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1 September, 2016  ▪  Philippe de Lara

What are we fighting for?

In the face of multiple challenges, the focus goes on security. The nature of political response, however, is at least equally important

Since January 2015, France has been struck by a series of terrorist attacks. More attacks have been avoided thanks to police work. The government declares that France is “at war with terrorism”. France is living under a “state of emergency” since November 2015. But when a country is targeted, there is no zero risk, and French authorities are well aware and declared repeatedly that France would suffer other painful attacks, whatever the precautions.

So we are at war. What kind of war is it? Who is the enemy? And are France and other Western countries able to control and defeat this enemy? These complex questions are both strategic and political, they depend both on domestic and foreign politics.

Although bewildering, the security stake is actually not the most difficult one. Since the 1970s, with domestic red terrorism in Germany and Italy, and the rise of “international terrorism”, western democracies have been destabilized several times by new kinds of terror. Until the collapse of USSR, terrorist groups were very often sponsored if not controlled by the KGB or its East German, Bulgarian, etc. cousins. In each case, the police and special forces had to adapt. Governments had to find the best course of reactions. You don’t deal with militarized groups trained and sponsored by Soviet Union the same way you deal with a globalized network with autonomous cells like Al Qaida.

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Recently, under the disguise of the “Islamic State”, the fragmentation of the terrorist mode of action reached a new step: it is now a matter of individual radicalization coached by internet sites or Muslim communities influenced by fundamentalists. Terrorists use a wide range of tactics and weapons, able to be served by either experienced veterans, or mad bigots, or young manipulated activists. The debates we once had on the distinctions to be made between organized international terrorism and isolated insane perpetrators, on the duty to avoid absolutely “amalgamation” between religious, political, and social motives, etc. are idle wheels, to say the least: against the unprecedented diffuse and polymorphic modes of terror, these are not alternate scenarios but intertwined factors. The Nice’s killer, may be both an insane and ideologically motivated person, both an isolated lone wolf and a pawn of ISIS.

To see what happens and to cope with it is a difficult task. We are more or less back to the same situation as on the day after the Munich Olympics massacre in 1972, or after the first airplane hijackings in the Middle East. Then, special forces in each country studied the new warfare of terrorists and devised new defence tactics. But the art of “asymmetrical war” as it is labelled now finds every day new tools and devices, thanks to globalization of media and economy, technologies, internet and, last but not least, new motivation profiles. Yet the main tough challenge for governments is not security. Security is not a matter of muscles and/or of law, it is a matter of politics. Politics means giving sense to the situation: first, statesmen have to inform the people and explain the events so that they can cope with the threat in the long run and behave properly. Second, they have to lead the nation and appear trustworthy in a time of ubiquitous dangers. Again, this leadership and trustworthiness are not a matter of “verticality” as too many little Putins are barking (including our Sarkozy), nor are they based only on efficiency and success in the protection of the population. They depend properly on the ability (and willingness) to make sense of the threats and disorders of the world, of the situation of our country, and to articulate the projectit sets to the nation and to the world. The duty of governments is not only to take all the technical steps to achieve security, but to put the civil society in the material and moral condition to understand and cope with these steps, to picture the meaning and horizon of the ordeal (what we stand and fight for). In the French case, these issues are intricate because the State has been and is still, so to speak, our civil society: since the monarchy and through Republicanism, State in France is the founder of the nation and the main object of our patriotic pride, the shield protecting citizens from any danger, the source of any collective action, the heart of what French culture and way of life mean for us and for the world.

First challenge: to behave properly. It does not mean to become a nation of heroes. Proper behaviour involves small things: common decency, control of panic, good will compliance to security regulations even when they are boring, and, last but not least, resistance to scapegoating: “it is the fault of the Arabs, of EU, of weakness of democratic powers, of refugees”. Other scapegoat hunters will mention “islamophobia, xenophobia, poverty, capitalism, US imperialism”: the leftists are not less silly than the “populists” ones.

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Now, resilience against panic and scapegoating, care for others, civic discipline, are not given once and for all in individuals and societies, they are shaped by circumstances, by national culture and by politics. Let us think of the unbelievable resources of dedication, courage, and civic morality revealed by the Maidan in a people, the Ukrainians, supposed to be depressed, selfish, divided, prone tomental slavery aftercenturies of foreign domination and decades of Soviet brain-washing. Or let us look at the dignity of French people reactions after the attacks of November 2015 in Paris: the awareness of the values at stake, the concern for unity and even friendship, the civic piety of the rituals in memory of the victims (maybe an echo of Maidan…).

Here comes the ultimate pitfall: French leaders, French government are doing rather well in their daily decisions, they find more or less the right words at the good time (admittedly better in November than in July). But they don’t provide what a society, a nation needs in such a situation: a clear identification and understanding of the threats and dangers we are facing, a sound and meaningful narrativeabout where we stand in such a complex and dreadful world, and a perspective of action we set to ourselves and propose to our allies and partners. Such were in the pastwars (at least justified and accepted ones). So should be the European “construction”, or NATO, or WTO, provided they have sound purposes and the skill to make these purposes intelligible and legitimate to the citizens. Alas, whatever their merits, the best European leaders (let me include president Hollande among them, despite the general Hollande bashing in France) don’t have, or don’t dare to articulate for themselves and for their people this understanding, narrative, and project. The word “War” which should point to a definite undertaking has become an empty shell. People are getting frustrated and angry by a belligerent speech which cannot name the enemy, nor the possible allies, nor the means and theatre of combats, not to mention the scope of the war, that is which order it is meant to fosterafter the current chaos, at least regarding the balance of powers and stability of international order, if not higher objectives, like freedom, just and peaceful cooperation schemes, or saving the planet.

What are the issues our political narrative (rather, our lack of political narrative!) fails to answer, in France and in Europe? Analysis could be made at a broad and abstract level: crisis of democratic governance, unbound individualism, challenge of sustainable habitation of the planet, shift of the world from Europe to Asia, renewed plausibility of authoritarian regimes, etc. I find more illuminating to focus on three key issues, on which Western statesmen should and could be accountable and are not: the failure of the revolution of global economy since 2008, the rise of Islamic madness, the neo-totalitarian turn of Russia. The average political understanding since the end of Cold War has been unable to grasp and forecast these situations. At best, it focuses on the first and the second, but it ignores the third and cannot address any of them because it does not grasp the whole picture.

The underestimation of Russia’s power of nuisance has its deepest root in this lack of global understanding. Western leaders (who are still the leaders of the world) are bewildered by economic and security challenges. They take them one at a time as they stumble on them. They hate the idea of facing many different enemies and threats, they long for a package deal which would solve all problems with a single blow, be it the pacified and unrestrained globalization of populations and markets, the annihilation of fundamentalist Islam, the battle against social injustice on a world scale, or the restauration of national closed societies, ruled by authoritarian governments, or digital economy, or whatever. Putin’s game, fiery and blinded by revenge (or rather by a fantasy of revenge), is a fact many leaders choose to ignore because they cannot stand a third front on the continent and prefer to flirt with the illusion that Putin’s regime could be a reliable partner and even a recourse. That’s why so many decent conservatives fall under Putin’s spell: some areangry againstthe destruction of local cultures and of democratic nations by globalization, othersunhappy with the dismantling of welfare state by the new economy, othersdespaired by the decay of democratic politics which no longer offer community values, historical meaning, and decency of leadership.

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 That’s why we overstate our common interest with Russia (against Islamic terror, in Syria, for the security of Europe at large and, why not, against Turkey and NATO), and that’s why we misconstrue Putin’s action as a rational great power policy. Since 1989, Western consciousness is still under the spell of “the end of history” and cannot contemplate history in the making, that is genuine chaos strategies which are at the bottom of both Russia and Islamism policy. It makes little difference whether this chaos strategy is driven by some cunning expectations or by blind resentment. The civil war in Europe that Islamic terrorists are trying to put on fire on one side, the collapse of EU and reshuffling of European order Putin is pushing forward on the other, are two very different and independent perils, but the same disability prevent Europeans from understanding and reacting properly to these perils.

My conjecture is that the deep misunderstanding of what happened in 1989 is the mother of subsequent mistakes and blindness: on the flaws of global economy revolution and their political consequences on legitimacy in democratic countries, and on the nature of earthquakes in the Islamic world (since the Islamic revolution in Iran, the Sunnite-Shi’ite war, and the Soviet war in Afghanistan). Unfortunately, such thoughts may be shared in Ukraine, they are nearly inaudible in the rest of Europe.

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