Wars are the most horrible events. They should never happen. The entire human effort should be directed toward making wars impossible. Not just illegal, but impossible, in the sense that no-one would be either able or have incentive to start them.
But we are, unfortunately, not there yet. The humankind has not evolved that far. We are now in the midst of a war that may become a very murderous war.
Wars are also an opportunity (however cold-hearted this might seem) to reassess our priors. Things are suddenly thrown into a much sharper focus. Our beliefs are transformed into illusions. The nostrums become meaningless. We have to deal with the world as it is, not with the world we imagined until a day before.
So, what have we learned after one week of the Ukraine-Russia war? I will try not to speculate about the outcome. Nobody knows it. It can end with the occupation and subjugation of Ukraine, or it can end with the break-up of Russia. And everything in between. Neither I, nor the reader, nor Putin, nor Biden know it. So I will not speculate on it.
But what do we seem to have learned so far?
1. Power of oligarchy. The power of oligarchy when it encounters le raison d’état is limited. We tended to believe that Russia, being an oligarchic capitalist economy, is also one where the rich decisively influence policy. Perhaps that in many everyday decisions that is the case. (I do not have in mind here the oligarchs who live in London and New York, but those who live in Moscow and St Petersburg and who may be also heads or large shareholders of powerful private and semi-state-owned companies.) But when the matters of state are serious, for the organized power, that is, the state, oligarchy is no match. The threat of sanctions, so visibly displayed and trumpeted by the US weeks before the war started, might have influenced Russian oligarchs to move their yachts as far as possible from US jurisdiction, or to engage in fire-sales of their property, but it made no difference to Vladimir Putin’s decision to go to war.
Nor did all the buying of influence by the rich Russians among the Tories in the UK or both political parties in the US matter. Neither did the “sanctity of private property” on which the United States was created (and which so much attracted the oligarchs to move their stolen wealth there in the first place). The US proceeded to probably the largest inter-state transfer of wealth in history. It is the equivalent of Henry VIII’s seizure of church lands. While we have seen such gigantic confiscations within countries (the French and Russian revolutions) we have never seen it, in one fell swoop, in 24 hours, between the countries.
2. Financial fragmentation. The corollary of this point is that extremely rich people are no longer safe from political forces—even if they change citizenship, contribute to political campaigns, or dedicate a wing of a museum. They can fall victim to geopolitics they do not control and which are much beyond their remit—and at times beyond their understanding. To remain excessively rich would require more than ever political nous. Whether the globally rich will interpret this confiscation to mean that they must more seriously than ever capture the machinery of the state, or they interpret it to mean that they should find other new havens for their investments is impossible to tell. Most likely it will lead to the fragmentation of financial globalization and to the creation of new and alternative financial centers, probably in Asia. Where will they be? I think the strong candidates are the democratic countries with a degree of judicial independence, but also enjoying sufficient international political clout and margin of maneuver not to yield to the pressure of the US, Europe or China. Bombay, Djakarta come to mind.
3. The end of the end of history. We—or at least some people--tended to believe that the “end of history” meant not only that the ultimate political and economic system was discovered in one night in November of 1989, but that the old-fashioned tools of international struggles will not reappear. The latter was shown wrong several times already, from Iraq and Afghanistan to Libya. A more brutal demonstration is in the process of being executed right now where borders are being redrawn using the instruments that the world has practiced for 5,000 years of recorded history but that were thought obsolete.
The current war displays to us that the complexity of the world, its cultural and historical “baggage”, is great and that the idea that one type of system will eventually be embraced by all is a delusion. It is a delusion whose consequences are bloody. To have peace, we need to learn to live while accepting differences. These differences are not trivial differences that go under the current title of being open to variety, in way we dress, in our sexual preferences or the food we eat. The differences we need to accept, and to live with, are much more fundamental and they relate to the way societies function, what they believe in, and what they think is the source of legitimacy of their governments. That of course can change in the course of time for any one given society, as it did many times in the past. But at a given point, it will differ from country to country, from region to region, from religion to religion. To assume that everyone who is not “like us” is somehow deficient, or not aware that they would be better off being “like us” will –if we maintain this flawed belief—remain the source of endless wars.
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