Apart from posting scripts and personal stuff, I haven't had time to get back to the sort of blogging that provokes or responds or interprets.

The latest personal news is today's receipt of an Honorary Fellowship awarded by Bradford College. Following on from an Honorary Doctorate from the Friedrich-Schiller-Universität in Jena last Tuesday (and an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Bradford last December), this is a great honour, and the ceremony was very generous. I love seeing students getting their academic awards – the fruit of their labours emanating in pride and celebration. This college is doing excellent work in an excellent city, and it's new main building has to be seen – an icon of confidence.

But, here are three points about what is going on in the wider world:

1. Ukraine remains on the brink and the rouble is plummeting. But, Russia is made of people who are not afraid of sacrifice – indeed they see their history almost entirely in terms of suffering and sacrifice. I am not convinced they will cave in to material deprivation driven from the West.

2. Gordon Brown is standing down as an MP next May. Watching him has been like watching a Shakespeare drama: the prophetic moral courage of a brave man compromised by the sort of “vaulting ambition which o'erleaps itself” (Macbeth). To hear him speak about poverty and international injustice was like listening to an Amos or Jeremiah: articulate passion, acute judgement. Parliament will be poorer without him.

3. When the media's attention moves on, the money also seems to dry up. 1.7 million Syrians face hunger because the UN funds are drying up. When the next photogenic massacres or horror stories hit the screens, no doubt we will all wake up again. (At least the base and dehumanising consumerism that was 'Black Friday' demonstrates that horribleness runs close to the surface of most human beings – wherever they are…)

OK, that's enough. Having just read Do No Harm (brilliant account of brain surgery) and Stasiland (brilliant account of life in and under the Stasi in the GDR), I am now reading Rochus Misch's account of his life as Hitler's telephonist, courier and body guard: Der letzte Zeuge (The Last Witness). And Neil MacGregor's Germany. And a million papers for work.

Goodnight.

 

I remember reading a paper once in which the writer kept using the word 'insulation' when he meant 'isolation'. And now I wonder if I am seeing the same thing when I listen to Western political leaders claiming that Putin and Russia will be 'isolated' because of the annexation of Crimea.

Will western threats turn out to be, in fact, the very moves that insulate Putin within his own 'bloc' and cement his position? And will such insulation/isolation actually render any possible negotiation or policy amendment impossible?

These are questions more eloquently put by Dr Charles Reed in his good and clear post today.

They are also the sort of questions lurking behind my original post on Ukraine and subsequent linking in to this of reflections on the events behind the sleepwalking into World War One in 1914. Some intended actions turn out to have unintended consequences – but it is not the politicians who pay the price (unless in terms of the loss of a job later).

Running under all this stuff is also the question of memory – and whose narrative is allowed to become 'official'. As this article in today's Observer illustrates tragically and seriously, attempts to rewrite 1990s history in Serbia and Bosnia is not just of academic interest … especially to those who see the physical world around them being shaped to tell a lie.

And where did World War One begin…?

 

One of the reasons I wanted to read Christopher Clark's epic book The Sleepwalkers: How Europe went to war in 1914 was its rampant popularity in Germany. Why, when Germany is keeping the 2014 centenary fairly low key, is a detailed history book such as this so popular there?

Well, one reason is that the book explains the complexity of events, relationships, myths, commitments and errors that led to the bloodbath, and makes it clear what Germany's role actually was. To put it really simply: how did Austria's need for revenge against Serbia for the assassination in Sarajevo of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife turn into a wider conflict that killed millions and ended up with the blame being pinned solely on Germany. This is Clark's question, too. The Treaty of Versailles reads differently in the light of this treatment. Clark says:

We need to distinguish between the objective factors acting on the decision-makers and the stories they told themselves and each other about what they thought they were doing and why they were doing it. All the key actors in our story filtered the world through narratives that were built from pieces of experience glued together with fears, projections and interests masquerading as maxims. (p.558)

He then concludes:

… the protagonists of 1914 were sleepwalkers, watchful but unseeing, haunted by dreams, yet blind to the reality of the horror they were about to bring into the world.

The 'they' he refers to are the politicians. But, there are, of course, others. And of particular interest are the media. Newspapers were used by the political classes to propagate the myths the politicians wanted developed, and they also propagated the myths they themselves wanted to believe in – a greater Serbdom, the German monster, etc. Nothing new here, then. But, this reinforces a point I have made many times – one that irritates the hell out of some journalists – which is that the media do not only hold the powerful to account, but need to be held to account themselves because they are also a 'power'. Which is why the Daily Mail's myth-building about immigrants (for example) is not somehow neutral, but shapes myths that lead to preferences and actions that take on a self-justifying life of their own. (Clark refers at one point to how 'the public interest' actually means 'published interest'.)

The other element of Clark's book that disturbs is one I mentioned earlier: blame. In his narrative – which is so detailed it can give you a headache – it is clear that the essential conflict was between Serbia (which lied through its teeth and was supported in its fantasy by Russia) and Austria-Hungary. Caught between Russia and France, Germany had to sort out its own alignments and see where the alliance bloc axes might fall in the event of conflict between Serbia and the Habsburgs. Until very late on, the conflict was not about Germany, and Germany was trying not to get involved.

But, we need someone to blame. Germany got nailed with the whole shebang, which led to its own gnawing sense of injustice, which sowed the seeds of further conflict, which just shows that the only outcome worth going for is one of justice and not simply triumph. So, what happened to the guilt of the French, the Russians and the British? Or, which was where the whole thing began, of the Serbs?

There is much that could be said, but Clark's book is essential reading in 2014 as we begin to remember the events of 1914. Selective remembering in a way that simply accords with the particular myths we want to preserve (usually in order to address current realities) is tempting, but ultimately inadequate. If Europe's great powers, blinded by the assumed demands of their complex alliances, sleepwalked a world into its bloodiest war (using the latest technology to devise ever better ways of killing people – and laying waste to the Myth of Progress tied in with assumptions about the triumph of science… divorced, of course, from the base realities of human failure), shouldn't any commemoration do justice to the facts and be shaped around penitence?

Perhaps each act of commemoration should include politicians admitting their limitations and failings and asking for understanding and forgiveness from the people? Perhaps those who shape our worldview by their representation in the media should admit their place as 'powers' and myth-builders and confess to their limitations and weaknesses? And then the rest of us should ask forgiveness for believing the stuff that is poured upon us and for denying our responsibility to understand the interplay of politics, media and myth?

This isn't a gripe. It is a real concern arising from a reading of history that cannot but leave anyone with their brain engaged and conscience alive feeling disturbed. As I wrote in my last post, how does this bear on our understanding of Russia's resurgence and its machinations in the Crimea and other parts of its old empire?

These questions do not go away. The forms might change (1914 did not have television or the Internet), but the substance doesn't. Human beings are collective myth-builders and responsibility-deniers, shapers of events and re-shapers of the stories of those events. That is how we are. I guess I am asking that we just publicly admit it.

[Addendum: A crucial sentence got lost when I posted this earlier. It reads: “And religious leaders should renounce the 'God on our side' game that gives violence a rationale that cannot be justified.”]

Maybe it's because I have just read Ruth Tzeko's excellent A Tale for the Time Being (time, culture, language, philosophy, suicide, Zen, quantum physics, the self, and an intriguing story beautifully written), but watching events unfurl in the Ukraine appears familiar.

Familiar not just because Russian media discussion reflects the rhetoric of the old Soviet years, but also because the impotent moral vacuity of western protestation conjures up spectres of the national trade-offs that were going on in Europe in the run up to what became the First World War. Maybe it's because I am reading Christopher Clark's excellent account of this period in his best-selling The Sleepwalkers

Listening to Russian apologists for Putin's imperial ambitions certainly raises the western hackles, but, getting beyond the intuitive distrust of Russian political integrity, we have to ask why they are doing what they are doing in Ukraine – and why are they doing it now?

The west has just fought two very unpopular wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and it is clear that neither politicians nor people have the stomach for further military interventions on our own continent. Secondly, we can't afford another military intervention. Thirdly, we don't have enough conviction to fight for anything anyway. And Putin knows this. European and US exhaustion (both military and economic) mean that we won't stop him taking the Crimea and anywhere else he fancies just now.

Economic sanctions against Russian individuals? Well, they worked in Zimbabwe, didn't they? (that was meant to be ironic.) So, why is it that when I am watching Russians defending Russia's actions in relation to the Ukraine I feel doubly uncomfortable? The answer, I fear, is that, as Clark puts it (in relation to relations between Serbia and Austria-Hungary in 1913): “There was a clash here not just of interests, but also of policy styles.” (p.288) In other words, we speak different languages.

An interesting exercise to go through, if opportunity ever arises, is to examine the language used by the Soviet Union to justify its invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and then the language/rhetoric used by the west to oppose it. Then compare these with the language/rhetoric used by Britain and the USA for their invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and then the language of Russian opposition to it. (I had to do this professionally.) It's all a bit Alice in Wonderland.

What characterises the story told by Christopher Clark about the run up to the First World War is the short-termism of political alliances forged for limited ends – trade-offs by the Powers in order to maximise their own security by (a) securing territory and (b) balancing the negatives of multiple alliances. The latter became complex, if not sometimes even contradictory. The issue, however, has to do with political and military powers that lose sight of the big picture and, heads and eyes focused down to the bit of grass in front of their noses, nibble their way to destruction.

Back to the Ukraine, it is easy to see why Putin is not terribly bothered by the west's indignant rhetoric. Perhaps he has a longer view of history than we do – or at least broader one. Perhaps he has come up with a different answer to the question about when does history begin? Maybe. But, what is clear is that twenty five years of post-Soviet humiliation is a powerful motivator in current behaviour – a humiliation welcomed in the west after the collapse of Communism, but without any idea – other than the assumed victorious western free-market capitalist democracy – of what might emerge from the ruins. 'The end of history' indeed!

And twenty five years is not a long time in the grand sweep of history. The Crimea was handed by the old USSR to Ukraine just over half a century ago – and now the Russians have decided to restore the ethnic and territorial status quo. And if a popular revolution in Kiev was deemed legitimate to bring down a government, why should a partial referendum in Crimea not be legitimate in giving the democratic majority in this region what they want?

Of course, it is not as simple as this. But, there are some simple questions that are being brushed over in the coverage and interpretation of events in Ukraine. And it is clear that western celebration a quarter of a century ago at the demise of the Soviet Empire has not created a unipolar world – and was certainly premature. Clearly, it is unclear what will happen next and what Putin has in mind for Russia: what we might call expansion he might call restoration.

I don't quite know how to express this, but spending time in Switzerland, France and Germany recently (sabbatical) brought it home to me just how geographical liminality is alien to English experience. We don't cross borders other than Wales and Scotland, which aren't – yet – borders in the sense that Germany and France have them. Living on an island shapes a particular perception of national identity, but it is very different one grown on mainland Europe where borders of land, language, culture, history and ethnicity are so pronounced, delicate, vulnerable and steeped in blood. Reading about the First World War outside of Britain is very different from reading about it in Britain – just as reading about concentration camps in the Second World War feels different depending on whether you are doing the reading in Bristol or Berlin.

Every government needs to read history – although history tells us that each one will read the history that suits them according to the myths they need to reinforce (regardless of whether the myths are backed up by facts). Every teenager in Britain should be required to spend a week in Berlin, walking along 'borders' that introduce them – in curriculum terms – to geography, history, language, religion, theology, politics, philosophy, art, literature, science, economics, culture, etc. That way we might just begin to grow a generation that is able to glimpse (if not see) through the eyes of another culture with another history, and realise that our own – assumed or intuitive – way of 'seeing' is both limited and relative.

Back to The Sleepwalkers

It's a bit of a game, isn't it?

Keen to take the initiative, the USA and France ratchet up the pressure to attack Syria on the grounds that Syria must be deterred from using chemical weapons again. Out of nowhere Russia suggests that Syria hand over all chemical weapons for destruction by international experts. This immediately offers a solution that wrongfoots the USA and France, forcing them to react (rather than initiate) and exposing whether military action is really intended to deter, or to aid regime change or to punish Assad.

Of course, this proposal didn't come from nowhere. And the clever Russian Foreign Minister, Lavrov, was disingenuous when, announcing the proposal, he said he didn't know if Syria would agree to it. Lavrov had just spent hours with the Syrian Foreign Minister and I don't think they were discussing the World Cup Qualifiers. Then we discover that they were working on this during the recent meeting of the G20.

Russia always held the key to this and they knew it. Their timing has been excellent – in diplomatic and political/tactical terms. And, yes, it has somewhat queried the pitch for those who wish to hit Syria hard. It possibly also exposes the difference between (a) the western leaders who have to worry about pesky parliaments and democratic accountability and (b) Putin.

Of course, whatever the tactics of the diplomats in their political game-playing, this remains anything but a game for the people whose slaughter merited no intervention until chemical weapons were introduced, when the game suddenly changed.

What price life?

The Russian offering might just have changed the game. Or simply delayed it. Or will the die now be cast by someone else?

If I had a pound for every time I get told, “something must be done” – about something – I would be a rich man. The trouble is, however, that the phrase only ever gets used when the speaker has not the first idea what might be done, what should be done or what will be done. It is a cry of abdication or helplessness.

It is a cry that has gone up many times in the last couple of weeks. Something must be done about Syria. But, what exactly… and to what end?

  • Something to save the lives of innocent children?
  • Something to save the lives of innocent children from chemical attack?
  • Something to save the lives of innocent children from any form of violent attack?
  • Something to save the lives of innocent children from a future shaped by sectarian hatred, rage and revenge?

Well, I guess we are back to the questions of achievability touched on in my last post on Syria. What seems clear to me is that a justification for military intervention must be rooted in more than a humanitarian sense of emotional helplessness or anger at impotence. It is appalling to watch human suffering on such a scale – and brought to our living rooms on various screens – but it is equally appalling to create further suffering by intervening in a way that salves the conscience of the outside agent whilst simply complicating the contortions within the country itself.

I have to confess both to ignorance of the detail being discussed in Washington and Paris and to the technical capacity of the military to reduce the capability of Assad’s forces to repeat or continue chemical attacks (presumably we are OK with them just doing normal – that is, ‘conventional’ -bombing, shooting, torture and butchery?). However, I cannot yet see how a ‘surgical’ intervention cannot but complicate the civil war being waged inside the country. One of the lessons of Iraq (the circumstances of which I accept are not comparable, but the potential consequences of which might be) is that it is impossible to whack in and whack out, leaving the internal parties then to sort everything out. Intervention is intervention – and the whole nature of the business changes immediately and for ever.

(I realise this is a slightly unfortunate segue, but it is a bit like church congregations not realising that more people joining the church does not make the church ‘the same but bigger’, but, rather, radically changes the church – because rather than ‘they joining us’, ‘we together’ are now a different company and culture. One new person changes the whole.)

Any intervention into Syria – however necessary or justified – will change everything. A single US missile attack will change everything. The US Congress might well decide this is necessary, appropriate and justifiable. They must, however, recognise that a swift ‘hit ‘em hard’, ‘mission accomplished’ ‘in and out’ intervention is a fantasy. As Niall Ferguson wrote about the USA (either in Colossus or Empire), if it is an empire, it must behave like an empire. Americans might hate the notion of being imperial, but if that is what they are being (by policing the world in this way), then they must put away simplistic notions of consequence-free ‘surgical strikes’ that bring no further obligations. To do an imperial thing without an imperial mindset or willingness to take on imperial responsibilities is to guarantee long-term and more complicated consequences.

This morning we hear that Damascus and Moscow are laughing down their sleeves at UK and US ‘weakness’. Let them laugh. Morality and justice are not the stuff of the school playground where being called names is the essential spur to retributive action. Better to get it right than to get it quick – or react out of mere pique.

It is all easy to say, sitting here in autumnal England. I don’t feel the flesh of the dead and dying in Syria. But, the suffering will not be ended by western action; and we cannot simply run away from the agony of helplessness that comes from recognising that ‘we’ can’t fix everything or make the pain stop. This civil war will take decades to work through.

The least we can do is apply popular pressure for increased diplomatic engagement. And fund whatever aid we can. And, for those who believe that prayer changes those doing the praying, – committing them to the consequences of their prayers – we must pray. If “something must be done” at all, then let that ‘something’ be right, achievable, moral and effective. There is more at stake here than the international standing of particular countries or the political stature of particular politicians – or is this less about Syrian people and more about international political hubris?

Having had a big needle in my shoulder yesterday, I followed the Syria crisis developments without knowing whether to or how to respond. So much has been said and is being said that adding to it seems pointless. Nevertheless, ahead of the debate in the UK Parliament yesterday, Dr Charles Reed offered a concise elucidation of 'just war theory' (in a series of short blog posts) in order to provide a framework for ethical thinking in relation to the decisions to be made.

No one doubts the seriousness of the issue, and any sign of gloating over David Cameron's 'humiliation' in the House of Commons last night simply demonstrates the ethical confusion that is around. The debate seemed – to me, at least – to revolve around pragmatic questions of achievability rather than questions of ethical consistency. And that is not a criticism. It was not clear what the objective of military action should be and, if done, how its effectiveness might be gauged.

Perhaps these questions focus the matter a little more sharply:

  • Is military action intended to deter Assad from further use of chemical weapons and, if so, what action might achievably serve as an effective deterrent?
  • Is military action intended to weaken Assad's military strength and disrupt his ability to fight his civil war – and, if so, how achievable is this, especially when the civil war is being fought by monsters on both sides?
  • Is military action intended to target stocks of chemical weapons and render them useless – and, if so, how does blowing them up not create an even bigger chemical problem?
  • Why is mass murder using chemical weapons the trigger for military intervention when sustained and systematic mass murder using 'conventional' weaponry was not?
  • Is military action intended to make a difference on the ground in Syria, or to salve the consciences of those who look on helplessly from outside?
  • What is the point of the United Nations when resolutions can be sought, but subsequently overridden by 'exceptional circumstances'?

Contrary to some assertions in the last few weeks, chemical weapons have been used more recently. Saddam Hussein used them against the Kurds. I seem to remember that it was the West that funded and equipped Saddam during the 1980s when our later enemy was our friend because he opposed our then enemy Iran. Can someone remind me who paid for the chemical weapons and who supplied them?

It seems to me that democracy worked last night and for that we should be grateful. Recriminations for political decisions should not take our eye away from what is happening to innocent people in Syria. The regime is behaving barbarically, but so are the rebels. As in the 1980s with Iran and Iraq, taking a short-term approach to funding, equipping and supporting one faction (Islamist fundamentalists, for example) now will lead inexorably to further injustices, cruelties and problems later. That is what history tells us, but what we find hard to learn.

David Cameron's political misjudgement or humiliation is irrelevant. The point of this whole business is how to find an effective way of galvanising international power to bring an end to the brutal civil war in Syria. Our MPs have reflected what seems to be the mood of the country – which, of course, doesn't make it right – and declined the use of military force by the UK. So, what is now their alternative strategy? My guess is that it lies somewhere in diplomatic battles with Russia, China and Iran – however difficult that may be. And Obama must decide, having taken a longer-term view, what will be most effective rather than what might make the USA look strong. This is about Syria, not the political power of 'us' and 'ours'.

In conclusion, I just wonder how those who now 'humiliate' David Cameron would be reacting if Tony Blair's 'winning the vote' over Iraq had equally failed. Would we then have praised the power of democracy – or would we have called for his head for having put his case to Parliament and failed? I would give Cameron some space: he is asking the right questions and they have not gone away just because the UK has vetoed the possible use of our forces in an intervention.

 

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