace” in what it considers its own geopolitical sphere of influence, and such peacekeeping can easily spread well beyond Ukraine.

Russia is already intervening through its proxies in Bosnia and Kosovo, and Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, once mentioned that the only full solution would be to demilitarize all of Europe, and Russia with its army maintaining peace there with occasional humanitarian interventions.

Similar ideas abound in the Russian press — Dmitry Evstafiev, a political commentator and opinion maker, said in an interview with a Czech outlet, “A new Russia is born which lets you know clearly that it doesn’t perceive you, Europe, as a partner. Russia has three partners: USA, China, and India. You are for us a trophy which shall be divided between us and Americans. You didn’t yet get this, although we are coming close to this.”

Alexander Dugin, Putin’s court philosopher, grounded this stance in a weird version of historicist relativism, saying, “Post-modernity shows that every so-called truth is a matter of believing. So we believe in what we do, we believe in what we say. And that is the only way to define the truth. So we have our special Russian truth that you need to accept. If the United States does not want to start a war, you should recognize that United States is not anymore a unique master.”

The immediate question here is: but what about the people of Syria and of Ukraine? Can they also choose their truth/belief or are they just a playground of the big “bosses” and their struggles? As we have seen, they don’t count in this big division into four spheres of influence. Within each of these spheres, there are only peacekeeping interventions; proper war happens only when the four big bosses cannot agree on the borders of their spheres — a war with NATO would be a war, not what is now happening in Ukraine.

One should also note how Evstafiev’s pointed exclusion of Europe from the list of four big players fits perfectly the old mantra of opposing “Eurocentrism.” What bothers many across the entire political spectrum, from the anti-colonialist Left to the populist Right, is the idea of a united Europe. With all the justified critique of key parts of the European legacy, what makes Europe an object of hatred and envy is the idea that in the eyes of many “Europe” still stands for peaceful cooperation of nations, personal freedom, and the welfare state. Instead of laughing at Ukrainians who want to be part of Europe, we should ask ourselves what they see in “Europe” and if we are ready to live up to their expectations.

Whichever way you turn it, united Europe stands for some kind of social democracy, which is why Viktor Orban in a recent interview went so far as to proclaim that the Western liberal hegemony “is gradually becoming Marxist”: “Sooner or later we’ll have to face up to the fact that, opposing the Christian democratic camp, we’re no longer dealing with a group espousing liberal ideology, but with a group that’s essentially Marxist with liberal remnants. This is what we have in America today. For the time being the conservative side is at a disadvantage in relation to the Marxist, liberal camp.”

This is the predominant meaning of “anti-Eurocentrism” today.

On the afternoon of March 1, 2022, addressing the European Parliament via video feed, Zelenskyy said, “Ukraine is ready to die for Europe, now let’s see if Europe is ready to die for Ukraine.” The moment he said this, the heart of almost all of the European extreme Right — which up to that point displayed sympathy for Russia’s intervention — began to beat for Ukraine: Salvini, Marine Le Pen and others made a fast U-turn and began to advocate full support to receiving refugees and sending arms to Ukraine.

Why? As Franco Berardi put it, “Dying for the homeland has always been the dream of the nationalists, although this does not mean that they really want to die personally. They want to send someone to die for their glory: yes, that’s their dream.”

If only the threat of war can mobilize us, not the threat to our environment, then the liberty we will get if our side wins is perhaps not worth living. So we are facing an impossible choice where both options are worse: if we make compromises on behalf of maintaining peace we are feeding Russian expansionism that only a “demilitarization” of all of Europe will satisfy; if we endorse full confrontation, we run the high risk of a new world war. The only real solution to this debilitating dilemma is to change the entire terrain of how we perceive the situation.

The saddest thing about the ongoing war in Ukraine is that, while the global liberal-capitalist order is obviously approaching a crisis at many levels, the situation is now again falsely simplified into barbaric-totalitarian countries versus the civilized free West — global warming and other global problems are out of sight.

We may even say that the new wars do not simply ignore global warming and other global trouble; they are rather a reaction to our global problems, the return to a perverted “normality” of wars. The idea is: “OK, there are difficult times ahead, so let us grab a strong position in order to survive the forthcoming challenges better than others.” The present moment is thus not the moment of truth when things become clear, when the basic antagonism is clearly seen. It is a moment of the deepest lie.

According to Samuel Huntington, after the end of the Cold War, the “iron curtain of ideology” has been replaced by the “velvet curtain of culture.” Huntington’s dark vision of the “clash of civilizations” may appear to be the very opposite of Francis Fukuyama’s bright prospect of the “end of history” in the guise of a worldwide liberal democracy — what could be more different from Fukuyama's pseudo-Hegelian idea that the final formula of the best possible social order was found in capitalist liberal democracy, than a “clash of civilizations” as the main political struggle in the 21st century? How, then, do the two fit together? From today's experience, the answer is clear: the “clash of civilizations” is politics at the “end of history.”

Today’s rise of “irrational” violence is thus to be conceived as strictly correlative to the depoliticization of our societies. Within this horizon, the only alternative to war remains the peaceful coexistence of civilizations — of different “truths,” as Dugin put it, or of “ways of life,” a more popular term today. Forced marriages and homophobia are OK, just so long as they are limited to another country that is otherwise fully integrated into the world market.

So while we should firmly stand behind Ukraine, we should avoid the fascination with the prospect of war that is clearly present among those who push toward an open confrontation with Russia. And while Ukraine’s struggle deserves full support, something like a new non-aligned movement is needed — not in the sense that we should be neutral in the ongoing war but in the sense that we should question the entire notion of the “clash of civilizations.”

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