War, peace and refugees

S Mubashir Noor

Recent estimates suggest the tidal wave of migrants currently trekking through mainland Europe is the largest mass movement of humans since World War II. This hapless horde seeks to escape protracted conflicts, abject poverty or both. According to published data, some 21 million people worldwide qualify for the United Nations’ (UN) definition of a refugee, a staggering number of which are concentrated in the Middle East and Northern Africa.
Another study by the Amnesty International in early October uncovered that 10 countries outputting less than three percent of global GDP are sheltering some 56 percent of its refugee population. This list — topped by Jordan, Turkey and Pakistan — shines a light on the disproportionate socioeconomic burden that neighbours to states torn by civil war continue to bear in upholding the values of human compassion and dignity.
The European Union (EU), meanwhile, is paralysed by a fierce debate on the “obligatory quotas” per country for incoming migrants that bureaucrats in Brussels insist are necessary to restore order. Barring Germany, impelled perhaps by its historical shame of Nazi pogroms, few EU states are willing to welcome refugees displaced from their homes and livelihoods by fear of death and persecution. Admittedly, a small number of them are driven purely by economic motives, but the horrors of war are very real for the vast majority of Syrians, Eritreans and Afghans undertaking the perilous journey across the Mediterranean.
The stock argument of those opposed to these quotas, notably the Visegrad Group of Eastern European nations, centres on how incoming migrants will adversely affect their “way of life.” Best demonstrated by Britain’s decision to leave the EU, this sentiment has sparked a resurgence of far-right nationalism across the continent. It is difficult to comprehend why so many of them, especially Great Britain, think the migrants are someone else’s problem. After all, courtesy of their military interventions across the Middle East and Afghanistan as part of NATO in the wake of 9/11, they have either indirectly triggered the conflicts that force migrants to flee their homes or helped shape them.
Now itself reeling from homegrown terrorism, surely Europe realises the folly of blindly following a superpower insulated from the blowback of its actions by divine geography while expecting the same outcome. Profiteering from war is also a Western staple. The US, France and Britain all rail against the rise of regional strife, yet also compete to arm the warring parties. That Saudi Arabia and India are the world’s foremost weapons importers in neighborhoods constantly on the brink of nuclear Armageddon is testament to this hypocrisy.
From a sociological perspective, it is hard to fathom why humans still wage war. We live in a time where global culture is undergoing steady homogenisation in the Western/liberal mould, and where trade globalisation has tightly coupled world economies. Why, then, should any tyrant or terrorist risk collective prosperity to further ideology, whether political or faith-based? Moreover, why does the EU — originally conceived as a step up from Westphalian nation-statehood — find itself another Brexit-style referendum away from total capitulation? Many influential thinkers, including Henry Kissinger, believe the binary nature of mankind’s evolution is responsible for this puzzling state of affairs.
Today, there is a wide chasm between how the world organises itself politically and economically. While transnational economies are interlinked on a hitherto unprecedented level, thus making the advancement of trade exponential, the political and emotional progress of humanity is still incremental and for long periods, inert. Coupled with instantaneous communication, this has created new avenues of friction between and within societies that struggle to reconcile with rising income inequality and blurred identity.
For while the Internet allows people to engage in discourse considered taboo in their own societies, it has also sharpened contradictions and democratised the dissemination of information. By doing so, it has given a pulpit to the darker side of human nature that thrives on sowing chaos. The Islamic State’s (ISIS) expert use of social media to attract disenfranchised Muslim youth is a ready example. Furthermore, trade globalisation has diminished national sovereignty before the will of multinational corporations.
The international security apparatus represented by the UN Security Council is also on the verge of becoming defunct. Its impotence in curbing conflicts is all the more tragic considering the ‘five policemen’ are themselves disruptive forces to world order. In Syria, for example, which is the wellspring of Europe’s migrant crisis, both Russia and the US are replaying their great geopolitical game from the Cold War with scant regard for Syrian life and limb.
Washington is verifiably culpable in the rise of ISIS, while Vladimir Putin is calculatedly fuelling a centuries-old schism in Islam, currently embodied by Iran and Saudi Arabia, which threatens to perpetuate bloodletting in the Middle East for years to come. In view of this grotesquely counterintuitive scenario, conspiracists such as myself sometimes wonder if there is a perverse design to this madness, like Great Britain turning a blind eye to the Irish potato famine in the mid-19th century in the practice of Malthusian economics.
Incidentally, in a thought provoking essay titled “The Case Against Peace” on the Foreign Policy website in June, noted political scientist Stephen Walt references earlier literature and historical precedents to present a rosier picture of man’s penchant for violence.
To him, and other realists like Michael Desch, total peace is catastrophic for societies. For nation-states built on racial or ideological convictions to survive and prosper, they must have enemies to serve as a rallying point for national pride.
Without demons to vanquish, Walt posits centralised federal systems like Pakistan’s turn into slow-moving train-wrecks. Bereft of external antagonists, internal fissures begin to rear their ugly heads and threaten to consume the country from within. He goes on to demonstrate how the American Civil War resulted from Monrovian isolationism of the early 19th century when the US forswore “chasing monsters abroad.”
Conversely, America grew stronger as a polity when it chose to militarily intervene in both world wars. Walt believes the Cold War was even more fortuitous because it kept the specter of nuclear annihilation simmering while leading to few exchanges on the battlefield, barring by proxy. As Pakistan and India again rattle sabers over Kashmir, you have to wonder if our lopsided federation too requires an existential enemy to keep faith in the union and the politicians know it.


‘War against govt will continue, we cannot retreat’