From Kyiv to Kabul: The ‘Blessings’ of Civilisation

IN FOCUS, 21 Mar 2022

Marwan Bishara | Al Jazeera - TRANSCEND Media Service

It’s time to put an end to a long history of violence in the name of benevolence.

A child on a swing outside a residential building damaged by a missile on February 25, 2022, in Kyiv, Ukraine. [File: Pierre Crom/Getty Images]

15 Mar 2022 – The Global South is divided over who bears the responsibility for the Ukraine tragedy in the Global North. Many blame Russia for its imperial overreach and attempts at subjugating Kyiv, others fault the United States and European allies for provoking Russia through the offensive expansion of NATO eastwards and the arming of Ukraine.

But if the historical record is anything to go by, neither power is innocent; both are to blame, albeit to varying degrees. Both have sacrificed Ukraine at the altar of a new Cold War.

Yet, Moscow and Washington continue to polarise and paralyse much of the international community three decades after the end of their Cold War; a war that proved devious and devastating to the developing world.

Indeed, ever since they took over from the diminished powers of old Europe, Washington and Moscow have been using the same British and French playbooks, waging imperial wars; covert wars, proxy wars, air wars, as well as information wars, cyberwars, and every other kind of war, including the threat of a nuclear war.

Yet sadly, Washington’s detractors have been quick to justify Russian violence by referring to America’s horrible wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, etc and its persistent support for Israel’s wars and occupation in the Middle East. And Moscow’s detractors have readily excused American overreach by pointing to Moscow’s bloody wars in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Georgia, Syria and so on.

But how is the bombing of Kharkiv and Aleppo any different from the bombing of say, Baghdad or Hanoi? And how are these hegemonic overreaches truly different from other 19th and 20th century imperial Russian, European and American wars, coups, invasions and occupations?

In truth, the “civilised North” has long been especially violent; inward as well as outward; the more “civilised” the more violent, even though violence is the opposite of civility.

The Global North has been marred in religious, nationalist and ideological wars for centuries, some lasting decades, others refought a second and a third time, culminating in two horrendous World Wars.

In addition to all the bloodshed and the mass slaughter of hundreds of millions of their own, they also managed to wage their private colonial wars, killing countless millions more in the south, while sadistically assaulting ancient civilisations, whether Indian, Chinese, Muslim or other.

And it was not only the great imperial powers of the time that caused all the horror and terror. The smaller colonial powers like the Belgian, Dutch and Portuguese were just as brutal and at times more savage. Even those who lost the European wars were adamant to take it out on their southern colonies in the hope of restoring their lost potency.

As the late American scholar Samuel Huntington made abundantly clear in his book, The Clash of Civilizations: “The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion … but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this fact; non-Westerners never do.”

Well, I am afraid many have forgotten. And even those with long memories, seem to be short on history when history is indispensable for understanding political processes and patterns and providing much-needed contexts and perspectives for present-day geopolitical events.

Ignorance, like racism, knows no borders and is limited to no professions, including in today’s influential media outlets, where for some history begins yesterday or at the last paycheque. But again, the real danger lies among those who know better but choose to be smug, condescending racists, because racism and war are forces that give them meaning.

Many of these are all too familiar and generally embrace the racism in Rudyard Kipling’s infamous poem, The White Man’s Burden, where the British imperialist urges America to fulfil its “civilisation mission” by assuming its colonial responsibility in the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century.

But they choose to ignore Mark Twain’s sharp response, debunking Kipling’s claims in To the Person Sitting in Darkness. According to the inimitable and widely celebrated American author: “We have been treacherous; … we have crushed a deceived and confiding people; we have turned against the weak and the friendless who trusted us; … we have robbed a trusting friend of his land and his liberty.”

Etcetera, etcetera; not exactly a civilisational mission, is it?

Like the Americans, the British, French, and Russians have also mastered the imperial enterprise, albeit not as judiciously. Indeed, Twain’s takedown of imperial Russia was no less damning at the time, as he described how “she robs Japan of her hard-earned spoil, all swimming in Chinese blood … then she seizes Manchuria, raids its villages, and chokes its great river with the swollen corpses of countless massacred peasants …”

And here we are a century later, witnessing these imperial powers projecting their power and violence again and again over the past two decades. But these are not repeats along the lines of “first time a tragedy, second time a farce”; these have been tragic through and through.

The joke is on the rest of us “sitting in the darkness”, hoping again and again for benevolence to come out of the repeated violence, when no good comes out of malice, “theirs” or “ours”.

To be sure, violence may be the nature, knowing no race, religion or nationality, but mass organised violence has been nurtured more by some than others.

It is time to stop this insanity of doing the same but expecting a different result. It is high time to put an end to the silly “whataboutism” that has characterised much of the response of the Global South to these transgressions, bearing in mind that the “Global South” has of late become as metaphoric as it is geographic.

Nothing good will come out of the Ukrainian tragedy, just as nothing good came out of the Iraqi, Afghan, Syrian, Vietnamese, Philippine, Hungarian, Chinese, Indian, Algerian, Congolese, Chilean and countless other imperial transgressions. Neither for the victims, nor for the perpetrators, nor for the rest of us “sitting in darkness”.

It is time to look up and see the light.


Marwan Bishara, senior political analyst at Al Jazeera, is an author who writes extensively on global politics and is widely regarded as a leading authority on US foreign policy, the Middle East and international strategic affairs. He was previously a professor of International Relations at the American University of Paris.

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