A Theory of Doddering Dominoes

In the Ukrainian crisis, if there is one organisation or entity that comes out as the most sensible in indicating the way forward for the world is the European Union (EU). The EU, as an organisation with a particular sensibility and sobriety, can temper the worst excesses of nationalism and the vehicle that it often mindlessly carries forward the nation-state. The EU’s origins lay in realising the dangers of rival nationalisms when the continent was torn apart by two world wars within three decades.

Its organising principle of pooled sovereignty, and not the other idea that it is most often associated with, the common market, is what can serve as a template for the future if we are to redeem and rescue the much wounded 22 years of the 21st century from further damnation. While many trace the origins of the nation-state to the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, it would be wiser to locate them 150 years earlier and 2000 kilometres further west and south to 1492 on the Iberian Peninsula. That year the Spanish Reconquista brought about the fall of the Moors and created a perverse form of political monotheism, the need to worship at the altar of the nation-state. In 16th century absolutist France, this perversity was captured in the slogan Un roi, uneloi, unefoi (One King, One Law, One Faith).

The invasion of Ukraine reveals the insanity induced by the intoxicating and heady concoction of Russian nationalism. The Financial Times’s former Moscow bureau chief, Charles Clover, in an almost prescient piece written in March 2016, suggests that Vladimir Putin’s speech delivered in December 2012 in St. George’s Hall in the Kremlin with some 600 dignitaries indicated his adventurism with nationalism. Putin invoked the obscure ideas of the Soviet historian Lev Gumilev contained in the term passionarnost, the energy that a nation finds within itself to move forward and affect change in history. The term passionarnost, difficult to translate, is best understood as an intense passion that renders the necessary cohesion to facilitate the nation’s onward march that will effect change in the direction desired. Gumilev seems to have developed the idea from observing closely in the late 1950s the steppe tribes of inner Eurasia such as the Scythians, the Xiongnu, the Huns, Turks, Khitai, Tanguts and Mongols. It bears a strange resemblance to the 14th-century Arab philosopher Ibn Khaldun’s concept of assabiya, a spirit of unity and cohesiveness that allows a vigorous group of people drawn from the desert hinterlands to overthrow the effete political elites of the urban centres.

The lesson drawn from the Russian aggression and invasion of Ukraine is that if humanity is to survive in the 21st century and beyond, the idea of nationalism must be superseded and left behind. The worst instincts of the political receptacle that instantiates nationalism, the nation-state must be reined in, for those worst instincts tend to be played out on a genocidal scale. This often happens when nation-states weaponise and misuse their sovereignty against their weakest and most vulnerable, or they tend to extend it in directions where they feel it does not sufficiently extend. The only way to rein in nation-states’ worst instincts and excesses are by creating an international legal architecture centred around the International Criminal Court (ICC) that can prevent nation-states from flagrantly abusing human rights and committing mass crimes against humanity. Another way is through a supra-national entity such as the EU, where sovereignty can be profitably pooled.

In the current crisis, the United Kingdom seems to have forgotten all about its Brexit tantrums over sovereignty and the exaggerated urge to ‘take back control’ from the EU. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been quick to forget Brexit and is now eager to play out his immature fantasy of assuming the statesmanlike demeanour of his hero Winston Churchill. In less grandiose terms, the Ukraine crisis has merely served as a lifeline for Johnson to survive the career-breaking controversies surrounding him over his irresponsible flouting of Covid restrictions. Johnson’s frivolity makes him deaf to Winston Churchill’s September 1946 ‘Let Europe Arise’ speech in Zurich, where he famously envisaged the United States of Europe.

Brexit may have been a Russian backed bid to yank the United Kingdom out of the EU to weaken Europe politically; similarly, Putin would have loved Donald Trump to continue in the White House for another term and to continue seeking admiration from Trump. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has very effectively restored Western unity that he was willing to disrupt which was quite evident last summer in June 2021, during the G7 summit in Cornwall in England. Significantly, Ukraine’s application to join the EU is an indicator of the direction in which the political winds could blow.

Doddering Dominoes

Putin’s offensive against Ukraine could intensify as he cannot climb down from the aggression he initiated. Things may perhaps get worse before they can get better. One thing, however, is inevitable, out of the contemporary conjuncture created by the 2007 neoliberal financial crisis, the proliferation of populist leaders across the world and the Coronavirus pandemic, new world order is waiting to be born. It will kick away authoritarian 70-year-old men like Putin who believe foolishly and passionately in antiquated ideas like nationalism. It began with the defeat of the 75-year-old Trump, who was in cahoots with Putin. We all know what happens when one doddering domino falls. Comedians like Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy may have the last laugh. 

Dr.  Amir Ali is an Assistant Professor at Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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