World Peace in Peril: Challenging False Narratives

By Keith Best

The ability of the peacemaker which, many would argue, is also an obligation, is to take a disinterested view of history and view conflict from the perspective of all antagonists not just a partisan approach. Without that it is impossible to see the flaws in the supposed resolution of war and discern the origins of the next outbreak in the peace treaty of the last. Throughout history the Deity has been claimed as being on the side of both parties in war – so one of them must have got it wrong! We assess that we live in troubled times but seldom in history has there been the absence of that since the beginnings of humanity. Periods of so-called peace have usually been those in which one nation or a group exerted domination over the rest. Even Pax Romana had the historian Tacitus attributing to a British chieftain the comment “They make a desert and call it peace”. On far too few occasions has the victor exhibited Winston Churchill’s maxim “In War, Resolution; In Defeat, Defiance; In Victory, Magnanimity; and in Peace, Good Will”.

It is in that spirit of disinterested observer that I assess what is happening in Ukraine and its causes. First, we must be clear that the invasion was a clear breach of international law, unprovoked, and certainly contrary to the new crime of Aggression recently added to the panoply of the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. There is no doubt that war crimes and crimes against humanity have been perpetrated by Russian forces and the evidence is being gathered for what may result in a separately constituted court similar to those for former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. Sadly, the raping and looting by Russian troops is reminiscent of their forbears’ behaviour when they entered Berlin in 1945. It is now clear from recent statements by Putin that the original stated war aims have been supplanted by the more honest one of seeking Ukrainian territory for its natural resources and as a buffer against NATO. Counter productively, of curse, Putin has now forced both Finland and Sweden into NATO with Ukraine queuing up.

Yet what of the causes of this devastating war that is affecting so much of the world, pushing up prices and inflation, causing potential life-threatening famine in Africa and the Middle East and causing countries to reverse their attempts to limit fossil fuels and reliance on Russia’s oil and gas, apart from precipitating the potential for World War III through miscalculation by either Moscow or NATO?

We need to put ourselves into the mindset of the Russians (considerable numbers of whom still back the war). First, although the Russians have been as equally guilty in their military interventions in Afghanistan and Syria they will look at the two Gulf wars as an unprovoked military action by the USA and its allies. Secondly, the Kremlin has never accepted Ukrainian independence in 1991 and still regards it as part of the former Russian Federation. Thirdly, from the viewpoint of Moscow it does look as though it is being menacingly threatened by an encroaching NATO. From the Russian perspective the fall of the Berlin Wall 1989, glasnost, perestroika, were more accommodating to the West. Assurances by the US Secretary of State James Baker that former Warsaw Pact countries would not join NATO but in 2004 the Baltic States, Czech Republic, Slovakia (which had always looked East), Poland and Slovenia joined EU and Bulgaria & Romania in 2007 – this led to a sense of beleagurment as well as loss of influence. Within two years of the fall of the Berlin Wall the former territories of the Soviet Union, the five central Asian countries, the so-called Stans (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) had declared independence and become part of the Commonwealth of Independent States – they are now semi-autonomous (although Belarus, always close to Russia, and Kazakstan can still have Russian troops to suppress unrest). Uzbekistan now hosts a major American airbase.

As to NATO membership: in 1999, PolandHungary, and the Czech Republic  joined NATO, followed by BulgariaEstoniaLatviaLithuaniaRomaniaSlovakia, and Slovenia in 2004 and then Albania and Croatia in 2009.  I had been to Potsdam in East Germany (the DDR) during the Cold War and seen both East German and Soviet troops there yet, despite some misgivings in Europe and opposition from the Soviet Union in 1990 the two Germanies were united and the DDR automatically became a member of NATO. US Secretary of State James Baker stated on 9 February 1990: “We consider that the consultations and discussions in the framework of the 2+4 mechanism should give a guarantee that the reunification of Germany will not lead to the enlargement of NATO’s military organisation to the East” and the following day, Helmut Kohl the German Chancellor said: “We consider that NATO should not enlarge its sphere of activity”. It is true that in 1991-1992 NATO had no intention of enlarging and its statements to that effect to the Russians were accurate but the pressure from applicant countries proved to be too great. From Moscow this looks like encirclement and deceit giving rise to not trusting the West’s intentions.

No one can predict how the conflict in Ukraine will end. If Russia suffers further reverses (and it is interesting how even supporters of the war are pointing out the inadequacies of training, equipment, supplies and manpower of the Russian forces) then Putin may be replaced but probably by Sergei Shoigu or a general equally if not more hard-line. It is clear that the Ukrainians will accept nothing less than a total withdrawal of Russia from all its territory including Crimea and what was seized in 2014. If the West continues to support that position there is currently no basis for compromise of negotiations.  If Ukraine prevails, however, Russia will be humiliated even further and that will be a dangerous situation – a wounded beast is a dangerous animal. It is then, therefore, that the West must be conciliatory and hold out the hand of friendship and understanding offering support, mutual trust building measures such as observation of and even joint military exercises, recognising that a defeated Russia is an even greater threat to peace. The West missed a trick in 1989/90 when it should have been more proactive in that way and must not make the same mistake again. Churchill’s words will haunt us.

Maria Ressa is one of the 25 leading figures on the Information and Democracy Commission launched by Reporters Without Borders.  She was awarded the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize jointly for “their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace.” She was convicted under the controversial Anti-Cybercrime law in the Philippines and faces up to six years in prison. If found guilty of other charges, her lawyer tells her, she could go to jail for more than a century. Her latest book “How to Stand Up to a Dictator.”  Rappler, the Manila-based digital media company for investigative journalism that she cofounded, became known for detailing the weaponization of social media and for exposing government corruption and human rights violations. She claims that modern media have become obsessed with fear, hatred and the baser instincts rather than believing that there is good in the world. You have to draw the line between good and evil and have trust, despite attempts to destroy it, as well as faith. Her solution long term is education, medium term is legislation and short term is combat against the threat. 

Both her assessment and that of Freedom House make grim reading. She foresees 2024 with its numerous elections around the world as marking democracy in further retreat, undermined by populism and the spreading of falsities let alone the increasing predominance of defeated leaders to challenge the legitimacy of the democratic process. She urges us to take action now. Democracy is a delicate flower and must be nurtured as well as constantly revised to make sure that it is fit for modern purpose. Freedom House’s latest Democracy Index (rating people’s access to political rights and civil liberties in 210 countries and territories) states (and it is worth quoting it fully) “Global freedom faces a dire threat. Around the world, the enemies of liberal democracy—a form of self-government in which human rights are recognized and every individual is entitled to equal treatment under law—are accelerating their attacks. Authoritarian regimes have become more effective at co-opting or circumventing the norms and institutions meant to support basic liberties, and at providing aid to others who wish to do the same. In countries with long-established democracies, internal forces have exploited the shortcomings in their systems, distorting national politics to promote hatred, violence, and unbridled power. Those countries that have struggled in the space between democracy and authoritarianism, meanwhile, are increasingly tilting toward the latter. The global order is nearing a tipping point, and if democracy’s defenders do not work together to help guarantee freedom for all people, the authoritarian model will prevail. The present threat to democracy is the product of 16 consecutive years of decline in global freedom. A total of 60 countries suffered declines over the past year, while only 25 improved. As of today, some 38 percent of the global population live in Not Free countries, the highest proportion since 1997. Only about 20 percent now live in Free countries.”

Some autocracies can last for a long time – the Tsarist regime and Stalin’s domination as examples – but they usually have within them the seeds of their own destruction. We are seeing remarkable cracks in Xi Jing Ping’s iron rule in China with spontaneous demonstrations in several cities against his Covid lockdown policy. That is significant in a country with no culture or history of democracy and yet the people have a voice – even displaying blank placards in protest of the suppression of that voice. I am not suggesting a Chinese spring but we should not forget Tiananmen Square. Likewise, as I have indicated, having seen perestroika and glasnost once we cannot predict if it will happen again in Russia. The events of 1989 were largely entirely unforeseen and when I was in Moscow only a few years earlier the edifice of Soviet communism seemed intact.

I am currently reading the forgotten and only recently resurrected manuscript of a book by Brendon Sewill called the Armed Dove in which he postulates a new world order with the creation of a World Peace Authority which would oversee general nuclear disarmament. I hope that it will soon see the light of day as it is an interesting premise and a useful recount of actual history going back to the McCloy-Zorin proposals of 1961.

He goes back even further. Lord Salisbury, the British Prime Minister, in a speech in 1897, saw the piling up of arms and the yearly improvement in the “instruments of death” culminating in a ‘terrible effort of mutual destruction which will be fatal for Christian civilisation” (and interestingly he went on to suggest that the only way disaster could be avoided would be eventually by bringing the powers together “to be welded in some international constitution”).

Similarly, Sir Edward Grey (later Lord Grey), British Foreign Secretary from 1905 to 1916, attributed the first world war to the same cause: Great armaments lead inevitably to war. The increase of armaments produces a consciousness of the strength of other nations and a sense of fear. Fear begets suspicion and distrust and evil imaginings of all sorts, till each government feels it would be criminal and a betrayal of its country not to take every precaution, while every government regards the precautions of every other government as evidence of hostile intent.

A series of accidents in the 1980s – Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, the shooting down of the Korean airliner KL007, the Challenger tragedy – showed just how fallible technology was. According to the Pentagon there had been 33 serious accidents involving American nuclear weapons

Olof Palme in his Independent Commission report: ” … no matter what unilateral choices a nation makes in pursuit of security, it will remain vulnerable to nuclear attack and thus ultimately insecure. Neither physical nor psychological security can be achieved without the development of an international system which would outlaw war. As long as the community of nations lacks a structure of laws backed by a central authority with power and legitimacy to enforce these laws; then nations are likely to continue to arm.”

The answer to ameliorating the dangers of this world which have been with us for centuries in different forms has always been clear. It is to bring all the nations together in a concerted effort to turn swords into ploughshares and to seek general disarmament starting with nuclear arsenals which, by now, almost certainly are otiose and have lost any significant purpose. Yet that goal can only be achieved in a climate of trust and co-operation and it is that for which we must strive.