A Clash Of Symbols

Living through the Cold War wasn’t without its moments of anxiety, and even fear: there were times when you went to bed wondering if you would wake up a radioactive crisp in the morning. Yet for all the angst and the serial crises, there was actually something quite comforting about those days: the moral certainty with which the West felt able to view the world. After all, generally speaking, standards of living in the West were higher, there was more political freedom, and there were no fences keeping people in. (Indeed, few even of the fiercest critics of western policy ever seriously thought of going to live in the Soviet Union.)

The same was true at the strategic level. The forces of NATO were equipped, trained and exercised for a defensive battle in Germany, and indeed would have been incapable of mounting an aggressive operation: the infrastructure simply didn’t exist to permit it. Meanwhile, the Red Army had formal doctrine of pre-emptive offensive warfare, and its troops were equipped and trained for offensive operations.

The effect of this was to discourage much speculation or analysis. It was assumed not only that the Soviet Union saw NATO as a purely defensive alliance, but also that it understood that NATO correctly interpreted Soviet policy as aggressive, and was responding to it. So I don’t know how often I heard, or read accounts of, politicians from NATO countries assuring each other that “the Russians know that we do not pose a threat to them.” Some of us in the cheap seats at the time wondered whether it was as simple as that, which is one reason why most of us never got any further forward than the cheap seats. Surely, we thought, you had to take into account the after-effects of the trauma of the Second World War, and not only the suffering, but the memory of the lack of preparation of the Red Army in 1941? But as I say, this was not a popular view to hold at the time.

When the Cold War was abruptly cancelled, there was a rash of reciprocal visits by the military and intelligence staffs of the two sides, and the people who went to the Warsaw Pact came back with stories which were almost impossible to believe. Yes, they did believe we were a threat. Yes, they thought a NATO attack could come with as little as two hours warning, which is why officers stationed in Germany could never be more than that amount of time away from their units, even on leave, and why there were heated hangars full of tanks fuelled up and with ammunition already loaded, ready to move out, while their crews slept in unheated huts next to them.

As documents stared to become available after the fall of the Warsaw Pact and the end of the Soviet Union, it became clear that these attitudes went right to the top of the Soviet system. And when the documents of the government of the GDR became available after unification, it became clear that the public discourse of the GDR, that the West German regime were just Nazis reborn, was not just a political insult, it was literally what they thought and the basis of their entire security and foreign policy. (One could reasonably speculate that the leaders involved were compensating for the fact that they played no active role in the Second World War at all: they were hidden away in Moscow.);

And yet the Soviet Union had highly capable military intelligence services, and the East German Statsi had thoroughly infiltrated the government in Bonn, and gained a lot of access to NATO policy and decision-making. No serious analyst in Moscow, with all this at their disposal, could really have thought that NATO was planning an offensive war, and, of course by extension, because NATO wasn’t planning an offensive war, the alliance was completely unable to imagine that anybody might think it was. In this way, the Cold War was even more dangerous than anyone imagined at the time. Not because of the journalistic stuff about “ten minutes away from nuclear war”—nuclear release procedures don’t work like that—but because of a total and catastrophic inability of the two sides to understand each other’s’ motives and objectives. I felt then, and I still feel, that the two sides knew everything about each other except what was actually important. It’s a shame that this utter mutual incomprehension never got much publicity in the West, as it was pushed aside by the victory celebrations and the general chaos that followed the end of the Cold War. For that matter, it never got much publicity in Russia either.

Although the Cold War was special in this respect, it wasn’t unique. Rather, it was a particularly gross example of something found at all levels from personal relations up to international politics; the inability to accept that another person or body or country may have their own reasons for doing what they do, which seem valid to them, and which, quite often they can set out coherently if asked. The more powerful and ingrown a political system is, the worse this inability becomes, and the more potentially dangerous it is. We can see this at the moment in Ukraine, and I will return to that subject later, but let’s stay with the Cold War for a moment; because the example has other lessons for us.

Why should the Soviet Union have assumed that NATO would attack them, when all the technical analysis said that NATO didn’t have this capability? Now, part of the reason was ideological: Marxist-Leninist doctrine assumed that, at a point when the world-wide triumph of the Communist system was imminent, the Imperialists would launch a last-ditch all-out war designed to frustrate that triumph. As always with such doctrines it is hard to know how seriously it was taken, but the answer seems to be reasonably seriously, at least. And if you believe such a doctrine, this affects how you look at the world, and what you see in it. But there was more to it than that. In 1941, the Soviet Union was disastrously unprepared for war. Historians are still battling each other about the events of 1936-41, and the degree to which Stalin’s purges, and indeed Stalin’s policies more generally were responsible for this lack of preparedness. But the single lesson that all those of an age to have passed through the War took away was: never again. Instead of waiting, they would strike first. Instead of trying to postpone the inevitable conflict, they would begin it. And in the short-term they would build up their armed forces to a level of size, power and readiness such that no aggressor would attack them lightly. The thought that this size and power might worry others did not seem to have entered into the political calculations.

So in a very real sense, the Red Army of 1989 was what the Red Army of 1941 should have been. Symbolically, it was an attempt to wipe away the disaster of 1941, almost as though it had never happened. The fact that the objective circumstances were very different didn’t really enter into the thinking. We can still see the effects of this trauma today, in some of the speeches by Putin, and in his statement last year that perhaps he should have moved faster on Ukraine, and not, as Stalin did, try for a diplomatic solution. Of course we aren’t really in 1941 again now, any more than we were during the Cold War, but symbolic politics has its own dynamic, and is independent of both time and circumstance.

Ironically, the decision-makers in the West went through an essentially parallel process. They were haunted not just by the destruction of Europe between 1940 and 1945, but even more by the persistent, obsessive belief that somehow, if they had only been clever enough, all that could have been avoided, and the menace of Hitler dealt with at an earlier point. In reality, of course, the statesmen of the 1930s had an insoluble problem: more so, in fact than the Soviet Union did. Germany had been defeated in 1918, but its industrial base was undamaged, its population was substantially greater than that of France, and there was nothing that could be done, in the end, to stop it rearming, and seeking revenge for Versailles. Its economy was not burdened by debt, since, unlike Britain and France its war effort had been funded by domestic loans, which inflation had wiped out. At some point, a government would arise which would seek to overturn the military limitations of Versailles and rebuild its forces. So the comment attributed to Marshal Foch in 1919—“this is not a peace, it is an armistice for twenty years”—whilst perceptive, was not actually that difficult a conclusion to arrive at. Like the Soviets, the West sought to delay the inevitable: the generation of national leaders in the 1930s had been through the War, and almost anything seemed preferable to more mountains of dead. In the end, the Second World War was not really avoidable, although it has been possible to construct elaborate scenarios in which it might have been less likely. But whilst war with another German regime might have come later, or been less destructive, once the Nazis were in power war was inevitable and bound to be total, because the entire dynamic of the Nazi regime was geared to war and indeed its very survival depended on a series of victorious wars. In the circumstances, the British and French response—a crash rearmament programme combined with an attempt to settle Germany’s post-1918 territorial claims peacefully—was pretty much the only policy available.

At the 1938 Munich meeting, the British and French made use of their military superiority, of which Hitler was uncomfortably aware, to threaten war if Germany launched an invasion of Czechoslovakia. (Hitler returned to Berlin in a state of absolute fury.) But there was nothing that could be done to stop the absorption of the Sudetenland, which had been attached to Czechoslovakia in 1919, in a typical piece of Great Power jigsaw-puzzle construction, ironically to give the new country a defensible frontier. (Nobody thought to ask the locals which country they wanted to live in.) And even among the fiercest critics of the Munich settlement, then and now, there are few who argue for a war devastating Europe once again and causing millions of deaths, to prevent one group of Germans joining another.

Yet such was the horror and devastation of the War when it came, that from the very beginning it sparked an almost neurotic compulsion to find an alternative, any alternative, to the policies that had actually been followed in the 1930s. Fantasies of preventative wars (dispelled by simply looking a a map) or of a Western-Soviet alliance (requiring the Poles to accept occupation by the Red Army) began immediately, and have continued to this day. If only … something.

But if you can’t change the past, you can at least try to prevent it recurring and so, as for the Soviet Union, the West after 1945 tried performatively to erase the stain of the past by doing things differently. Just as the Soviet Union feared another war instigated by the West, so the West now feared that the Soviet Union would use European weakness to extend its territorial control, as Germany had done in the thirties. (Needless to say, the realism of any of these fears is entirely beside the point when we consider the situation at a symbolic level.) Reading the memoirs and documents of the time, it’s astonishing how paralytic with fear the political classes of Europe were about the possibility of a security crisis with the Soviet Union, the more so after the consolidation of Soviet power in Eastern Europe. So it becomes obvious that the Washington Treaty of 1949 was symbolically the commitment by the US to European security which never came in the 1930s and which, many thought, would have given Hitler pause. Likewise, the construction of the NATO military alliance after 1950 was symbolically the united military front against Hitler that would have avoided the defeat of 1940. The motivation was the same as the motivation of the Soviet Union after 1945: never again.

The problem of course is that when you apply symbolic politics to the real world, you inevitably get wrong and dangerous results. And when two different groups are responding to the same perceived historical failure from different directions, and each using their relations with each other as a mechanism for effectively rewriting the past, well, maybe we were quite lucky not to be radioactive crisps after all. The situation was complicated by the fact that on neither side did anyone want to defend the policies of the 1930s, and everyone looked for ways of distancing themselves from the decision-makers of the time. After Stalin’s death in 1953, Khrushchev, who had been close to the dictator, scrambled to follow the good political rule that the dead can easily be blamed because they can’t answer back. The lessons were simple to learn: more weapons, higher preparedness, more mistrust of the West. In the West itself the situation was more complicated, but the dominant narrative was quickly established by two men—Churchill and De Gaulle—who each had reasons for presenting themselves as voices in the wilderness. Churchill’s immensely influential history of the War (parts of which he actually wrote) established the official narrative, of idleness and weakness allowing “the ungodly to rearm.” Churchill would have known this was rubbish—British rearmament began in 1936 and the Spitfires and Hurricanes of 1940 had been in development for years— but it was essential for the establishment of his image as a national saviour. Similarly, De Gaulle promoted the fallacious image of an inadequately armed and outnumbered French Army overwhelmed by the Wehrmacht, but which would still have won had it adopted his own proposals for mass armoured warfare.

The triumph of these discourses has resulted ever since in a mindset that sees the later 1930s as an endless repository of lessons for the future, and of mistakes to be avoided. This produced, in particular, a desperate search for new events and individuals that could somehow be pressed into service as Third Reich and Hitler surrogates, no matter how different they actually were. In the exhausted Europe of the late 1940s, it was easy to see Stalin as the “new Hitler” and act accordingly. But the same logic was soon applied elsewhere: the war in Algeria, for example, was Stalin’s attempt to dismember France just as Hitler had done in 1940. The Suez expedition was launched to stop Nasser (the “new Hitler” of the 1950s) spreading war and destruction across North Africa. New Hitlers were found everywhere, and Patrice Lumumba the Congolese politician, and even Nelson Mandela, were seen as the equivalents of Conrad Heinlein, the Nazi leader in the Sudetenland, preparing the way for Soviet conquest of Africa. The Vietnam war was famously fought according to this same logic, but, fifteen years later, the same arguments were made for Gulf war 1,0: President Bush had been reading, he noted at the time, books on the Second World War. And by the time his son was in power and Gulf War 2,0 came round, the invasion of Iraq could be seen as the pre-emptive war that had been dreamt of ever since 1938.

The point, of course, is that symbolic expiation of the past—which is what we are concerned with here—has no obvious end-point. You can never say it’s over, because the past is still the past. Or as William Faulkner put it: “the past isn’t dead. It’s not even past.” In this, symbolic expiation differs from actual historical reconciliation, or even demands for restitution. The 1962 Elysée Treaty, like the Kohl/Mitterrand visit to Verdun in 1984, represented a symbolic resolution of hundreds of years of animosity and competition. It wasn’t absolute, and it couldn’t be, but the two events represented between them an elite-level recognition that there was no point in continuing the enmity, and that some form of cooperation was essential. But expiation, because it is symbolic and not time and space constrained, can never come to an end.

Now in Russia, as in the West, we are several generations removed now from the events of the Second World War and its origins. The first generation, that lived through the War, reacted to its own experiences. The second generation reacted rather to what it was told, to what was in the history books, and the way in which the events of those years were packaged and understood. By the third generation, many of these ideas have entered subliminally into the unconscious of decision-makers, and seem to them to represent general principles, if not actually just “common sense.” Talk in the West of “standing up to aggression” for example, is now completely detached from the historical context in which it originated, and has become a meaningless formula, albeit one which still guides what people in important positions think, and how they see the world. Such ideas have become signs, and as we all know, the signifier is not the same as the signified.

It will be obvious now, I think, where a lot of the mutual incomprehension over Ukraine comes from, and why the situation is so dangerous. It seems improbable that Moscow literally considers itself to be facing a Fourth Reich, just as it seems improbable that the West actually believes that it is facing an attempt to conquer the whole of Europe. The problem is that we are limited by our knowledge and experience in the conceptual models we have available, and so we often take refuge in models that we at least think we understand, even if they don’t even necessarily reflect the reality of historical events accurately, let alone those of today. This is to say that a typical question in a crisis is not “what is going on here?” but rather “which historical example that I remember reading about does this most seem to resemble?” The further away the actual historical example is, the more tenuous our knowledge of it, the less value it has. But that doesn’t stop us clinging to it, because it provides a way of understanding what we see, especially when we have inconveniently little time available for decisions.

But it is obvious not only that history does not repeat itself, but that even solitary historical events are perceived in different ways by different actors. As I have suggested, the Soviet Union and the West drew lessons from the same set of historical events, but applied them in very different ways. From what I can judge, Russian feelings about western policy in Ukraine (always allowing for political posturing) are situated relatively directly in the lineage of thinking during the Cold War, which is not surprising given the centrality of the experience of 1941-45 to modern Russian history. But the West has a much more confused and fragmented view of that same period, when different nations fought on different sides, when nations themselves were divided, and some nations were actually neutral. The dominant narrative of the period is largely an Anglo-Saxon and French one, and cannot be recounted at any level of detail without offending someone and provoking controversy. It therefore exists largely as a set of empty verbal formulas (“resisting aggression” and so forth), which, nonetheless have been powerful enough to launch wars and kill people.

There seems little possibility that the West and Russia will ever see things the same way, or even recognise the validity of each other’s point of departure. Moreover, each of them seems to share the apparently universal inability to credit that the other side genuinely means what it says. This is what I describe as the McEnroe effect (“you cannot be serious!”) and is probably the biggest single obstacle to sensible and productive relations between states. (It also applies to individuals and groups, obviously, but that’s a different issue.) It makes us irritably dismiss explanations with any complexity in favour of trite and reductive ones, because after all, They Can’t Possibly be Serious. The situation is made worse by the fact that much of what we think about the Other is anyway unconscious, and only half formulated. Western governments do have complicated and deep-seated motivations for their actions in Ukraine, including some that are quasi-religious, but in general their representatives now lack the intellectual culture to even begin to try to explain them, and perhaps even to fully understand why they are doing what they are doing. So, faced with this inarticulateness of western leaders when trying to account for their actions, it’s no surprise that critics of western policy themselves, whether domestic or foreign, increasingly take refuge in fantasies of European leaders being somehow tele-guided by CIA mind control techniques. At least it’s an explanation.

It’s not just the West that is susceptible to these problems—I’ve already given the example of the Soviet Union/Russia—but it is true that the West’s doctrine of Liberalism makes it especially vulnerable to them. Liberalism denies the importance of history, culture and tradition, and sees all decisions (including, implicitly political decisions) as made for reasons of utility maximisation on a purely rational basis, and with perfect information. So the Russian invasion of Ukraine was a purely rational decision based on anticipated benefit maximisation, and the western response was an attempt to deny this, whilst maximising benefits, especially economic, to itself. You’ve probably read some variant or derivative of this idea quite recently, and if it is almost pitifully inadequate to explain what’s going on, it does have the virtue of being easy to understand and to apply. You don’t actually need to know anything: you can simply presume that a number of things are true because they universally are.

This isn’t a new problem, but on the whole it’s a problem whose previous manifestations haven’t impacted life in the West too much, or at least the lives of the elites. Consider Islamic fundamentalism, for example. It’s taken as a given in elite western circles that religion is an entirely social construct. Thus, nobody actually “believes” in their religion, but on the other hand we should respect the religious beliefs of non-Europeans as cultural signifiers of exploited and marginalised groups, or something, even if they contravene the law or human rights standards. Now it should be said that this argument is sometimes partly valid. In the Balkans, for example, so-called “religious” distinctions are essentially social and political: effectively the Muslims were just the old ruling class. But the argument is not systematically true, and breaks down when confronted by people whose view of the world is entirely based on their religion, and who act as though it is actually true. The dominant modern western tradition of ecumenicism, going back to the 1960s, incorporates the opposite assumption: that religions are not actually true: they are systems of ethics like any other, just with ceremonies attached.

Yet most of the world does not think like that, any more than most of the western world did a century ago. One of the hardest things for historians to explain is that for much of western history, people did think that their religion was literally true, and acted accordingly. The Roman Empire sporadically persecuted Christians because they refused to worship the Roman gods, and thus might incur their disfavour, which would in turn threaten the safety of the state. Religious observance was a national security issue. Subsequent religious wars and persecutions were essentially because different actors had different views of Christian doctrine, and having the wrong one could send you to hell for all eternity: thus the Inquisition, for example, and the need to prevent heretical doctrines spreading which could endanger the souls of millions. Our modern society finds such ideas incomprehensible, and so assumes they must be invalid, and that the vast majority of the human race has been lying to itself and to others for thousands of years. So non-religious factors (which to be fair existed in quantity also) are generally prayed in aid to explain these kinds of historical events.

It’s’s hardly surprising, then, that in our hyper-secular age, the idea that there might be people out there who believe that their religion is literally true, and that those who do not share the particular interpretation of their faith are enemies to be literally destroyed is hard to accept. So far from western Liberal understanding were these ideas, that it was only the terrible events of 2015-16 that forced them into public awareness. Even then, elite opinion could not really cope. Perhaps our societies were too intolerant? Perhaps it was the fault of western colonialism (though Austria, as I recall, had few colonies in Muslim countries.) For some years now, elite western opinion has been handling the question nervously, like a hand grenade, hoping it will go away, even as the number of adherents of Political Islam (the idea that states should be run exclusively according to Islamic dogma) continues to grow. (I recently saw an estimate that there are now some 50,000 in France alone.) Because we cannot understand their mindset, we make no effort to do so, and we assume that something must be wrong, somewhere, and that what seems to be happening is just a mirage of some kind. Anything else requires us to modify our beliefs about what people can themselves believe, and what they may be capable of, and in general we are not prepared to do that. Twenty years ago, I remember seeing a translation of an Al Qaida instruction manual for the construction of a home-built, crude but effective weapon for distributing poison gas over a wide area to cause mass casualties in confined spaces. The weapon was particularly recommended for killing people in places which were hotbeds of sin, where unmarried men and women congregated: discotheques for example. Understanding this kind of mentality requires a leap of comprehension of which few of us today are capable.

Nor are such leaps always safe. Political Islam, for all its dangers, is a coherent body of thought that goes back a century to the first Muslim Brothers in Egypt. Its precepts have appealed to electorates all over the Arab world, and tens of thousands of people—not necessarily from Muslim countries—have gone off to die for it. There exists the terrifying possibility, no matter how remote, that if we accept that They Are Serious, and seriously examine their beliefs, we might find that our own certainties start to crumble. And indeed this is what seems to have happened to a number of impressionable young Europeans brought up in secular societies, according to Liberal principles based on the typical priori assumptions of that creed, with nothing underneath to support them..

In western societies, we see the world these days largely as a question of Ego. If I cannot understand something, it must be wrong. If some event contradicts my view of the world, it cannot be happening. If a theory or precept distresses me, it cannot be true. Our society today operates according to what I call the Reverse Sherlock Holmes Principle: When you have eliminated everything that is ideologically unacceptable, whatever remains, however stupid, must be the truth.

This kind of thinking is very recent, as one might expect, and differs, ironically enough, from the practices of ages that we like to think less “tolerant” than ours. For example, it was common from the Early Church onwards for orthodox writers to attack less orthodox schools by presenting extensive quotations from the works and then showing how they were wrong. (Practically all we knew about Gnosticism until recently came from the quotations from Gnostic authors in a hostile book by the second-century Bishop Irenaeus.) By contrast, you can read a furious indictment these days of the work of some modern thinker in the Grauniad, and not be any wiser by the end about what that thinker actually thinks. It’s easy to see why: my Ego may suffer damage from being exposed to ideas that I might find uncomfortable.

The result of this, of course, is that we have lost not only the capacity to understand—which has always been a problem—but even the very will to do so. We no longer compete with each other to defeat ideas: we compete to denounce them more strongly than the next person, and denounce the next person for not denouncing them as strongly as we do. I gave up long ago reading arguments between supporters and opponents of the war in Ukraine for example: neither side is prepared to accept that the other is serious, and so the debate degenerates rapidly into mutual insults and endless repetitions of approved positions from each side.

Yet the real problems are at a higher level. If in our culture and our daily lives we have given up even trying to understand why people think and act differently than we do, that’s bad enough for our culture and our society, and ultimately it’s bad for us. But it’s much worse when those who guide society’s destiny make the same refusal. Thirty years ago, the British Prime Minister John Major was (deservedly) mocked for saying that on crime we should “understand less and condemn more.” These days, virtually the whole of the political system works like that.

Genuine understanding is, after all, a threat to our own Ego. Recognising that other people hold, quite sincerely, opinions that we find wrong, trivial or even disgusting, is beyond the ability of most of us, because at the end of the day it makes us realise how rickety and how fragile may be the assumptions through which we ourselves understand the world. And recognising further that people may even act for reasons that they do not fully understand, or cannot quite explain, requires an intellectual leap that has never been easy and is now effectively impossible. But ultimately it as important to puncture the myth of rational, utility maximising states as it is the myth of rational utility maximising economic actors.

Much more could be written about this (a future essay perhaps?) and it’s important to stress just how powerful long-established and half-forgotten paradigms of interpretation are in politics everywhere. To take a topical example, Africa has been seen through the lens of Great-Power competition for a hundred and fifty years now, to the point where commentators literally cannot see events in any other way, as currently in Niger. Similarly, because the only model most people know for a powerful state with a worldwide presence is Empire, that model is dragged into service to explain the current situation of the United States, although it’s not useful.

But then it’s also true that similar intellectual habits also exist outside the West, as you will know if you’ve spent much time in parts of the world that were always colonies, and where history has always been imposed by outsiders. Take a trip around the Southern and Western Mediterranean, for example, or a bit further South into Africa, and you find places that have been colonies of one sort or another since the Romans. When everything in your history has been organised by others, there’s a temptation to assume the present is, as well, even if there’s no logic to the idea. I recall once being trapped in a slow-moving lift with an Arab academic who was desperate to convince me that the Islamic State (then much in the news) was a creation of the CIA, and if I needed proof, well, they were using Toyota Land Cruisers, manufactured, obviously, in America. When I explained that these vehicles, like much else, had been looted from the stocks of the Iraqi Army, he looked stunned: obviously the idea had never occurred to him before. The lift door opened before he could get his breath back.

Sometimes, when westerners return home, they write up such conversations for their colleagues. But quite quickly, if you haunt areas of the world where conspiracy is the dominant mode of thinking, you learn not to, because nobody will believe you. Nothing is more difficult to accept than that the same historical anxieties and fears, the same “lessons of the past”, the same deeply-ingrained but only partly conscious modes of thinking that we feel ourselves, are felt equally by others, elsewhere, in their own way. We are sure that they cannot be serious, and of course they feel the same about us.

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