Europe and the Problem of Force

15. 3. 2017

The recent events in Ukraine have laid Europe’s inability to act in the face of hostile Russian action bare. Faced with military intervention at its doorstep, it has reached for the traditional toolkit of diplomacy—declarations and consultations. By renouncing the use of force or war, is Europe giving in to anyone who will not hesitate to use those in pursuit of their goals? If so, it may soon have to surrender the European way of life, which is so attractive that many people already risk their lives in order to achieve it.

A brute, naked force has an edge over talks. Violence remains the essence of power. In economic terms, Europe is undoubtedly a big fish; yet if it is to cease being small fry in political terms, it needs to understand the following lessons. Only through the joint construction of military potential will we be able to bolster European standards around us as well as globally. It is appropriate that we do this only in the name of liberal principles: freedom, human rights, and the rule of law. On the one hand, these principles require that we condemn the use of force, including war. On the other, they require us to be prepared for war. Thus far no attempt to rebuild European military strength has been successful. However, the world had never seen such peaceful process as the creation of the European Union. Yet, the EU exists.

The essence of politics in modern-day Europe is deteriorating. While it is true that the world has changed dramatically in the past few centuries, this change has not been so profound that military force would have ceased to play the deciding role in the creation of the political order—quite the contrary.The sincere intentions of Europeans have done nothing to limit the level of violence in the world over the last few decades. Devastating conflicts on the scale of world wars have been avoided, but clashes are occurring with great frequency, even in our immediate neighborhood. Syria is currently a site of conflict, Russian forces have occupied part of Georgia, and it was not so long ago that blood was spilled in the Balkans. Europe is mindful of its historical tragedies and it is not so much reluctant to use force as it is unwilling to admit that force remains at the center of politics, and that the use of violence is the essence of political power.

A bitter pill to swallow is the fact that even as a continent we still are a small fry in political terms. In modern political thought, however, there is no resolute answer as to how violence may be placed at the heart of power and how it may be harnessed. This is why the leaders on our continent compensate for their own sense of weakness by developing diplomatic instruments that they deem “o be our y.”They are unwilling to face the fact that the power of European countries is based on the same law as that of global communities, namely, that it is necessary to be prepared to use force not only in the name of one’s interests but also in the name of shared values. At times the European countries make limited, and thus pitiable, attempts at armed intervention, as was seen during the recent conflicts in Libya and in Mali. We should, however, remember the Balkans and ask ourselves how many human lives were saved by all that pathetic prattle about human rights and by our inability to intervene. Do we truly believe that tragedy will remain at bay because we can defeat aggression through words alone?

We live by the conviction that the European community can survive only if we renounce violence. The memory of the tragedy of war provides a warning, although its power fades as violence remains at the heart of political action. How else can we characterize the pressure that, for example, Germany and the International Monetary Fund put on Greece where it had to accept the conditions of financial aid against its better judgment and common sense? Fortunately, in this case, those actions did not lead to armed conflict, but allusions were made to wartime violence and occupation in many statements. European Union leaders used a kind of force against one of its member states.

Europe: A Power without Force

We will attempt to make use of two terms in order to describe how communities choose the direction they take: power and force. It is possible today to be sincerely convinced that power— political power in particular—is nothing more than braggadocio when held up against the means other organizations have at their disposal; corporations, media giants, individual pressure groups, and even individual people often control a country’s agenda to a greater extent than its parliament. The influence this power has on the lives of communities is enormous but incidental. They appear sporadically and do not institutionalize themselves so much as state organizations do. Nevertheless, regardless of who these new“strongmen” are, their activity is straightforwardly political. They use the power of words and sometimes money to shape the world order and eliminate the monopoly on power held by governments and states.

The discord between power and force is best illustrated by comparing Europe and the United States. In his 2002 article “Power and Weakness“, Robert Kagan demonstrated this by use of two metaphors. He compared Europe to the stance of Venus, which is closer to the peace-loving philosophy of Immanuel Kant. America was compared to Mars, the god of war, and closer to Hobbesian ideas. The text caused great controversy at the time, in part due to the fact that George W. Bush was also using similar rhetoric in declaring war on terrorism. Ten years on, Kagan explained that the text was published earlier and was not intended to be a justification for the policies of the White House. It had, however, been in part inspired by the notorious essay that British strategist Robert Cooper had written on the weakness of Europe.

In his essay, Robert Cooper echoed his countryman, historian Michael Howard, who had noted the significant weakness of a Europe that is convinced of the primacy of liberal values and yet is not prepared to take up arms to defend them: the civilized countries have given up the position that had given them strength. This is of course not always true. There are, nevertheless, few significant exceptions to the rule. No one would seriously claim that the power held by the president of the United States is mere braggadocio. We may add the leaders of Russia, Pakistan, and China to the list of the powerful, but not the peaceful and prosperous Switzerland, Germany, or Denmark. Nobody suspects Russia, Pakistan, or China of harboring liberal tendencies. Nevertheless, soon enough, other countries outside Europe may join the group of Western/liberal powers. Lately, even Brazil has been arming itself in order to defend its wealth of natural resources and its modernization project. It is countries such as Brazil and India who will join America in shaping the free world.

War, or Being Prepared for Change

The consequences of a political decision always ultimately decide someone’s existence or lack thereof. The failure to take action can place decisions about human existence into the hands of others. In extreme situations, this applies to conflicts that cost human lives. This also concerns crime, but above all war. We must remember, however, that the essence of war is not death, but the achievement of a defined political goal. Many armed conflicts naturally spiral out of control and leave casualties in their wake, yet those armed conflicts are less lethal than road accidents and we are almost as indifferent to them as to detective shows. Traffic accidents claim over one million lives worldwide every year. Armed conflicts from the second half of the 20th century and the present day have claimed ten times less lives annually. It is of course impossible to compare the numbers of fatalities, as every human life lost is a tragedy. Nevertheless, in considering the evil that armed conflict may potentially bring, it is worth bearing in mind that in times of peace we witness events both bloodier and crueler.

It would not be entirely perverse to ponder the social benefits of warfare. What strength lies in war-readiness? As strange as it is to say, war is above all an instrument of social change and, despite appearances to the contrary, progress. Why then should not liberalism support wars on the understanding that participation in an armed conflict is a driving force of change in society? Robert Nisbet, a major American sociologist, described in his 1988 pamphlet The Present Age how America’s participation in the wars at the start of the 20th century pushed it toward progress: equal rights, new technologies, and social change. This came about at the cost of tradition, the strength of local communities, and religion. Nisbet, a staunch conservative, naturally bemoaned this. Should liberals—not to mention socialists—seriously consider their stance in light of this?

Regardless of where one’s ideological sympathies lie, it must not be forgotten that every war brings change with it, at times a radical one. Could we envision the 20th century economic and social dynamism of Warsaw, or even Poland, had the war not ploughed through the fabric of cities and, in doing so, leveled social status? The People’s Republic of Poland was not responsible, as the Soviets oversaw the rebuilding of hierarchies and dependency structures. With reference to the wartime memories of Ksawery Pruszyński, it is difficult to deny that war and the catastrophe of the Warsaw Uprising created an entirely new society in Poland.

I do not wish to be misunderstood. I am not calling for war to be declared in the name of progress in the style of 19th century Marxists. I am, however, drawing attention to the fact that wars in principle are responsible for fewer fatalities than assumed and that their purpose is not to kill an enemy but to achieve political goals. Secondly, it is precisely warfare that is the main driving force of the change that liberals are eager to achieve, particularly in democracy, and which involves an element of social awareness even in participation in a distant combat mission.

Force without Power

What are the consequences of a policy that rules out the possibility of warfare? If we are not convinced that strength—including physical force—creates political power (and the countries of Europe do after all aspire to that power), we are destined to become an antique relic, moved from shelf to shelf by rising powers that will not look favorably upon our civilizational model. This may be our undoing in the long run. We cannot, however, frantically build up our armies and demonstrate our readiness to fight. It is necessary to arm ourselves until Europe becomes a great power, or we must use the tactics of a weak player who is indispensable to everyone but who threatens no one. That strength can also bring about positive effects in the right circumstances, if current leaderships weaken and lose the power to set the agenda. The strength of conviction which mere conversation represents only occasionally wields this power. In general, it must be backed up by force, as it is traditionally understood.

Even in Poland, we tend to prefer to use the word “power” to represent the concept of force in political discussions. However, understanding of the modern world is only possible with the recognition that it is force that creates power and infuses it with meaning. Political power is at times toothless but, in the social world and especially in the world of politics, force can always bite. It was 1 2 the certainty of this that provided the catalyst for democratic changes in Central Europe. Václav Havel’s concept of “the power of the powerless” made sense of the odd situation in which the leadership in fact lacked the necessary strength to lead, and thereby it lost. That strength was harnessed by the democratic social movements. It was they who replaced the old leadership. Their weakness, however, was and still is the fact that they turn their backs on the essence of politics and thereby on the scene of potential conflict.

The fate of democracy and the European social model is dependent on whether we will be able to rise up and take advantage of force to create order in the name of liberal values. Violence and dictatorship are nevertheless written into every level of state institutions, no matter how democratic they are. We do not have to use them. If, however, we rule out the use of force, we pave the way for those who will not hesitate in their use of uncontrolled, unlimited force. In other words, if Europe does not take common stance against Russian imperial ambitions to the point of even risking a war, then the European way of life will hardly be as attractive in the future so that one hundred people at another square would be willing to die for it.

Wojciech Przybylski

is the editor-in-chief of Visegrad Insight and president of the board at the Res Publica Foundation. His expertise includes European politics and political culture. Previously, he has been the editor-in-chief of Eurozine—a Vienna based magazine with a European network of cultural journals, and the Polish quarterly Res Publica Nowa. He also co-authored the book “Understanding Central Europe”, Routledge 2017. Twitter: @wprzybylski

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