Lessons of War. Aleksandr Podrabinek on democracies and despotisms

20 October 2023

by Aleksandr Podrabinek

Source: Radio Svoboda

The whole world is looking for answers to the most pressing questions of today: how to stop the wars between Russia and Ukraine, between Israel and Palestine? The most incredible options are being put forward – from the idea Ukraine should promise that it will not join NATO to the complete eviction of all Palestinians from Gaza. Unfortunately, one option remains realistic today: bloodshed, war until victory or at least until a truce. Alas, that option is also unacceptable. Victory, no matter whose victory it is, will cost millions of casualties; a truce is just a pause, during which the parties can gather new military forces. There are no positive solutions even on the horizon.

For all the differences between the military conflicts in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, they have one thing in common: democracies are fighting despotisms. It has long been observed that democracies do not fight democracies: they find other ways to resolve contentious issues. It could also be possible to reach agreements with despotisms, if they were interested in resolving the conflict. But they almost always want war, which for them is the main content of the life of the state and gives meaning to the political activity of authoritarian leaders. The presence of an enemy, internal or external (or even better both), is a precondition for the very existence of such regimes. Without enemies, dictatorships will disappear – there will be nothing to justify their failures. Excuses to introduce emergency measures will disappear and the leaders will be found to be wholly unfit to rule in the conditions of peace.

The two current wars are a consequence of the complacency with which the international community has for decades viewed the establishment and strengthening of tyrannies. The world has not drawn the necessary lessons from the Second World War, the main one being the realization that repression of one’s own people easily turns into aggression against other nations. Violence against society and violence against other countries are of the same nature. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn rightly noted in his time that the antithesis of peace is not war, but violence. But so long as violence is confined within the borders of another state, its neighbours do not care about it very much. They are shocked into a realisation of the dangers of the situation only when violence spills over state borders. At the same time, it should be noted that international legal norms born of the Nuremberg trials of 1946 firmly establish that human rights cannot be solely the internal affair of a state. International justice mechanisms should deal not only with war crimes, genocide and wars of aggression, but also with systemic violations of human rights, for they are the prologue to other crimes against humanity.

In Russia, human rights were trampled on for twenty years, while the West at best shook its head, sometimes diplomatically expressing concern, but always continued its relations, not without profit, with the authoritarian regime that was gathering strength. In Gaza, Hamas spent years pouring impressive sums, given from around the world as humanitarian aid, into armaments and brutally suppressed any signs of discontent in its own country, while Western democracies became ever more particular about the cleanliness of Israel’s garments than about the crimes of the Palestinian authorities in the Gaza Strip.

Of course, one might say that now it is too late to do the right thing that should have been done long ago. And it is. The time for optimal solutions has passed; now weapons decide everything. But life does not end today, and it is no sin to remember missed opportunities, at least now, when nothing can be corrected. As a lesson for the future.

In the early 2000s, an appropriate response by the international community to the attack by the Russian government on independent media and political opposition in the country, to the rigging of elections and infringements of civil liberties, could still have stopped the growth of the authoritarian monster. In the spring of 2019 and summer of this year, the West could have supported opposition demonstrations in Gaza, when thousands of Palestinians marched in anti-government protests against the policies of Hamas. None of this was done. The protests were brutally suppressed by government security forces, and no one thought of those individuals who might have been able to change the situation in Gaza.

One can argue heatedly and futilely about how everything could have turned out differently. Or we can try to look into the future. Today, the West is happy to maintain mutually beneficial economic relations with totalitarian China; is no stranger to friendly contacts with dictatorships in Cuba, Azerbaijan and Venezuela; lifts sanctions on the fundamentalist regime in Iran; has moderated relations to Belarus and North Korea; and does not notice the dictatorships in Burma and Turkmenistan. The leaders of these despotic regimes are not subject to international arrest warrants, they are not dragged to the dock in court at The Hague. Not only are they allowed to go on the rampage in their own countries, but they are also received at high diplomatic levels, given the floor at international forums, and in meetings their hands are shaken – hands, which, in fairness, should be in handcuffs.

When some of these countries gain sufficient military potential for aggression against one or other peace-loving neighbour, the people who live comfortably in the democracies will put their heads in their hands and again wonder how it all came to this. And again politicians will step aside, giving place to the military, and again thousands of people will die on battlefields, because there will be no other ways to stop the aggressor.

Translated by Rights in Russia

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