The paroxysm of western nationalism among talking heads, military commentators, media, and populations is fascinating to watch and read about on social media. Several points are worth considering about what is happening in Europe and its implications and lessons for the Middle East.
The West resists
First, Europe and the West are still very much within history. After the end of the Cold War, the American intellectual, Francis Fukuyama wrote that western liberal capitalism has won its struggle with Communism and Marxism as an ideology. His thesis may not be wrong; it may have been premature: western liberal capitalism has faced the threat of authoritarian capitalism married to hyper-nationalism in the shape of two powers: Russia under Vladimir Putin and the People’s Republic of China under Xi Jinping.
Russia’s political and military mistakes in Ukraine could signal the defeat and possible coming downfall of one and possibly the reining in of the other. Russia’s the inability to win big and rapidly with minimal casualties on both sides have exploded its pretensions of great power status.
Military power is a key factor in international politics, but its use entails risks ranging from dismal performance to outright defeat, and if either happens, a nation’s prestige and ranking in the eyes of others go down. Russia’s ineptitude a week into the attack on Ukraine may not have approached the level of the Winter War with Finland in 1939 but its failures in understanding the societal and logistical dimensions, the incomprehensible inability of reconnaissance strike fires to support advance of infantry and armour, the vulnerability to mobilise small units of highly motivated Ukrainian elite alpha and marine units is not merely embarrassing, it has led the world to recognize that it was never “ten feet tall”.
I would venture to argue that there are only two great powers now, namely the United States and the People’s Republic of China. While the US military still garners prestige and awe from its performance in Desert Storm in 1991 and the rapid invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, the ultimate outcomes of these two wars, particularly the debacle in Afghanistan in mid-2021 has not dimmed the lustre of US military power.
Second, the exultant nature of the celebrations of Ukraine’s heroic resistance belies the notion of the decline of the West and shows that all the talk about the receding of martial spirit and ardour is overblown. While the German Oswald Spengler may have been the first to write about the decline of the west, it is a theme that has been taken up by both the Russians and the Chinese in recent years. In my view, it has been blown out of the water.
White resistance fighter and swarthy terrorist
Third, overt aggression engenders national resistance. No one can fail to be impressed by the heroic efforts of the Ukrainians in resisting an overt act of aggression against them. But there is a supreme colonial mentality to it, funny how national resistance in the Middle East does not get the same accolades in the west as national resistance by the Ukrainian people. The statements of public officials in the west and the sometime moronic comments of media highlight the existence of an ingrained racism that denies legitimacy to the national resistance of peoples in the Middle East or elsewhere. The Ukrainian marine who allegedly sacrificed himself on a bridge near Kherson in what was essentially a suicide mission has been lauded profusely; if that were in the Middle East, the media commentary would be this is fanaticism pure and simple and can only be explained by culture! Military commentators are even advising Ukrainians, civilians and otherwise, on how to use small-unit urban warfare tactics against the Russians, while officials from western European countries have indicated that they have no objections to their citizens traveling to fight in Ukraine.
Ukrainian refugees are welcome in western Europe because they are “qualified” immigrants who bring skills, but it seems more so because they are “blonde and blue-eyed like us”, as was stated on social media by an observer who was neither blonde nor blue-eyed. More than anything else, this war has succeeded in making Ukraine a fully European nation. Eighty years ago, a significant element of the grandparents of today’s western Europeans viewed Ukrainians as merely Slavic “untermenschen” – inferiors – at the far edge of Europe. Nowadays, their children and grandchildren have fully accepted them as Europeans “like us” and are falling over themselves to welcome them into western Europe as refuges, volunteering to serve in the Ukrainian military or paramilitary groups and offering them lethal weapons. It is interesting that it has taken a war rather than the evolution of shared values and norms to effect this transformation in the space of a few days.
The European outpouring of sympathy and support for a war of national resistance by a “white people” reminds one of the eras of the Napoleonic Wars in the early 19th century, when European governments and peoples hailed the national resistance of the Spanish people fighting a brutal guerrilla war against the French as well as that of the Calabrian people in southern Italy, again against the French. These were wars where atrocities on both sides were rife. Following the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, internal wars were ruthlessly suppressed in Europe because they became associated with the uprisings of the industrial proletariat. There were exceptions, of course, there was considerable sympathy for Italy’s war of national liberation under nationalist guerrilla leader Giuseppe Garibaldi and for the aborted French levee en masse after the defeat of France’s conventional armies in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871. However, where wars of national resistance were “outlawed”, as it was, was in the non-European world where European powers were trying to bring brown, black, and yellow people under their thumb. The notion that “savages” and “semi-civilized” people deigned to oppose the “benefits of civilisation” that the European colonial powers were in the process of bringing to these backward regions was incomprehensible to the Europeans.
And if tomorrow it was Iran’s turn?
Finally, there are pertinent lessons here for the Middle East, particularly with respect to wars of national resistance. If Iran were to be attacked for its alleged transgressions in the region, would it generate the same level of support for it as has happened with Ukraine and would the attacker face the same level of opposition to its military endeavour as has Russia? The answer to both is an unequivocal no. Why?
Iran is not a western or European country; thus, it is not a “civilised” country. It is not a Christian country, but a Muslim one and that damns it in the eyes of the west, which has never completely sacralised its struggle with Islam. Iranians are Indo-European, but Iran is not a“ white” country but off-white. They are not European “like us”, which now includes the Ukrainians without equivocation. The reality is that the international order is suffused with the undeniable existence of a hierarchy of skin colour and “white privilege”, which an observer on Twitter referred to as the “epidermal passport”. Some might say that you have left out another qualification, which makes it an undesirable country: it is not a democracy. I do not think the lack of democracy in Iran is what has engendered and continues to justify western hostility.
An attack on Iran will be rendered legitimate and legal through myriad justifications which would be taken to the United Nations for approval before the launching of the assault. Iran has no allies or much sympathy in the world, this is an important dimension of power that is often overlooked by observers. Challenging the west is a costly endeavor, as Russia has found out and China would too if it decided to annex Taiwan. Iran is far weaker than either of these two powers, even though its capacity for causing mayhem in the Middle East has been far from negligible. The west has an important dimension of strategy almost under its total domination in the international balance of power: economic power, which can wield with devastating effect on the target of its wrath.
Iran, for its part, will not be able to fight an effective war of national resistance in this potential confrontation. National resistance in the face of an enemy assault, even if it is “merely” from the air and the sea requires a “firm cement” between state and society. Iran no matter what its rulers say had an enormous disadvantage in the societal dimension of the battle space: deep chasm between society and state; this affects its cohesion and resilience. Much of this chasm is of the regime’s own making. As for the response of the outside world, there will be no advice on Twitter on how to conduct urban or mobile warfare and there will be no extolling of Iranian resistance, on the contrary, the Iranians will be castigated for use of “unsavory” methods and “irrational” resistance methods, the very same kind of methods being lauded in Ukraine. National resistance is a white privilege.