How Wars Fall on Us
Lecture by Professor Alain Brossat
Keywords: War, Global North, Ukraine-Russia, Taiwan-China, “democracy”
One of the paradoxical effects of propaganda is that instead of keeping us alert, it anesthetizes us. When you have been told for years that the neighbor, the close enemy, threatens to invade you and could well do so the next morning, you end up getting used to this type of message, however alarmist it may be, and you go about your ordinary business rather than arrange for the construction of a personal or family fallout shelter… It is also that more is needed than the mechanical repetition of propaganda messages and a spasmodic agitation against the enemy at our gates to convince us effectively of the actuality of the war for us, that is to say of the possibility of a war which, this time, would no longer take place in newspapers, on television screens, on social networks but indeed in our own lives, which would directly affect our living conditions and endanger our own lives.
What, in fact, characterizes us in the first place, we inhabitants of the Global North, is the fact that we consider our condition immune or rather immunized, that is to say secure and protected against vital dangers (war first and foremost) as an asset, a constituent element of this condition. We know, of course, that we do not live in a world or an age which has left war behind, either by the grace of the uninterrupted moral progress of mankind or by that of the wisdom of our leaders; but fundamentally, for us, war, the wars that surround us, more or less close or more or less distant, are images, they are information, they are indeed a kind of spectacle, violent and repulsive – but that is for others .
Therefore, the specificity of our immune condition is to arouse the generalized illusion of an exclusion clause: one that would make our latitudes, in the Global North, by destination and so to speak by right areas of where war is banished. The reverse or complement of this illusion is the radical loss of the imaginative faculties that would allow us to anticipate the possibility that, despite everything, war will one day fall on us.
The foundations of this illusion are both socio-cultural and historical. In the generally democratic societies of the Global North, the pacification of mores is a general process, the effect of which is the lowering of the level of violence in human relationships and interactions, the rise of immune paradigms in all spheres of life – relationships between men and women, adults and children, teachers and students, humans and animals, etc. Lively violence and, in general, everything related to warrior paradigms is now, in these societies, affected by a resolutely negative sign. Not only do we live in peace, but this peace is now intimately linked to the sphere of morals and daily life. It is in this sense that, naturally, terrorism, such as it is likely to burst into our peaceful spaces, inspires us with particular horror.
But it is also because we have now come to the end of a long historical sequence placed under the paradoxical sign of an armed peace, of a cold war overhung by the sword of Damocles of nuclear terror, and whose own is, precisely, by freezing the balance of power and establishing a kind of balance of terror, not to have led to a hot war. As a result, we have almost come to make “nuclear deterrence” our own spontaneous or implicit religion of peace. We have become accustomed to a world where, strangely, the balance of terror “protected” us, had made it possible to overcome several major crises between the opposing power blocs (Korean War, Budapest insurrection (1956), crisis rockets in Cuba (1962), blockade of Berlin, Vietnam War, invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet army (1968)…) and where the wars, from now on, were projected and disseminated on all the periphery of the Global North somehow sanctuary.
For us Europeans, the first alerts tending to indicate that the feeling of security resulting from this situation of relative equilibrium was in truth illusory occurred even before the fall of the Soviet bloc: from the beginning of the 1980s with the arms race on our soil between the two superpowers of the time, the United States and the USSR, with the dangerous rise in the bidding surrounding the establishment in the two Germany(ies) of the time of the Pershing and SS 20 medium-range rockets, both likely to be equipped with nuclear charges… And then, the quite tangible sign of the change of era in progress, traumatizing in many respects for European opinions, was the return of the war on the very soil of old Europe with the break-up of Yugoslavia, in the din of arms, with its procession of massacres, acts of barbarism, scenes of civil war against the backdrop of a Balkan remake of the Second World War world…
The problem is that we have an infinite faculty not to “believe”, that is to say not to draw the intellectual and practical consequences of what we know perfectly; this is true of war as it is of global warming, the mirage of economic growth, etc. In Europe, we had before our eyes, on our doorstep, an entire decade of intra-Yugoslavian wars (1991-2001) and that should have been enough to convince us that war had returned “among us”, that it was past time to dismiss the illusion according to which our privileged existences would be placed under a regime of perpetual peace.
But, in practice, everything happened as if a thick, hermetic wall of glass separated us from the Yugoslav war. As long as shells did not fall on us, none of our towns were besieged, as long as our immune way of life was not affected, we were inclined to carry on as before, sticking to our course, going about our business and acting as if peace was contractually guaranteed to us, once and for all.
The war in Ukraine is what brought us out of this interminable torpor, this too comfortable illusion. If European governments and public opinion have reacted with such vociferous indignation to the invasion of Ukraine by the Russian army, it is not in the first place under the effect of moral, humanitarian sentiments, of convictions backed by the international law, human rights, the horror that a war of conquest inspires in us, etc. It is in the first place that Putin’s unexpected initiative produced the most painful of awakenings and effects of a return to reality by tearing Europeans (not only, but first and foremost, for obvious reasons) from the foundations of new epoch: not the era of the glorious and irresistible democratic globalization which only the last four of the retarded authoritarianism and totalitarianism would resist, but indeed that in which the Western hegemony in decline is put in battle order to confront the rising powers which, more and more openly, challenge this hegemony and no longer bend before the dictates of the universalist imperialism of Western democracy. This new epoch is, in the present, that of a new cold war now liable to heat up disastrously on the occasion of the first local or regional crisis to come. In this configuration, the fiction of the sanctuaries of the Global North spared by the war is shattered.
This is what the new Ukrainian paradigm shows perfectly: if it happens, as the strategists of the new Atlanticism say (whether in the American or European version), that the “borders of NATO” are those where the opposing worlds of the democratic West and Putinian despotism are separating, so the slightest armed incident on the border of Poland and Ukraine or Belarus is likely to turn into a casus belli leading to a war of the worlds …
It is exactly the same here, in East Asia, in obviously specific geo-political conditions – I mean: the same matrix of the time (epoch) and of what makes it so dangerous is similar in this region of the world, given, of course, the obvious disparities resulting from different histories and contexts – European continent, East Asian as Grossraum, “wide space”…
You have been told for years now that you live, on this island, in one of the regions most dangerous places in the world, permanently exposed to the threat of invasion by your powerful neighbor, on the front line of the virtual war raging between the so-called “free world” (Democracy, the only civilized and tolerable regime of politics), to authoritarianism or to continental totalitarianism… And the completely unexpected effect of this verbal outbidding hitherto followed by no particular effect, is that these cries of alarm which are also battle cries have become a background noise to which you have finished getting used to and which, although they keep getting more and more deafening, do not prevent you from sleeping and, above all, do not change your habits.
Everything happens as if we were not living that badly in the eye of the storm, insofar as it (this eye) presents all the appearances of a world at peace. As an island microcosm, Taiwanese society is a model of an immune society, remarkable for anyone who comes from elsewhere, from Europe, from the United States a fortiori, by the gentleness of its morals, the safety of its streets, the very low level of visible social conflict, the affability of its police, in comparison with a country like France, for example, etc. Everything happens as if, bizarrely, the perpetual incantations about the imminent threats hanging over this island and its inhabitants had an effect of suspending or revoking these very threats – as if all that was needed was to make the windmills of the “Chinese threat” turn tirelessly, so that it turns into a paper tiger.
Everything therefore happens strangely as if the rise to the extremes of the rhetoric of war and security, the radicalization of the culture of the enemy had, on this island, the paradoxical effect of reinforcing the bubbles, the spheres and the immune envelopes. Young people who do their four-month military service generally see it as a painful obligation, a waste of time, a period doomed to boredom and a collection of stupid routines, totally unrelated to the general situation whose governing elites constantly paint the most alarmist picture. When they are at rest, they discuss everything except the defense of the country. The outrageous unilateralism of official propaganda has on them, as on the population as a whole, an effect not of mobilization but of derealization. It feeds not an increase in awareness of the risks and dangers to which the inhabitants of the island are exposed, like those of this whole part of the world, but on the contrary withdrawal into bubbles and escapes into the imagination. The massive denial of reality is (im)paired with smartphones, laptops and other jewels of digital civilization.
The real, reality, in our present, in East Asia today, is no more the Chinese threat than the American or Japanese threat, it is indeed the fact that this region has become one of the points of crystallization of the tensions likely to lead from one moment to another on a kind of war of the worlds placed under the sign of the bad infinity, that is to say, of “everything is possible”. It is the transposition in the historical and geopolitical field of plate tectonics: Taiwan and the entire region surrounding it have become annoyingly, in the configuration of tensions and clashes between opposing forces, the point of friction, of collision of “plates”, of blocks of power, likely to cause the most devastating “earthquakes” by dragging the populations of the region into the spiral of wars with unforeseeable consequences.
What determines the particular form of the current confrontation of which Taiwan is likely to become a point of condensation in the great East Asian space – in the same way as Ukraine is today in the East Eastern space – is quite distinct: the more the structuring of what takes the place of a world order (and which is also a chaos) around Western hegemony is called into question by what must be called the decline of West and in particular of the Pax Americana resulting from the Second World War, the more the promotion of Democracy, in its most conquering universalist imperialist version appears as the last card of Western- and white-centric hegemonism.
Since the beginning of the 1990s and the fall of the USSR, the figure of the democratization of the world, of the expansion of total democracy, of democratic globalization on a planetary scale has appeared in the eyes of the self-centered Western narrators as the pure and simple incarnation of Reason in History. This global West has completely lost the sense of the limits which the infinite expansion of its power comes up against. During the first Cold War, the United States and its allies thought of the world in terms of zones of influence and knew that their international policy stood within these limits. This is why they were careful not to intervene directly when Soviet troops invaded Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, after having had to accept the partition of the Korean peninsula. They knew that there were opposing powers to which they granted a certain legitimacy, starting with the Soviet superpower – but not only, since they ended up exchanging ambassadors with communist China, under Nixon.
Today, we are totally out of this configuration and that is why the situation has become so dangerous. The presumption of global democracy, the one that thinks that the present and the future belong to them by right and entirely as it is the incarnation of universal values (human rights…) and of the only civilized regime of the politics leads it not only to delegitimize but to criminalize any adverse force or any power that resists it or refuses to fall under its influence. The mechanisms and procedures of recognition between adversaries and even enemies that existed at the time of the Cold War and the balance of nuclear terror were gradually abandoned and abolished by the Western powers after the fall of the USSR. What replaces them is the politics of contempt and humiliation which are the reverse of the infinite presumption of total-democracy assured that the world belongs to it and that those who resist this conquest are fundamentally rogues, illegitimate entities to be “democratized” willingly or by force.
It is exactly in this spirit that the United States and its allies, both regional and European, approach the question of Taiwan and China – the reasons of the other opposing party, both its interests and its perspective on the subject matter of the dispute – none of this merits consideration; our own interests and our approach to the problem can only perfectly coincide with the interest of generic humanity and the point of view of the universal. This is what makes that automatically not only those who oppose us by resisting our expansion are enemies and criminals but, by an implacable logic, that those who do not adopt our enemies as their own enemies become our enemies – this is the “law” of the sanctions imposed by the United States on a whole series of countries and which, in their eyes, are therefore destined to become universal legislation.
This unified imperialist and universalist posture of contemporary democracy is an explosive and a poison at the same time and it carries in its sides an infinity of promises of war just like “the cloud carries the storm”, according to the famous expression by Jean Jaures; or, more precisely, in the same way as at the beginning of the 20th century the conflicting ambitions of European nation-states created the conditions for the explosion of August 1914.
What is important in the first place to identify, in order to understand the historical present and the dangers of war, is the singularity of this configuration of antagonism between the West in decline, the United States and Western hegemony in crisis, and other forces, some on the rise, such as China in the first place, or others in need of recovery and reconquest, such as Russia. In this configuration, a key role is played by the attempt to redeploy Western hegemony by means of the promotion of an entirely biased democratic universalism. This situation is explosive because the mechanisms of recognition between adversary forces are totally blocked and because, in these conditions, only shots force like what Putin has just undertaken in Ukraine appear likely to change the course of things and to make heard the voice of those who are treated like the “rest” by the West. In this general situation, incantations against the horrors of war and pacifist litanies have no hold on reality. Only a powerful anti-war movement to influence the course of events, on the express condition that it turns its back on the rhetoric of the enemy and the bellicose propaganda of the governing elites and the “grand narrators” of the Global North.
If you want to avoid war falling on you without you knowing what is happening to you, as happened to the Europeans in August 1914, to the Yugoslavs in the 1990s and even more recently to the Ukrainians, the first thing to do is to work tirelessly to regain the autonomy of your judgment in the face of the political and communication powers which are tirelessly active in conditioning and mobilizing you, embarking you like sleepwalkers in a war that you did not want and which is not yours. The first thing we need to loosen the grip of the warmongers, who are ready to do anything today to not give up their positions of power, is to have clear ideas about the origin of what threatens to fall on us – in other words, here in East Asia, how is it that, since the end of the Second World War, we have never been so close to the outbreak of an armed conflict with incalculable consequences? What has led to this situation in which the most powerful and closest by so many traits of Taiwan’s neighbors is ever more elatedly decried as the inexpiable enemy? Why is the status quo, the fragile but salutary balance that made Taiwan’s rapid material development possible, now more threatened than ever? Are we, on this island, really condemned to die idiots?
There is one thing that you should know, however perfect Confucians that you might be, it is that nothing, neither in principle nor in fact, prevents us from reflecting critically on our present and in particular, on the way we are governed; nothing that obliges us to follow and undergo the policy of these when it leads us straight into the wall, whether here or elsewhere. The theoreticians and strategists of the limited confrontation with China of which the dispute over Taiwan would be the object or the pretext and which would be an opportunity to inflict a lesson on it and to remind it who is the master in the large Pacific-Eastern Asian space, these smart boys live and draw their grandiose projects in perfectly protected spaces located tens of thousands of kilometers from the theater of future operations – just as they plan their plans to extend the NATO on the eastern and southern borders of Russia at the expense of the security of the peoples of Europe. The principle that governs these reconquest strategies is to always be separated from the space in which the “war for democracy” will be activated (Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Ukraine and tomorrow Taiwan and the China Sea) by an ocean, a vast continental space and, if possible, both. Courageous, but not reckless… The civilizing war, for the pilgrims and the crusaders of universal democracy, is always an export product. This is precisely what makes it so suspicious.
Now and finally, with all the disparities in their respective situations, one thing that Ukraine and Taiwan have had in common today is this: they both have a vocation, in the war of worlds led by the United States and their trailing bearers, “countries of sacrifice”, sacrificed spaces on which and at the expense of which they have chosen to confront their adversaries and inflict a lesson on them. If this resemblance is not obvious to you, it means that you are devilishly distracted…