Phil Hammond reviews Frank Furedi, The Road to Ukraine: How the West Lost its Way (De Gruyter 2022)
It is easy to be a nationalist. You do not need any time to learn how to wave a flag, and in this respect communism was just a temporary episode in our history. We were never a liberal society to start with.Milovan Djilas, Guardian, 13 July 1991
‘The revenge of history’ is a prominent theme in Frank Furedi’s analysis of the Ukraine war. It has provided the title for talks, articles, and the first chapter of this book. It is a striking idea, not so much as a way of interpreting the conflict — Time magazine offered a similar take — but because of the contrast it highlights with Furedi’s own earlier writing.
To see the contrast, consider his use of the above quotation, or part of it, from Milovan Djilas. It features on the first page of Furedi’s 1992 book, Mythical Past, Elusive Future, where he says this:
Somehow history has come alive. It has become a character in its own right; a kind of semi-divinity… History has become anti-change and reflects in its use a reaction to the unknown that lies ahead. This is what motivated the veteran Yugoslav dissident Milovan Djilas to comment in response to the outburst of ethnic warfare in his country that ‘communism was just a temporary episode in our history’. From East to West there is an overwhelming sense that our lives are subject to the dictates of the past.
The same quote appears again near the beginning of The Road to Ukraine, but now as sage confirmation of the outlook that Furedi had criticised thirty years earlier:
What Djilas meant was that not even a ruthless communist dictatorship could undo and break the thread linking the Balkan’s past with its present. History took its revenge through the dramatic break-up of Yugoslavia… Djilas understood that the present cannot be entirely sealed off from the past. Djilas’ warning about the enduring salience of the past is tragically vindicated by the terrible events unfolding in Ukraine. It certainly feels like history has woken up and decided to impose its will on the people of Russia, Ukraine and nearby nations. (pp.6-7)
It is telling that Furedi’s rejection of the fatalistic idea of the past determining the future has now been replaced by a desire to preserve the ‘enduring salience of the past’. This was precisely the outlook that he dismissed in Mythical Past, Elusive Future as ‘History with a capital H’ — a conservative approach which ‘tries to recover a shared past in order to help forge a common identity’, using ‘the mask of the past to mobilise society for some purpose in the present’. As against ‘History’ used as ‘an instrument of mystification’, Furedi argued, back in 1992, for future-oriented ‘historical thinking’, which rejects ‘static traditions and fixed identities’ and emphasises ‘the potential for change’ rather than ‘the worship of continuity with a stable past’.
Sadly, Furedi is now offering the sort of mystification that he once rejected — even down to the personification of History as a force that wakes up and imposes its will on people. Of course, thirty years is a long time in an academic career, and anyone can change their mind. The problem is that this sort of mystified History obfuscates rather than clarifies, and leaves very little room for addressing the actual history of the war in Ukraine. Moreover, by turning history into a repository of values, he substitutes a moralistic response to the war for a political one. The result is to undermine the critique Furedi seeks to make and turn it into something more like an apology for the Western elites he ostensibly sets out to criticise.
In The Road to Ukraine ‘history’ also serves as a shorthand for other key ideas — particularly national sovereignty — and for values such as ‘patriotism, duty and service’ (p.33). Until very recently, at least, these were all frequently dismissed as hangovers from a bygone era, but now, Furedi argues, the Ukraine war underlines their continuing relevance. This argument is intended as a critique of the ideology of globalism and its supposedly ‘superior cosmopolitan values’ (p.40), advanced through transnational institutions such as the European Union. The globalist outlook entails a ‘cultural sensibility of historical closure and terminus’ (p.3), writes Furedi. The West has been suffering from ‘historical amnesia’, assuming that the era of national interests and geopolitical conflict was over and that it had successfully established a new, cosmopolitan ‘rules-based global order’. Now, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, that illusion has been shattered and we can see their international order ‘unravelling before our eyes’ (p.40). But the decades of historical amnesia have left the West unprepared, he says: instead of squarely facing geopolitical reality and ‘focusing on devising a strategy for containing military aggression’ (p.70), its military and foreign-policy elites are instead preoccupied with identity politics — as epitomised by the British army’s call, shortly after the invasion, for the introduction of vegan uniforms.
It cannot have escaped anyone’s notice that those same Western elites have been trying to keep the globalist show on the road by holding up Ukraine as a rallying cause. ‘At a time when many Western societies have become culturally divided and when values associated with the West have become a target of contestation’, Furedi observes, ‘Ukraine has unexpectedly emerged as a cause that many believe can assist it in regaining moral clarity’ (p.79). Yet the difficulty, as he sees it, is that the problems that have led Western elites to seek ‘moral clarity’ in Ukraine are precisely those that prevent them from finding it. The book’s core argument is that the West has ‘lost its way’, becoming ‘detached from its past’ and ‘indifferent to the need to preserve the values that provided the foundation of its civilisation’ (p.98). Writing at the end of May 2022, he notes that already ‘significant sections of French and Italian society have lost much of their early enthusiasm for the war’, while in Germany ‘public opinion has become increasingly war-weary’ (p.19). The Western establishment offers ‘gestures of support’ and ‘narcissistic virtue signalling’, but remains unable to give its citizens a meaningful reason to ‘sacrifice one’s life’ (p.33).
For all the portentous talk of History, there is a remarkable lack of history in Furedi’s discussion of Ukraine. The ‘road to Ukraine’, in this telling, does not pass through the years of Western interference in the country’s internal politics, it detours around NATO enlargement, and bypasses the West’s record of providing military support and training to the Ukrainian government even while it attacked its own Russian-speaking citizens. The Euromaidan protests, the years of conflict in the Donbas, the Minsk Agreements, none of it merits even a mention. Possibly this is because engaging with the history of events leading to the war would not be compatible with Furedi’s depiction of the West as a confused bystander. Western elites are said to be ‘lost’, ‘naïve’, ‘adrift’, ‘morally disarmed’ — essentially blundering innocents who may ‘inadvertently sleepwalk into more dangerous territory’ (p.14). Yet while sleepwalking or virtue signalling, the US has managed to give massive amounts of military aid to Ukraine: already in the tens of millions of dollars as far back as 2003, it is now in the billions, at levels that defence analysts describe as ‘unprecedented’ and ‘astounding’.
To be fair, Furedi does, briefly, mention the fact that the US is waging a proxy war against Russia, noting politely that ‘At times Washington appears to use the war in Ukraine to achieve its own objectives’ (p.93). He also faults the West for a ‘lack of…sensitivity to Russia’s security concerns’, and for not being ‘more in touch with Russia’s strategic sensitivity to potential threats on its western borders’ (p.11). The lesson he draws is that ‘a deeper sense of history by the West might have helped restrain Russia’ (p.11). This is an odd way to discuss previous Western policy, since Furedi knows very well the direct and deliberate role of the West in stoking conflict. He wrote about it in 2014, describing Russia’s annexation of Crimea as ‘at least in part a reaction to what it perceives to be systematic foreign interference in Ukraine’. Back then, Furedi saw Western ‘meddling in Ukraine’s affairs’ as part of a ‘pattern of disastrous attempts at regime change in recent years’. Observing that ‘there has been a systematic attempt to move the Western sphere of influence closer and closer to the borders of Russia’, he commented that ‘a Russian today would not have to be paranoid to think his nation is being encircled and slowly undermined by forces hostile to its existence’. But now it seems the problem is just a lack of sensitivity, which prevents the West from effectively restraining Russia.
The oddest thing about this argument is that, having spent pages criticising the way that US and European leaders have seized on Ukraine as ‘a cause through which they can revitalise a sense of legitimacy’ (p.78); as a ‘resource for moral redemption’ (p.80); an ‘opportunity to rehabilitate the West morally’ (p.82), and so on, Furedi joins in. ‘What matters today is not so much military but moral rearmament’ (p.98), he says; ‘spending on defence is not enough; the West also needs to rearm morally’ (p.91). It remains unclear why Western leaders seeking the ‘moral rehabilitation of the West’ in Ukraine is, as Furedi puts it, ‘a distasteful example of cultural parasitism’ (p.86), but not his own use of the conflict to make the case for the West’s ‘moral rearmament’. The reasoning seems to be that sticking up for national sovereignty against the globalist elite has to mean joining in with the same globalist elite’s rhetorical commitment to Ukraine, even though it is patently hypocritical and self-serving.
This aspect of the book would also have benefitted from a fuller historical treatment. Furedi claims at one point that: ‘This is the first time since the end of the Cold War that it appears that there is a cause through which many policymakers believe that the West could reinvent itself as a self-confident and convincing moral agent’ (pp.78–9). This is despite having said a few pages earlier that the West had similarly sought to gain ‘moral clarity through its foreign policy’ (p.30) after 9/11. Yet neither 2022 nor 2001 mark the start of this effort. Western leaders have been seeking ‘moral rearmament’ through an interventionist foreign policy since George Bush announced the dawn of a ‘new world order’ in 1990. Then too, the ostensible rationale was the defence of (Kuwaiti) national sovereignty — Bush said that ‘No peaceful international order is possible if larger states can devour their smaller neighbors’ — but the decades since have told a different story. The West has trashed the post-1945 principles of sovereign equality and non-interference in a nation’s internal affairs, abrogating to itself a ‘right to intervention’ and a ‘responsibility to protect’ that have repeatedly been invoked to justify overriding weaker states’ claims to independence and self-government.
This shameful record may help to explain why most of the world has not joined in with the West’s anti-Russian hysteria. The experience of the past thirty years has shown Western dominance to be a far greater barrier to national independence than any policy of Moscow. Within Europe, the only states that have resisted imposing the EU’s self-harming sanctions on Russia — Hungary and Serbia — have found that defending their national interests means defying Western policy. Elsewhere, popular opposition to the war is ignored and suppressed. As Furedi accurately observes, ruling elites promoted globalism as a way to ‘insulate themselves from domestic democratic pressure’ (p.44). But exerting such pressure logically means leaving NATO and taking democratic control of foreign policy — it cannot mean urging them to ‘morally rearm’, which has been the project of globalist elites since the end of the Cold War.
One of the earliest and most significant attempts at post-Cold War ‘moral rearmament’ was against the former Yugoslavia. It is not obvious that Djilas’s remark to the Guardian in 1991 really serves Furedi’s argument, since it seems to suggest the superficiality of national sentiments. But insofar as it supports the idea of the past determining the present — the clichéd view of the Balkans as suffering from ‘too much history’ — it mystifies rather than explains the conflicts of the 1990s. Then too, the role of the West was presented as that of an inept and morally pusillanimous bystander, though in reality Western political and military interference inflamed and prolonged the conflict. Even when, at the end of the decade, NATO bombed Serbia for 78 days straight, the response of many commentators was to decry Western weakness and to yearn for a more robust warrior culture in which war was viewed less as a ‘surgical scalpel’ and more as a ‘bloodstained sword’, as Michael Ignatieff put it. Now Furedi has joined the ranks of the laptop bombardiers, calling for the West to rediscover its ‘warrior ethos’, lend ‘far greater military support’, and ‘take a stand against evil’.
Furedi locates the roots of the West’s moral disarmament in the aftermath of the First World War. ‘Idealism motivated millions’ to fight in 1914, he says, but ‘disappointment regarding the failure to realise these ideals intensified a tendency towards the kind of moral disorientation that pervades society today’ (p.12). To address this problem, he seeks to recapture the martial romance that drew a generation to the trenches. Quoting Max Weber’s veneration of the ‘consecrated meaning’ of death in battle, Furedi argues that ‘Weber’s sacralisation of an individual’s sacrifice of life was not simply wishful propaganda’, because death in war ‘still had meaning for many soldiers — from all sides — who had volunteered to fight’ (pp.71–72). He sees in Ukraine a rebuke to Western societies which have ‘become sceptical of the value of courage and heroism’ (p.72). Yet as the author of Mythical Past, Elusive Future said:
The notion that modern Western societies are undergoing a profound moral crisis has become something of a platitude….The combination of a sense of moral decay and an acute anxiety about the future has led to a preoccupation with the past and to a tendency to romanticise history.
Unfortunately, the author of The Road to Ukraine offers only dulce et decorum est by proxy.
Frank Furedi, The Road to Ukraine: How the West Lost its Way, De Gruyter 2022, ISBN: 978-3-11-099694-4.
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