National sovereignty provides the solution to the disastrous geopolitics that flow from the failure of cosmopolitan globalism, argues Philip Cunliffe. This is the text of a lecture given to the Academy 2022 on 16 July 2022.
Thank you for the invitation to deliver this lecture. It’s good to be here, and talking to you all face-to-face. Originally I was supposed to deliver a lecture to the Academy some years back in the aftermath of Brexit and connected to themes arising from Brexit, but obviously the pandemic and lockdown intervened in the interim. Despite that, I still want to put the question of national sovereignty at the centre of this lecture. Indeed, I want to make the argument that sovereignty is the most important concept and principle for those who have any interest in a democratic international politics that goes beyond elite machinations and geopolitical rivalry.
So, what I propose to do is to talk about how state sovereignty has fared in the international order, explain the political problems for an international order that is denuded of sovereignty, and finish by offering a political solution to carve through these problems – a solution which of necessity must rest on strengthening the politics and institutions associated with political independence and national sovereignty.
So, as I imagine most people here are aware, there is much talk that we’re going through a major restructuring of international order at the moment. It’s talked about in different ways with varying degrees of honesty and clarity, ranging from those who talk in terms of the decline of the liberal international order, to those who talk in terms of the decline of a so-called rules-based order. It is a change that is most obviously associated with geopolitical rivalry in Europe itself, including but not limited to the war in Ukraine. Underlying this is the relative erosion of US power, the rise of China and the shift in the centre of global economic activity towards the Asia-Pacific, precipitating the end of the international order that was defined by US victory in the Cold War and which resulted in unipolarity – an international system in which the US was the sole superpower. Again, different people will date this shift to different points – some to the Great Financial Crash of 2008, others to Trump’s election to the White House in 2016, others to the Russian invasion of Ukraine earlier this year. In my own book The New Twenty Years’ Crisis 1999-2019: A critique of international relations I dated the decline of the post-Cold War international order to NATO’s war over Kosovo and the second Chechen war in 1999.
In looking back, there is obviously an ‘Owl of Minerva’ effect, in which the condition of us apprehending the past is the fact that we cannot fully grasp our own present. It is clear that one type of international order – the one defined by unipolar globalisation– is ending, but it is not clear what is replacing it. will it be a bipolar world on the model of the Cold War with two major power centres in Beijing and Washington? A multipolar world with multiple power centres in Moscow, Brussels, New Delhi and perhaps Brasília , as well as Beijing and Washington? Or perhaps even a so-called apolar world – one without any of the organising effects that one might expect from logics of power concentration and geopolitical rivalry. I don’t propose to arbitrate between different models of what comes next, but rather to focus on what an international politics of democratic freedom could look like in the aftermath of unipolarity, and to try and build up a picture of the current international order as we go along.
What was neoliberal cosmopolitanism?
Despite all the confusion of the current moment, two things are clear from the previous era. First, there is no possibility of democracy without sovereignty, and second, that whatever might be changing in the international system, it is clear that the principles of national independence and sovereignty are still being degraded. What do I mean by this? Let’s talk through these two trends in turn.
Through the last thirty years we have gone through a tremendous, and in some ways extraordinarily ambitious train of political and legal experimentation in reconstituting the forms and institutions of democracy, political power and individual rights. This has had many complex elements, but among the most important – at least in political terms – is the disembedding of individual rights and democracy, which is to say their extraction from the nation-state, and their rearticulation in transnational and supranational forms. This happened in tandem with the dilution of state sovereignty.
First, take the case of individual rights. In the unipolar era of ideological and technocratic consensus, it was held that converting civic and national rights into human rights would offer more protections for the individual from arbitrary state power. It would allow for courts of appeal higher than those of the national state and not contaminated by national political biases – for instance, the European Court of Justice. It was believed that chiselling away at the sovereign immunity previously enjoyed by heads of state and government would enable us to hold political leaders to account through international criminal courts, and at the extreme, individuals could even claim armed protection from their own states by calling on supranational agencies such as the United Nations and NATO to intervene in their countries. This was the cosmopolitan vision of a global human rights extracted from the confines of the nation-state.
Second, in the case of democracy, it was hoped that disembedding democracy from the nation-state offered the opportunity to bring government closer to citizens, while also giving citizens more points of access and input into decision-making, potentially making governmental systems more responsive to popular pressure. This occurred both upwards and downwards: downwards in the form of devolution and regional autonomy within states alongside the empowerment of independent agencies – the so-called ‘quangos’ of the UK state. It also happened upwards in the form of supranational integration, in which national states were embedded in larger frameworks of supranational coordination – notably massive regional free trade agreements, whose most ambitious exemplar is the EU. The promise here was that this ‘pooled sovereignty’ would yield the benefits of collaboration. Democracy was to be extracted from within the nation-state and remoulded to better fit these new transnational networks: so we had supranational elections to the European Parliament, as well as the incorporation of so-called civil society representation, with the proliferation of NGOs as vehicles for transmitting social views to decision-making bodies at both the governmental and supranational level.
Many liberals supported these processes as goods in and for themselves. For those who were concerned with democracy, they hoped to recapture these transnational networks by extending democratic engagement beyond the nation-state, freeing democracy from the confines of national parliaments and elitist parties. The most elaborate versions of these theories involved grand plans for reforming the European Parliament, reforming the UN Security Council and even giving individuals votes in a reformed UN General Assembly. At the most brutal extreme, this democratic vision involved launching military interventions that were predicated on suppressing the rights of sovereign states and strengthening supranational oversight of state behaviour – substituting the idea of ‘sovereignty as responsibility’ in place of ‘sovereignty as autonomy’. This supranational oversight of states was taken to the extreme in the carving up of Third World states such as Iraq, Yugoslavia and Indonesia, with new protectorates established in places such as Bosnia, Kosovo and East Timor, as well as a new trusteeship built up around UN peacebuilding operations in Africa.
Both of these processes, the disembedding of rights and democracy, were predicated on the sustained and systematic suppression of state sovereignty.
The neoliberal suppression of state sovereignty
Throughout this era, state sovereignty was consistently cast as the problem to be overcome: in economic terms, sovereignty was seen as simply a justification for parasitism, either offering self-interested bureaucrats the opportunity to skim and divert resources away from market-efficient outcomes, or else sovereignty was cast as offering up chimerical notions of self-sufficiency, which would citizens of the consumer benefits of a global division of labour. In legal terms, state sovereignty was seen as a knot to be untangled – a concentration of national idiosyncrasy at odds with global law that should be harmonised across borders. In political terms, sovereignty was seen as constituting a dangerously egotistical, potentially even totalitarian concentration of state power – state power that could not only empower dictators but also give expression to the passions of nationalist fury. Consequently everyone agreed that sovereignty needed to be diluted, tamed, restrained, and checked. By compressing or even eliminating the intermediary layer of national states that separated citizens from the global order, it was believed that people around the world could gradually be integrated into a global market, with a global network of regulatory and protective supranational institutions, corresponding with a cosmopolitan era of enhanced consumerism and frictionless population movements.
In practice, all of these trends tended to enhance the power of technocrats and unelected figures – notably judges, civil servants both national and transnational – at the expense of parliamentarians and political leaders.
In geopolitical terms, it’s no accident that this era coincided with the era of unipolarity – which is to say, the era of US victory in the Cold War, when there was a single centre of global political and military power that overshadowed all the rest. Unipolarity facilitated these processes of global harmonisation, coordination and alignment, as well as facilitating the use of force. With the dissolution of the Eastern bloc at the end of the Cold War, there was no counter-weight to US power, which in turn allowed for a string of uninterrupted military campaigns around the world, beginning with the US invasion of Panama in 1989, continuing through to Joe Biden’s bombing of Syria, a country where US ground forces remain in place. This forever war is in stark contrast to the restraints on the exercise of military power that had been built up in the course of the Cold War in response to the failures of Vietnam.
The failure of neoliberal cosmopolitanism
Surveying the last thirty years from the vantage point of 2022, we can confidently say that this cosmopolitan project has failed. Since national sovereignty is a necessary but insufficient precondition of popular sovereignty, inevitably the degradation of national sovereignty led to the erosion of popular sovereignty. This disaster is most obvious in the periphery in places like Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq – those whose central sources of authority were shattered by economic siege through UN sanctions and then by military force, with the result that their societies regressed into permanent ethnic conflict and civil war. In the core, efforts to expand global democracy and law became in fact the means for a new technocratic intergovernmentalism. Horizontal elite integration across states expanded, while vertical integration within states – the kind of political integration that was once done through mass political parties and civil society organisations such as trade unions and churches – withered away. The result of this is a caste of globally networked state- and corporate elites on the one hand, and on the other, a morass of suspicious, anomic and alienated citizens – the ‘left behind’. The internal relations through which the political authority of the state is constituted have decayed. The end-result of this fissure is globally networked states with weak legitimacy, susceptible to constant populist insurrections at the ballot box, trapped in vicious cycles of authoritarianism and elite isolation.
An international order denuded of sovereignty has also been a highly militarised and belligerent international order. As against all those who argued that supranational integration was needed to overcome constant wars between jealous sovereigns with their petty rivalries and squabbles over territory, our post-Cold War era of cosmopolitan ideals and supranational integration has also seen a stream of lethal and highly destructive military adventures – a militarism that is both cause and consequence of the erosion of sovereignty. This neoliberal militarism is a cause of the erosion of sovereignty, as seen in the military adventures and bombing campaigns that have pulverised centralised states in poor and fragile countries such as Libya and Iraq. It’s also a consequence of the erosion of sovereignty in Western states. Supranational integration and the pooling of sovereignty has led to ‘burden-sharing’ and out-sourcing of the costs of militarism: NATO and UN peacekeeping operations have helped to reduce the costs of war-fighting and occupation, thereby making it easier to do.
At the same time, the supranational justification and authorisation for war-fighting – fighting wars for human rights instead of for national interests, and justifying wars by reference to UN resolutions and NATO commitments rather than national interest – has allowed states not only to lower the costs of militarism in terms of blood and treasure, but also to lower the political costs of such wars – wars are no longer accounted for or justified by reference to the national interests of citizens. Against the notion that cosmopolitanism means peace, supranational integration and human rights have made perpetual war a reality across North Africa and the Middle East, and now it seems in Europe, too.
Recohering rights and democracy
So, I want to argue that as a species, we’ve collectively tested the argument that sovereignty is the problem, and now we need to consider sovereignty as the solution, not the problem.
Sovereignty is needed both with respect to rights and with respect to democracy. Human rights – which is to say rights detached from a sovereign state – have tended to sever the subject and the bearer of rights. When rights are detached from the structures of national citizenship, the bearers of human rights are deprived of the capacity and institutions through which they can shape the process of forming, implementing and exercising these rights. This is why human rights have tended to empower judges, especially supranational judges, at the expense of citizens, and in the extreme case, NATO and the UN at the expense of states. To be meaningful, individual rights have to be intertwined with political agency, which means that they have to be embedded in institutionalised political and legal processes in the context of democratic national citizenship. Without nations in which rights are articulated embedded, human rights inevitably means expanding the rights of courts and supranational institutions at the expense of individuals, concentrating rights in the hands of the judges and military planners in Strasbourg and Brussels, respectively.
Similarly with democracy – sovereignty is necessary to make democracy meaningful. It performs this service by making the exercise of collective political power visible and therefore accountable. That is to say, it is necessary to have a clear, concentrated focus of collective power if that power is to be controllable by those over whom it is exercised. This means that of necessity, state sovereignty needs to be legally and politically separated from entanglement with other states. Sovereignty is needed to enable the formation of collective will, so that there is a clear connection between our collective political choices and political outcomes. Sovereignty is a necessary precondition for the responsible exercise of political power. Without sovereignty, democracy is too diffuse to be meaningful, dispersed across the different structures of so-called ‘multilevel governance’, lost between regional assemblies and devolved parliaments, quangos, supreme courts, supranational councils and elections – all of which give special interest groups plenty of opportunity to capture power and displace ordinary citizens’ interests.
Sovereignty and War in Europe
So having summarised some of the political features of the prior era of unipolar globalisation and how sovereignty has been degraded in that era, I want to turn to talk about how this impacts international order today, especially in the context of war in Europe.
Despite the evident failures of neoliberal cosmopolitanism, there is no organised political effort anywhere in the world today to recombine the strands of democracy, rights and sovereignty in either new or old national forms.
In the EU, supranational integration continues with efforts to mount joint borrowing within the eurozone, despite the absence of a single polity or integrated fiscal union to bear the costs of that borrowing. The EU is experimenting with so-called anti-fragmentation instruments which are intended to prevent the Eurozone being torn apart between its northern and southern tiers in response to a rise in interest rates precipitating a new Eurozone sovereign debt crisis. There is also the effort to mount a collective response to the disruption in energy supplies. All of this in the midst of deep citizen mistrust, voter volatility and brewing discontent among citizens who will now likely confront a winter with energy rationing.
Of course, the most brutal denial of sovereignty in Europe today is in Ukraine. This is evident not only with the Russian invasion and occupation of eastern Ukraine and with Russian president Vladimir Putin’s explicit denial of even the existence of a Ukrainian nation, but also in the rump of western Ukraine that is not occupied by Russia, which is increasingly swallowed up by NATO and the EU. Ukraine has been granted the hallowed status of a candidate member of the EU, while NATO generals and European leaders openly squabble about Ukraine’s war aims, NATO advisers dictate battle-field strategy, and the Ukrainian state is constitutionally committed to joining NATO and the EU.
Russia’s retreat from sovereignty
I want to talk about Ukraine in a little more detail as I believe that the course of the war in Ukraine illustrates just how far the idea of sovereign independence has been eclipsed in the international order. This is most tellingly seen in Russia’s abandonment of any political commitment to sovereign independence. In the aftermath of the Cold War, as Western states began to claim human rights as battering rams for their military expeditions against states in the developing world, Russia, like other large countries with restive peripheral ethnic minorities, tried to lay claim to a principled commitment to defend the rights of sovereign states against outside interference. So Russia threatened to use its veto in the UN Security Council, which forced the US and its allies to forgo UN authorisation for their wars on Yugoslavia in 1999 and Iraq in 2003. Prior to his embrace of a conservative defence of Christian civilization, Russian leader Putin even experimented with defending his political system as a ‘sovereign democracy’ to contrast it with the transnational liberalism of the West.
This position gradually crumbled – Russia supported US intervention in Afghanistan in 2001, smoothing the path for NATO expansion into Central Asia. Russia invaded and then dismembered Georgia in 2008, recognising breakaway ethnic enclaves and making them de facto Russian protectorates. Russia abstained over the NATO bombing of Libya in 2011, allowing the campaign to go ahead with UN support this time, and in 2014 intervened in Ukraine in support of rebels in east Ukraine. In 2015 Russia intervened in the Syrian civil war in favour of the incumbent government of Bashar al-Assad. The annexation of Crimea in 2014 was justified with direct reference to the ruling of the International Court of Justice in 2008, which found in favour of Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia – the end result of NATO’s 1999 war.
In other words, the Russians consistently justified their actions with explicit reference to Western precedents, right down to claiming to defend Syrians, Russian-speaking Ukrainians, Ossetians and Abkhazians from ethnic persecution and genocide. NATO cleared the path for Putin, and by the time we reached 2014, we were treated to the utterly unedifying spectacle of the US accusing Russia of breaking international law and arbitrarily violating the sovereignty of other states.
In short, and in contrast to earlier periods, there was no willingness from any major state to defend the principle of territorial integrity, international legal equality, and the sovereign right to freedom from external interference. Even more worryingly in some respects was the response from outside Europe. Take India, a rising major power, the world’s largest democracy and itself a formerly colonised country and long-time opponent and critic of humanitarian intervention. Despite all this history, India was cool if not directly supportive of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, and has continued to be indifferent to Russian actions in Ukraine since then.
What this means is that even the slender bases of organised political support for the principle of national sovereignty that existed in world politics around the turn of the century outside of the West have withered away.
Sovereignty and the new era of geopolitical rivalry
So we’re entering a new era of greater geopolitical rivalry alongside the same old practices of the previous era in which the rights of political independence and national sovereignty are consistently gouged from the outside and hollowed out from within.
On the face of it, this is strange as eras of geopolitical rivalry have tended to give greater space for smaller powers to balance and manoeuvre between larger states – think of West German Chancellor Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik in the Cold War, Charles de Gaulle’s withdrawing France from NATO and establishment of nuclear independence in the 1960s, or Third World Nonalignment. Yet thus far, no assertions of greater political independence have yet emerged to take advantage of geopolitical rivalries between major states.
The result is that we have the worst aspects of the unipolar era, with great power predation on smaller and weaker states, the continuing decline of popular sovereignty and representative government, now compounded with the greater geopolitical rivalry, which is no longer off-set by the experiences, habits and structures of détente, deterrence, hotlines and arms control agreements that were built up between the USA and Russia over the course of the Cold War.
Brexit and Sovereignty
The only country where the prospects for some assertion of political independence was most propitious was here in Britain where there was a popular referendum expressly on the question of sovereignty and supranational integration in 2016. The vote favoured sovereignty over supranationalism and the result was repeatedly vindicated in the national votes since then. Yet this opportunity has been largely squandered: popular pressure has dissipated, and the window to squeeze out political and economic advantages of sovereign divergence is rapidly closing. As yet there is no evidence in the course of British foreign policy or domestic policy that they will be seized.
As this is a lecture about international order, I will keep my focus on the question of international order. Here the failure to reap the democratic benefits of Brexit is most obvious with Britain’s support for the NATO war in Ukraine. It is worth emphasising that while the war is obviously Vladimir Putin’s war, it is plainly also NATO’s war. After a decade and a half of antagonising Russia over NATO expansion in Eastern Europe generally, and into Ukraine in particular, Britain has now twice cut off opportunities for cease-fires or armistice initiated by the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky. In cooperating over European security with the EU, it is clear the British state is hoping to reduce the costs of divergence, using Britain’s military strength as leverage, thereby hoping to minimise the democratic disruption of Brexit spilling over into the international arena. Even though Britain is not at war with Russia, rallying together with the EU against Russia is the excuse to avoid antagonising EU states by initiating the kind of political and economic changes that would help Britain pull away from the sclerotic states of the Eurozone.
As with the EU, NATO institutionalises permanent elite cooperation at the supranational level, at the expense of democratic representation at the national level. In both cases, supranational bureaucracy based in Brussels is deliberately designed to insulate policy-making from democratic input and oversight. In short, NATO locks in globalist supranationalism over Britain’s defence and security policy. In the context of the EU stand-off with Moscow, this keeps Britain trapped in the EU orbit despite Brexit. It allows for the perpetuation of an elite globalism at the expense of popular concerns.
Global Britain: perpetuating the member-state
Britain’s policy over Ukraine is consistent with the idea of Global Britain, which was offered by the Remain-supporting prime minister Theresa May as a project of democratic containment. The vision of a post-Brexit Global Britain was intended to signal the continuity of Britain as a networked member-state rather than an independent nation-state, a state that was thoroughly integrated into supranational institutions. Global Britain was meant to signal to sovereign wealth funds and foreign oligarchs investing in London’s property market, to multinational banks and corporations, to political elites abroad and NATO bureaucrats in Brussels, that it was going to be business as usual, that working class voters in forgotten parts of the country were not going to tear the gaze of London’s elites away from the outside world. It is no surprise that the war policy is popular with the Remain- and Rejoin-supporting middle classes, who are happy to shed Ukrainian blood in order to keep Britain in the orbit of the EU, to keep Britain locked into supranational commitments, and in order to revenge themselves on the man that they still blame for Brexit in the first place – Vladimir Putin.
Advancing the politics of Brexit
Despite these setbacks for popular control in Britain, Britain’s formal withdrawal from the EU bloc two years ago means that there is still at least a political and legal basis on which to deepen and strengthen a politics of national sovereignty and political independence.
How to do this in the current European order – how to thread that needle? As the politics of sovereignty is a politics of popular control, of strengthening the rights, authority and power of the populace over the state, it has to begin at the national level – and in the context of war in Europe and Britain’s involvement in a proxy war with Russia in which Ukraine is the battle-field, the demands of anti-militarism and popular sovereignty in Britain demands a new anti-war movement, whose slogan and aim should be “Brexit from NATO”.
We should extend the politics of sovereignty and withdraw from the supranational militarism associated with this aged alliance. In this penultimate part of my lecture, I want to briefly discuss what such a politics might involve for Britain and for Europe.
The two wings of European supranationalism: EU and NATO
Let’s think about what Brexiting from NATO means. On the face of it, NATO and the EU look very different – NATO is a military alliance ostensibly organised on the principle of collective self-defence, the EU, an overarching bureaucracy and fledging federal super-state. While an island nation withdrawing from a would-be continental super-state might seem understandable even to critics of Brexit, why compound British isolation by withdrawing from the world’s most powerful military alliance – an alliance that ostensibly helps to preserve British independence rather than dissolving it away? I want to argue that this view misconceives both NATO and the EU. The truth is that NATO and the EU are very similar, in respect of their origins, their membership, their structure and their post-Cold War development.
Both NATO and the EU are treaty-based systems that formally preserve the independence of their member-states while compromising them in practice. Both organisations were founded at the onset of the Cold War in the late 1940s, with the aim of cohering Western Europe in the face of Soviet might. After the Cold War ended, both NATO and the EU had to adapt by finding new roles for themselves. When NATO was founded in 1949, it was intended to preserve the US military presence in Europe, to contain German rearmament, and deter potential Soviet expansion. One of the major conundrums for scholars of European security is how NATO, the quintessential Cold War-era alliance, survived the end of the Cold War, after the Soviet military threat to Western Europe was gone. Part of the answer to this question is that it survived by globalising – it became a supranational organisation more than a military alliance.
Since the end of the Cold War NATO has become the leading vehicle for suppressing state sovereignty and championing human rights and humanitarianism – beginning with its bombing campaigns in Bosnia through the war in Kosovo in 1999, to its support for the Forever War in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the disastrous war in Libya in 2011. It is no surprise that NATO is now determining the conduct of the war in Ukraine – and that is not even to mention the fact that NATO’s eastward expansion in tandem with EU expansion has, recklessly antagonised Russia, boosting the position of Russian nationalists at the expense of Russia’s liberals and democrats, and ultimately helping to precipitate the Russian intervention in Ukraine in 2014 and the full-blown invasion earlier this year.
Given this history, it is no surprise that NATO is stoking a proxy war in Ukraine, indifferent not only to the suffering of Ukrainians, but also to Ukrainian independence. NATO’s aim is to bleed Russia white, to turn Ukraine into a new Afghanistan in Europe, and thereby substitute a new forever war in Europe to replace the one in Central Asia. Whatever defence from continental hegemony NATO might once have offered Britain is long gone. Russia today is struggling to occupy neighbouring Ukraine. The notion that Russia could rampage across Eastern Europe, let alone sweep through Europe to the Low Countries to menace Britain from across the English Channel, is delusional.
Following the democratic shock of Brexit, NATO has been a bulwark of foreign policy continuity for Britain’s disoriented political elites. With the war in Ukraine, NATO will not only be the vehicle for Remainers to wreak revenge on Russia, but risks the return of BRINO, Brexit in Name Only. The NATO proxy war in Ukraine strengthens all the forces of inertia and conservatism within Britain’s elites. European security will be invoked by Rejoiner civil servants to contain any political challenge by Britain’s elected representatives, as well as providing a reason for British governments to avoid the hard task of crafting the policies for regulatory divergence that would antagonise the EU.
If Britain is serious about the project staked out by the electorate in 2016 – that is, about reviving its national sovereignty – this requires not only strengthening national and popular sovereignty in Britain itself, but also creating an international order that is hospitable to and respectful of national independence, not only that of Britain but of all nations. If the national democratic logic of Brexit, the logic of sovereignty, is to be preserved and expanded, then we must Brexit from NATO. NATO’s history of forever wars for human rights will always be an obstacle to that project and to British democracy. NATO entrenches liberal globalist priorities at the expense of our domestic concerns. As was made clear when Boris Johnson opted for a trip to Kyiv over a trip to rally voters in Doncaster, forever wars for democracy and human rights – especially if Ukrainians are the ones that are dying for them – will always prove more alluring for our governing classes than levelling up or democratising local government.
Brexiting from NATO would offer genuine international leadership, in place of the tatty corporate and focus-grouped branding of ‘Global Britain’. Brexiting from NATO would signal to the peoples of the world Britain’s break from the era of humanitarian imperialism, its history of militarism. It would signal a powerful commitment to national independence everywhere.
Brexit and Ukraine
I want to finish by indicating what such a politics of British sovereignty would offer Ukraine, who have a most obvious and stark interest in national independence in Europe today. Obviously the Ukrainians need guns to defend themselves and their territory, but if war is the continuation of politics by other means, then Ukrainians also need politics, and if they are struggling for independence, they need to be able to formulate that politics independently. The guns that are coming from NATO are coming with NATO priorities for the war with Russia.
In the current war, Ukraine is squeezed between East and West: on the one hand, Ukraine confronts an increasingly isolated, authoritarian and paranoid ruler in Moscow overseeing a nationalist elite determined to preserve Russia’s access to the Black Sea, and to fend off the encroachment of NATO military bases so close to Moscow and Russia’s European core. On the other hand, Ukraine confronts its weapons suppliers, Western states who have a long history of buying proxies to fight their wars, from the KLA in Kosovo to international jihadis in Syria and Libya, now Ukraine. Western elites know the advantages of protracted diversionary war, and in Washington D.C., the deep state is still fighting a rear-guard action against Trump and Trumpism, and his perceived ally, Vladimir Putin.
This situation goes back to the Ukrainian civil war and Maidan uprising of 2014, when EU and NATO expansion eastwards consistently aggravated internal tensions within Ukraine itself, between its eastern provinces and western provinces. This was an internal political division that Russia was willing ruthlessly to exploit to carve out its protectorates on Ukrainian territory. The risk for Ukraine is not only indefinite Russian occupation of its eastern territory, but also being ground away between West and East in their geopolitical rivalry. Ukrainian president Zelensky’s efforts to break out of this trap – by trying to rein in the neo-fascist militias who were constantly seeking to renew the war in eastern Ukraine, by saying that Ukraine would opt for a position of neutrality between Moscow and Brussels, by claiming that a post-war Ukraine would be more akin to Israel than a European state – all of these efforts have been thwarted, by oligarch-backed right-wing militia now incorporated into Ukraine’s standing army, and by the pro-EU and NATO arms of the Ukrainian state in the ministries of defence and foreign affairs, and last but not least, by the Ukrainian constitution itself – which commits Ukraine to becoming a member-state of both the EU and NATO.
Brexiting from NATO would carve out the geopolitical space in Europe that would give Ukrainians a third option in their battle for independence. For Britain to declare our armed neutrality between Moscow and Brussels would make that a more realistic position for Ukraine. It is the only position that would enable Ukraine to end the war quickly, and not only to secure Russian withdrawal from occupied territories, but also to stymie the possibility of renewed Russian military interventions in future after Russia withdraws. Strengthening popular sovereignty in Britain, pursuing the logic of Brexit helps to form an international order in which national independence and popular sovereignty is strengthened at the expense of supranational integration and oligarchic politics.
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