Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Ukraine and 'neutrality'-Rewiring rusty hardware

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is one of those epochal events which require a paradigm shift, a rewiring of our rusty mental hardware. Of course this process is prone to contradictions and a clash between two fundamental values which shape many of us on the left; namely our aversion to war and militarism and our equal aversion to bullies and support for resistance. So here are some reflections on this difficult topic. 

Active Neutrality: Malta’s active neutrality does not preclude us from taking sides when basic norms of international law are trampled upon by bullies like Putin. What it precludes is hosting a military base and joining a military alliance like NATO. Yet contrary to the impression given in parliament earlier this week Malta is not a distant observer of some remote 'conflict', but part of an organisation (the EU) which is an active party in a war which represents a threat to our collective security as European and global citizens. And while there are still valid arguments against hosting a military base in Malta, it is also time to define our active neutrality by adding an over riding commitment to upholding international law and human rights. And while human rights may be used as a pretext for other interests, at the same time speaking of neutrality when people are being butchered is profoundly disturbing and stomach churning.  The problem with the west is not that it upholds principles but that it does so selectively.   Palestine immediately comes to mind.  But it is equally revolting to invoke inaction over Palestine as justification for inaction over Ukraine. Foreign policy has to be based on values which shape the kind of societies we want to live in. That is why I am very wary of those who dismiss human rights as a western construct. 

The new fascists: I also recoil at 'westerners' sitting in the comfort of their coach consuming and spreading misinformation making a mockery of the freedoms they claim to cherish, by serving either as useful idiots or willing accomplices of Putin's troll factory. In fact there is a danger lurking in the shadows; that of a new fascism which thrives on conspiracy theories and fake news and which ultimately erodes our democracy.   Not surprisingly those who sowed doubts on climate change and the vaccine, who spread fake news on immigration also harbor sympathies for Putin.  Ironically these rejectionists of the 'west' are often the first to protest against censorship and cancel culture when the state steps in to defend us from hate mongers and the dissemination of lies.  As a Marxist I have always considered socialism as the natural progression and deepening of liberal democratic norms.  That is why when liberal democracy is threatened we are duty bound to stand in its defense.

Europe or Nato? In this instance Nato is on the right side of history. Without Nato’s support Ukraine is doomed. No wonder that many Ukranians are calling on NATO to close the skies and the only alternative to that is arming Ukraine. So do I like NATO? No and mainly because its commitment to democracy and human rights is often selective. It includes members like Turkey which has waged a criminal war against the Kurds. It is led by the USA which has a dirty history of supporting unsavory and even criminal regimes, particularly in Latin America and the Middle East. I would rather have a closer defense union of EU member states which is at least accountable to parliament and the council. This would also add substance to the security clause in the Lisbon treaty, which promises assistance in the case of any EU member being attacked. This would also make sense for a small country like Malta, which actively participates in the EU’s common foreign policy and is therefore potentially exposed to retaliation. That said this poses important questions like; should the EU have an army of its own and how far should Malta participate in this? And since most EU member states are also in NATO is it even possible to draw a line? That said if the EU is really committed to human rights, it can't turn itself in to a fortress which discriminates between different flows of refugees. One risk of having an EU army would be that of using it to 'police' borders. But the answer to that is introducing democratic and human rights safeguards and scrutiny. In short rather then re-trench themselves to defend an ineffective and reactionary national sovereignity, progressives should lead the battle for more Europe and more world governance. 

War and militarism: Lets never forget that war brutalizes not just the aggressors but also those defending themselves, their homes and their families. It also creates a demands for weapons which enriches the merchants of death. And increased military spending comes at a cost; mostly paid by the poor and vulnerable in the shape of reduced public expenditure in public services. And one should always beware of generals who tend to evade or dismiss democratic scrutiny. As I see it the answer to these problems is more Europe, in the shape of governance and democratic scrutiny. And by Europe am not referring to fortress Europe, but a civic commitment for the values which shape us, values which do not belong to us but to humanity in general. That is the only antidote to Russophobia and the emergence of new nationalisms thriving on a war between ‘civilisations’. And while war is corrosive, weapons are often needed by those defending themselves from aggression. Lets not forget that in the second world war communist partisans in Italy and France actively collaborated with Anglo American forces. That was a just war which is part of our collective heritage. That is also a chapter in Maltese history which we should cherish. And that is why I would never replace the George Cross with the eight pointed cross. So should pacifists become warmongers? Depends on what we understand by pacifism. The kind of pacifism I identify with was shaped by the social movements of the 1970s and was also intimately tied with the idea of universal human rights and support for democratic movements the world over including Eastern Europe. It is therefore no surprise that the same German Greens who were rooted in the pacifist movements of the 1970s are backing sending more weapons to Ukraine. We need to stand for our values whenever threatened by strongmen and caudillos. In the absence of that it will be other strongmen and caudillos who will stand up to aggression probably by committing similar crimes.

The risk of a long war: Syria is a reminder of how a decade of war against a criminal regime can breed monsters.  But perhaps these monsters only grew because of a reluctance to act decisively against the criminal Assad regime, which crucially was allowed to win thanks to Putin’s support. Those who lose family and loved ones will inevitable seek redress and in the absence of that revenge. There is a risk that Putin's war will actually strengthen the russophobic far right in Ukraine and in Eastern Europe.   Ensuring redress through international law is the only way to avoid this from happening. Yet just as much I fear war and the dynamics it sets in motion, I also understand the moral obligation to defy and resist. So stopping Putin from winning (which means stopping him from dismembering Ukraine) is just as crucial as ending the war in the shortest time possible. In fact the two aims sound contradictory. While capitulation is not an option as this would embolden bullies the world over, diplomacy has to play a part at some stage. But we must make sure that Ukraine gets to the negotiation table from a position of strength. That is why arming Ukraine is not just the right thing to do morally but also the most effective way to force Russia to the negotiation table.

A federal Europe: But lets see this as an opportunity for a paradigm shift; What about the US signing up to the International Criminal Court as a starting point? Is it not ironical that the US is not party to the only organization which can (and should) prosecute Vladimir Putin for crimes against humanity? And what about a massive renewable energy program to accelerate the ban on gas imports from Russia? And should not the oligarchs’ wealth be used to finance Ukraine’s resistance? And is this not the perfect moment for more Europe? Perhaps it is time to rediscover the prophetic wisdom of  Altiero Spinelli’s Ventotene Manifesto written during the darkest days of the word war II in which the great Italian intellectual presented his socialist and federalist vision for a united Europe (and world).

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