What does defending Europe mean?
LJUBLJANA — After the Russian attack on Ukraine, the Slovene government immediately proclaimed its readiness to receive thousands of Ukrainian refugees. As a Slovene citizen, I was not only proud but also ashamed.
After all, when Afghanistan fell to the Taliban six months ago, this same government refused to accept Afghan refugees, arguing that they should stay in their country and fight. And a couple of months ago, when thousands of refugees — mostly Iraqi Kurds — tried to enter Poland from Belarus, the Slovene government, claiming that Europe was under attack, offered military aid to support Poland’s vile effort to keep them out.
Throughout the region, two species of refugees have emerged. A tweet by the Slovene government on Feb. 25 clarified the distinction, citing the “totally different environment out of which refugees from Afghanistan are coming.” After an outcry, the tweet was quickly deleted, but the obscene truth was out: Europe must defend itself from non-Europe.
This approach will be catastrophic for Europe in the ongoing global struggle for geopolitical influence. Our media and elites frame that struggle as a conflict between a Western “liberal” sphere and a Russian “Eurasian” sphere, ignoring the much larger group of countries — in Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, and Southeast Asia — that are observing us closely.
Even China is not ready to support Russia fully although it has its own plans, with Chinese President Xi Jinping telling North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un that China was ready to develop relations of friendship and cooperation “under a new situation.” The fear is that China will use the “new situation” to “liberate” Taiwan.
What should worry us now is that the radicalization we see, most clearly with Russian President Vladimir Putin, is not just rhetorical. Many on the liberal left, convinced that both sides knew they could not afford a full-on war, thought Putin was bluffing when he massed troops at Ukraine’s borders. When he did attack, some who call themselves leftists blamed the West for the fact that US President Joe Biden was right about Putin’s intentions. The argument is well-known: Nato was slowly encircling Russia and ignoring the reasonable fears of a country that had been attacked from the West in the last century.
There is, of course, an element of truth here, but it concedes that big powers have the right to spheres of influence, to which all others must submit for the sake of global stability. Putin’s assumption that international relations is a contest of great powers is reflected in his repeated claim that he had no choice but to intervene militarily in Ukraine because its government is “a gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis.” Is that true? Is the problem really Ukrainian fascism?
Says Aleksandr Dugin, Putin’s court-philosopher: “[E]very so-called truth is a matter of believing … So we have our special Russian truth that you need to accept.”
The idea that each “way of life” has its own truth is what endears Putin to right-wing populists like former US president Donald Trump, who praised Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as the act of a “genius.”
The “Russian truth” is only a convenient myth to justify Putin’s imperial vision, and the best way for Europe to counter it is to build bridges to developing and emerging countries, many of which have a long list of justified grievances against Western colonization and exploitation. It’s not enough to “defend Europe.” The true task is to persuade other countries that the West can offer them better choices than Russia or China can. And the only way to achieve that is to change ourselves by ruthlessly uprooting neocolonialism, even when it comes packaged as humanitarian help.
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Slavoj Žižek is professor of philosophy at the European Graduate School. He is international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities at the University of London and the author of “The Sublime Object of Ideology” (Verso Books, 1989).
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