- 16 Aug 22
“One time ago a crazy dream came to me,” a certain Robert Zimmerman sang, on his 1963 album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. "I dreamt I was walkin' into World War Three." Sixty years later, that feeling is back.
You don’t have to be a student of politics to know that we are living in perilous times. The question now has to be: is there any sensible way back from the brink? The threat that one twisted lunatic or another might pull the lever to launch a nuclear attack is more real than it has been in decades. Or that the cynical and malicious use of a nuclear power plant to launch military strikes might lead to a catastrophic direct hit.
The sense that our moorings have come undone is palpable. Someone – or some agency perhaps – needs to get a grip. In this, Sabina Higgins was right in her letter to The Irish Times: while there is not a single shred of justification for Russian aggression and the atrocities they have committed in Ukraine, we need to find a way to start a conversation, the ultimate goal of which is peace – ideally involving the withdrawal of Russian forces. Instead what we are seeing is a further, unnecessary escalation of the general drift towards confrontation.
No one, except maybe P. F. Sloan, ever thought that we’d end up listening again to ‘Eve Of Destruction’ – the protest song which he wrote and Barry McGuire turned into a world-wide hit in 1965. It was never a great song, really, but when John Creedon played it on RTÉ Radio One the other night, it felt like its hour had come around at last, like a ghost from another era arriving back to give us the finger – and showing us just the grisly skeletal version. You thought all of that global paranoia blues had been consigned to history? Think again, suckers.
A GLIMPSE INTO HELL
Not that bellicose militarism had disappeared off the face of the earth. The Iran-Iraq war. The Yugoslav Wars. September 11. The scourge of Jihadism. The war in Iraq. Israel’s indefensible oppression of the Palestinian people. Genocide in Rwanda. Brutal wars in Sudan and Yemen. I could go on. The roll call of infamy is long. Butchery never sleeps.
These were bloody and momentous events that saw hundreds of thousands of innocent people being annihilated. Some are ongoing. The world has never been entirely conflict-free. But since the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union, a feeling had grown that the arc of history was tending towards a more balanced, conflict-managed world order.
Real progress had been made. And it hadn’t happened by accident.
It is vital to recognise just how important the European project was to this optimistic view. World War Two had destroyed much of Europe. Unforgivable things were done that challenged the very notion of human civilisation, mutual respect and collective dignity. Cities had been levelled. Atrocities committed on a vast scale. Jewish people, gays and Romanies targeted with one degree or another of genocidal madness. The atomic bomb used for the first time.
Between 40 and 50 million people died in a bloody war which raged for six years on different fronts and across separate continents. That catastrophic, sustained descent into barbarism is estimated to have cost $14.63 trillion in today’s money. Adjusted for inflation, the war cost the United States of America alone $4.1 trillion.
And for what? Borders shifted. The geopolitical landscape changed. But what had begun as an expansionist drive to build a German empire, based on an assumed nationalistic racial purity and superiority, ended in their grim and necessary humiliation. Countless millions across Europe and parts of Asia were displaced. People went hungry. Villages were left deserted. Life was turned upside down. Ordinary citizens of the warring countries bore the brunt. For many it was a glimpse into hell. Only a monster could have liked what he or she saw. When it was all over and the Axis powers of Germany, Italy and Japan had been forced to surrender, newly sobered minds began to work on strategies designed to ensure that nothing like this could ever happen again.
The League of Nations, established in 1920, after the First Word War had failed. A successor organisation was needed that would attract the support of all of the countries that had been involved in the war, and every other potentially significant military power with them. But more than that, its mission would be to create a platform for the resolution of all territorial and geopolitical disputes – or a mechanism for addressing whatever the underlying tensions might be before they turned into disputes.
Enter the UN.
The United Nations was founded in 1945, in San Francisco, United States. Initially, 46 countries clustered around the five permanent members of the Security Council – the US, the UK, France, the Soviet Union and China – making a collective commitment from 51 participants to maintain international peace and security, develop friendly relations among nations and promote social progress, better living standards and human rights.
That mission was complicated almost immediately by the post-war ideological tensions between the United States of America and the Soviet Union, resulting in what became known as the Cold War. No shots were fired officially, but ideological battle lines were drawn, with Communism on the one side and – the way the Americans framed it anyway – the Free World on the other. Two self-styled Super Powers engaged in a tug of war-style struggle to increase their spheres of influence and to shape political life in as many countries and regions as possible.
In Europe, however, the post-war rapprochement was on a different level. Countries that had been torn asunder in the war sat down around a common table and decided that economic and social well-being trumped any form of military action or nationalistic self-interest. The Treaty of Rome was signed in 1957, creating a common market and customs union between the six founding members, Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and West Germany. In effect, nationalism was shunted to one side for the greater good. It was the beginning of one of the greatest historic achievements in long-term peace-making.
The United Kingdom, Denmark, and Ireland joined in 1973, followed by Greece in 1981 and Portugal and Spain in 1986. The European Union was growing in power and influence. In theory, if it joined the United States, Russia and China as a world economic superpower, then a balance could potentially be struck which would enable Africa, South and Central America and other parts of Asia to play catch-up.
In 1992, Francis Fukuyama wrote The End of History and The Last Man, arguing that Western liberal democracy marked the end point of our ideological evolution and was the final form of human Government. Whatever about the theory, in hindsight, it is clear that Fukuyama’s assumptions were wildly off the mark.
While their identity was increasingly influenced by the growing European sphere of influence, individual EU member States could pursue their own foreign policy and build trade relations with so called ’Third Countries’. In relation to Russia, Germany in particular believed in the doctrine of “change through trade.” As the new millennium dawned, they – and by extension much of the European Union – began to pursue a more vigorous policy of positive interdependence and mutual engagement.
Twenty years ago, that didn’t seem especially naive. The working hypothesis was that increasing economic success would weaken the ideological chains within Russia, and indeed elsewhere. In the post-Mao years, China moved from authoritarian communism to a form of State capitalism. The hope was that liberalisation would take on an unstoppable momentum, and that the next big step in the evolution of a vast country that was fast becoming an economic power-house would involve a shift from authoritarianism to free and fair elections.
Three crucial, unforeseen factors intervened. The first was the split between capitalism and democracy. If an authoritarian State like Singapore could participate fully in the drive to make vast amounts of money in international trade, why couldn’t China or Russia? And how much more attractive would that be for the dictators and their cronies, already in situ and manipulating the levers of power? Out of the ashes of the old Soviet Union, a new breed of oligarchs pillaged the resources of the larger new States – including Russia – to become billionaires. Backed with the ruthless, untrammelled power of an authoritarian State, it was the dream scenario for a new, shadowy global elite.
The second factor was the extent to which – far from acting as en engine for democracy – the tech revolution, itself an unrecognised challenge to democracy in so many ways, enabled repressive regimes to tighten their grip at home and poison the waters elsewhere. Politicians and regulators in Europe and the US were clearly asleep at the wheel. Certainly, there was a widespread failure in Europe to anticipate or track the increasingly imperial ambitions being nurtured by Vladimir Putin in Russia.
Alarm bells should have gone off with the invasion of Crimea in 2014, but by then the Nord Stream 1 gas pipeline – inaugurated in 2012 – was going like the clappers and Germany was already dependent on Russian oil and gas to keep its industrial engine running at full tilt. Germany was not alone. Among European countries, North Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Moldova rely entirely on Russian gas. Finland (94%), Latvia (93%) and Bulgaria (77%) are not far behind. Italy, Poland, France, Turkey and the Netherlands are dependent to differing degrees.
No one saw that there would come a time when Vladimir Putin would weaponise energy supplies, in effect holding – or attempting to hold – anyone who opposed his imperial ambitions to ransom.
Against that backdrop, the failure of the major European powers, and of NATO, to take proportionate action against Russia following its invasion of Ukraine in 2014, when it took control of Crimea, was a game-changer. Vladimir Putin became emboldened. He and his key lieutenants in the increasingly dictatorial regime he had constructed around him, realised that they had much of Europe ensnared in energy dependency.
In a parallel manoeuvre, Russia was building its capacity to engage in cyber disruption. The Putin regime began meddling in elections across the world. They supported far-right organisations and conspiracy theorists. They bank-rolled elements of the Brexit ultras. They set about a campaign to undermine and ultimately break-up the European Union. They helped to engineer the success of Donald Trump in the US Presidential election in 2016. They launched massive disinformation drives. They began to use cyber attacks as a form of proxy warfare. They supported autocrats and dictators whose scorn for democracy would inevitably put them at loggerheads with the EU.
How efficiently any of this was done is a moot point. It only had to work so well. Russia needed only a limited number of stooges and collaborators to spike the water. What precisely was it that convinced Boris Johnson to support the campaign to leave the EU? What role might Russian oligarchs and money men in the UK have played in that decision? We may never know. But we do know that the Russians were involved with the Leave.EU organisation and its key financial backer, Aaron Banks.
And so when Vladimir Putin decided to invade Ukraine on February 24 this year, he had made the calculations and decided that it was a chance worth taking. There is vast wealth in Ukraine. As we now know, it is one of the biggest agricultural producers in the world. To have control of that food supply would be an enormous strategic advantage in Russia’s attempt to become a political and economic super-power again.
The optimistic view – from Putin’s perspective – was that Germany would weigh up its own strategic interests and the implications if Russia withdrew energy supplies and shrug. Nothing we can do. And if that was the German response, then the EU would almost certainly follow, making a lost cause of any attempt by the US to get NATO to oppose Russian expansionism. And as for the UK – there was surely enough Russian money sloshing around the sleaze-pits of London to keep them schtum.
As we all know, it didn’t work out that way. Ukrainian resistance has been fierce. Nato countries have supplied weaponry. If anything the ‘west’ became more united. But not sufficiently so to establish a no fly zone over Ukraine when that might have made all the difference.
It is easy to fight someone else’s war from a distance. It is also easy to tell people what they should have done, when there is no possibility that your theories will be tested by the cold steel of one autocrat’s crazed resolve. Putin threatened nuclear retaliation if NATO or the US became directly involved in the war. They chose the path of least resistance and he was further emboldened.
So must have been the Chinese.
The Russian assault on Ukraine may have been shambolic, but they have thrown so many bodies at it, and so much firepower, that some significant successes were almost inevitable. On the other side, the Ukrainians have been badly hamstrung by the terms on which weapons are being supplied. The Russians can attack from positions the Ukraine army is forbidden to shell. And as it grinds on, the war is getting dirtier and potentially more universally catastrophic.
In an act of grotesque cynicism, the Russian army has set up a military base at the largest nuclear power plant in Europe, in Zaporizhzhia, on the Dnieper River in southeastern Ukraine, from which it is launching attacks on Ukrainian positions, in the process violating – in the words of the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Rafael Grossi – every principle of nuclear safety.
SLEAZE-BALL PRIME MINISTER
No, you don’t believe we’re on the eve of destruction.
Well, don’t be so sure of it, buddy. Last week, the Speaker of the House of Representatives in the USA, Nanci Pelosi, decide to visit Taiwan, thereby engaging in what anyone with a shred of sense knew would be interpreted as an act of provocation by China. She was cautioned by President Joe Biden in advance and ignored him and made the trip. It is impossible to see it as anything other than an act of ridiculous recklessness, driven more than anything else by vanity – and I say that as someone who has in the past admired Pelosi’s feisty attitude.
Of course, Beijing might have shrugged it off. But, with China’s economy currently going through a mini-crisis that might just get considerably worse, Xi Jinping is in need of a casus belli on which to hang his outrage and stir up Chinese nationalism. Nanci Pelosi handed that to him on a plate. For Xi Jinping, the opportunity to engage in massively threatening military drills over Taiwan, including practice bombing raids and missile attacks was manna from hell.
At the time of writing, the Chinese military have extended these manoeuvres, disrupting shipping and air traffic and asserting in unambiguous terms their de facto dominance in the region. Meanwhile, the Chinese Foreign Ministry issued a belligerent statement that they would “firmly safeguard China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, resolutely deter the U.S. from containing China with the Taiwan issue and resolutely shatter the Taiwan authorities’ illusion of relying on the U.S. for independence.”
So what – with so many ‘resolutely-s’ in the equation – are the chances of the United Nations getting a grip? That is the only forum for calming things down, but the Secretary-General, António Guterres, was far too slow to respond to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, seriously eroding his political capital. And besides, so much bad faith has been shown by key members of the Security Council, and indeed by the likes of Israel, ignoring UN resolutions and taking unilateral action, that the organisation has been seriously hobbled.
Even Europe is at risk of drifting away from the great post-war agreements. The dirtiest kind of nationalism is bubbling through the cracks. The far-right is on the rise in Italy and France. The sleaze-ball Prime Minister of Hungary, Viktor Orban, is working to break the resolve that exists within the EU to support Ukraine. The UK, meanwhile, is going through its own public horror show with Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss vying to replace the lying scoundrel Boris Johnson in the job of Prime Minister by trumpeting increasingly draconian attitudes and ‘policies’ that are designed to appeal to the shrivelled bigots who are members of the Conservative party. There are moments when you think: you couldn’t possibly make this up, but it is happening all the same.
And in the US, Donald Trump is back on the campaign trail, determined to inflict a costly defeat on Joe Biden in the November elections, sufficient not just to wrest control of both the Senate and the House of Representatives from the Democrats, but to do it in a way that will all but certainly secure the return of a Republican candidate to the Presidency in 2024. Preferably, of course, in his twisted, cork-screw world, of Donald Trump himself.
And so this is where we are. Staring down the barrel of not one gun, but of many. How long can we go on, playing Russian roulette lie this? With Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping in charge of spinning the cartridge, there’s certainly a bullet or two in there.
Our luck could run out at any time.
“Come you masters of war,” Dylan sang, also on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, “You that build the big guns / You that build the death planes / You that build all the bombs / You that hide behind walls / You that hide behind desks / I just want you to know / I can see through your masks.”
Sixty years on, give or take a few months, some things haven’t changed one iota...