Back to Fear for a Deserved Extinction

NATO “being back” pushes a dangerous dual narrative of good versus evil in an increasingly polarized world, writes Oscar Martínez-Tapia.

Human stupidity has no limits. Nothing new there, but sometimes reality has a way of reminding us. Because, well, just when what we need is generosity and big thinking and the people around the world to work as one towards common priorities… just when borders and nations begin to lose their usefulness in tackling the most urgent of problems, the climate… just when we thought that certain mistakes, like penitent wars and fanatical political regimes, were something for the history books… what we end up getting is what we least need: to find ourselves in the hands of a bunch of men (masculine and plural) playing their testosterone-centered games. Have we not learned anything between 1989 and today?

Of course, it’s tempting to blame the current circus on the real crazy ones. The Russian, the Kazak, the Black, the Chinese, the North Korean, the African, the Indian, the Arab, and the Ñamerican (a term American countries with Spanish heritage coined by Martin Caparrós in his latest and excellent book). Anyone is always crazier than us, we who are white, extra-educated, science-driven, green-feminist, veggie-healthy, good-hearted citizens of proper democracies. It’s an easy game. For the world to be good and beautiful, everyone must become more like us. Only then will we live on Sesame St. and sing “mission accomplished.”

In all honesty, modernization theory is so embedded in our white minds that criticizing it will only serve as ungrateful treason. Unless, obviously, you are a French post-structuralist, with permission (and invitation) to be totally misunderstood. From Weber to Parsons, Lipset to Fukuyama, Huntington, Inglehart, Norris, Przeworski, Acemoglu, Robinson, and perhaps even Marx and Piketty – most social scientists, in one way or another, support our white supremacy over human history. And most of them, by the way, are white men.

Therefore, and despite the very white science insisting otherwise, there is a far too popular dual narrative in which there is good and there is evil. Long story short, good coincides with our interest and evil with elsewhere. Maurice Duverger coined the concept of dual blinders, which tend to wrongly make us perceive reality as opposites in nature: black and white, male and female, day and night, cold and hot, Yin and Yang, etc. The concept does its job to oversimplify and help us grasp some general understanding of reality. The only problem is that it is false, and it could be dangerous. This, however, is precisely the point. Centuries of obscene ethnocentrism might have resulted in the legitimation of alternative discourses (anticolonial, anti-Western) rarely different from the original they claim to battle. Russia (and China) may be doing just that. As Cristina Manzano reminded us in a recent article in El Pais, what we have now is a new rhetoric for an old imperial aspiration. In other words, we might be trapped in our own plot.

An epidemic of nostalgia haunts the world.

“NATO is back.” We’ve been reading it everywhere. It sounds eerily similar to the “America is back” from Joe Biden upon winning the US presidential election against Donald Trump. It also sounds like the “Britain is back” from Boris Johnson after his landslide post-Brexit victory. The list goes on: Marine Le Pen, Salvini, Kaczynski, Orban, etc. Of course, Putin too has been announcing his peculiar version of Make Russia Great Again for some years now. And he is not alone. Yesterday, the Russian president met with Turkish Erdogan and Iranian Raisi (more testosterone) in Teheran to deliver a message: “[our countries] reaffirm the determination to continue their ongoing cooperation in order to ultimately eliminate terrorist individuals, groups, undertakings and entities.” Doesn’t it sound like George W. Bush & co.’s war on terror grandiloquence?

Therefore, it is nonsensical to ignore that those parts of our Western publics, which we hail as important and support our “country first” rhetoric, are of the same stock that has taken Putin into Ukraine. Russian troops crossed the border to go back to the future. We should not feign surprise. Everyone everywhere is back or is on their way back. An epidemic of nostalgia haunts the world. Everything was better back when everything was worse. Back to the fear that feels safe.

Indeed, Putin is not only doing what we in the West have been doing for a long time, but he is also using the very same arguments (good vs evil). Yet, somehow, there is a Western moral superiority that empowered us to promote the NATO Summit in Madrid as if it were the modern-day Paris Peace Conference, coming on the heels of a brutal pandemic. As Woodrow Wilson allegedly said in Versailles, “I not only use all the brains that I have, but all that I can borrow”.

What was at stake at the summit in this year of 2022 was the opportunity to throw some common sense on the chessboard. Despite the mythology about WWI and the breakup of the Big War (which, 100 years later, no one can honestly identify the real motives other than a cascade of selfish misunderstandings and unfortunate diplomacy), a positive angle today is that we all seem to agree on one thing: it is not a good idea to humiliate the losers. Perhaps a lesson learned in 1945, but I am not quite sure to read this between the lines of the Strategic Concept. It’s a big name for a document distilling a mix of vendetta and ambivalence.

So, contrary to what seems like mass opinion, a NATO summit isn’t automatic good news – because, among other things, it confirms the involution of international relations. Since 2016, we have witnessed a spiraling at the domestic level around the world (e.g. Trump, Brexit), that randomly affected an amorphous process of de-globalization. Indeed, Dani Rodrik warned us, in The Globalization Paradox, of the inevitable intertwining of domestic and international: “[t]he reality is that we lack the domestic and global strategies to manage globalization’s disruptions. As a result, we run the risk that the social costs will outweigh the narrow economic gains and spark an even worse globalization backlash.” Now, with war in Ukraine provoking an endless cascade of subsequent crises, we have confirmation of Rodrik’s trilemma and the amplification of the domestic onto the global. One world.

Ultimately, twenty-eight men and two women gathered in Madrid this past June to re-design the strategy of the West against the rest. We are talking about an organization that Emmanuel Macron diagnosed as “brain dead” not so long ago. It has since been resuscitated, now standing, as if we are in one of those American superhero movies.

Who wants to be moderate when being fair is so boring? Who wants to tolerate when you can impose?

Among the people applauding are conservative war hawks who are oft-heard saying “didn’t I tell you?” They will have confirmed their Darwinist view on society and will do good business with the magnificent increase in military budget at the expense of the well-intentioned-but-useless welfare policies. Personally, I will suffer from International Relations university departments being invaded by realist, neo-realist, post-realist et al., as well as – and sorry to say this, but – the presence of those students who will likely hold their classmates captive with survival of the fittest arguments.

And then there are those people who will be frustrated, disturbed, bothered, and restless by the back-from-the-dead strength of NATO. These are the peace doves, sweet souls who still cannot figure out or admit to how human nature can be so merciless and cold-blooded. In their naiveté, they suspected that something was wrong with humankind but trusted (public) education and redistribution to do its job. They are already blaming American kapitalism for all evils, see imperialistic conspiracies everywhere, and blindly insist on the reduction or entire elimination of armed forces (e.g. defund the police) to build a better world for our children. Their anthem is Lennon’s “Imagine.”

Surprisingly, there are not many people who land between the hawks and the doves, despite the richness of ornithology. (Yes, dual blinders are a comfortable fit.) Both camps do have their legitimate points but both fail to see those legitimate points of the other. We are experiencing polarization at its finest. In general, it’s safe to say that hawks are always ahead of the real game while doves own morality. Inbetweeners are rightly confused. Who wants to be moderate when being fair is so boring? Who wants to tolerate when you can impose? Who wants to be pro-choice when you can be pro-life?

All in all, a NATO summit isn’t good news basically because the world today isn’t good news. And if those in power or with power act and think in this way, buying and amplifying “macho alpha” politics, why would the rest of the world bother to behave differently? Even Scandinavia, once a paradise of dialogue and tolerance, is falling for fear. Do you want to bet that the next Nobel Peace Prize will be Volodymyr Zelensky?

Come to think of it, our modern times are not that unique after all. There has always been and will always be the inertia of human affairs, the right and wrong of the hawks and doves, the vice and the versa. Probably, the worst thing one can be these days is the killjoy, but someone needs to start saying it. Umair Haque has put a year out for the apocalypse: 2050. Of course, I really hope I am wrong, but let me tell you it seems like we are indeed headed to extinction and it also feels like we deserve it.


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