By Boaventura de Sousa Santos* – Globetrotter/ Independent Media Institute
It is becoming clear that U.S. neoconservatives have succeeded in creating a warmongering, anti-Russian mood in Europe through an unprecedented information war, the consequences of which will take some time to assess. It is, however, possible to identify the signs of what is to come.
Losers: We do not yet know who will win this war (or if anyone will win it, apart from the arms industry). But we do know who will lose the most: the Ukrainian and European people. Parts of Ukraine are in ruins, millions of people have been displaced, and the euro has fallen; these are signs of defeat. In the seven decades since the destruction caused by World War II, Europe had risen again. Led by high-profile politicians and supported by the United States in its anti-communist crusade, Western Europe managed to establish itself as a region of peace and development (even if, alas, at the expense of colonial and neocolonial violence and appropriation). All it took to put the peace and development at risk was one ghost war: fought in Europe, but not led by Europe, and not even in the interest of Europeans.
Energy transition: Carbon dioxide (CO2), which is responsible for global warming, remains in the atmosphere for many thousands of years. It is estimated that 40 percent of the CO2 emitted by humans since 1850 remains in the atmosphere, according to a Deutsche Welle report that cited the 2020 international Global Carbon Budget study. So, although China is the largest emitter of CO2 today, the fact is that, if we look at the CO2 emissions data for 1750 to 2019 (from Deutsche Welle’s analysis of Our World in Data figures), Europe was responsible for 32.6 percent of emissions, the U.S. for 25.5 percent, China for 13.7 percent, Africa for 2.8 percent, and South America for 2.6 percent of the total emissions during that period. Given the cumulative emissions debt that Europe has rung up over the course of 269 years, the story of its recent credit toward balancing the global carbon budget by leading the fight for renewable energy in recent decades is a qualified success—it is the least they can do. We may be critical of an energy transition that is underpinned by the ecology of the (mostly European) rich, but at least it was heading in the right direction. The war in Ukraine and the fossil fuel energy crisis it triggered were enough to make all projects related to this energy transition evaporate. Coal has returned from exile, and oil and nuclear energy are being rehabilitated. Why is perpetuating the war more important than advancing the energy transition? What democratic majority has decided to follow in that direction?
Political spectrum: The approaching economic and social crisis will have an impact on the political spectrum in European countries. On the one hand, it is worth noting that it is the most authoritarian governments (like Hungary and Turkey) and far-right parties that have shown the least enthusiasm for the warmongering, which is encapsulated in the anti-Russian triumphalism that has dominated European politics in recent months. On the other hand, the left-wing parties, with few exceptions, have given up their own (left-wing) position on the war. Some of those parties who had distinguished themselves in the past with their stance against NATO have remained silent in the face of its senseless and dangerous expansion to all continents. When the continuation of the war and the expansion of military budgets begin to cause the impoverishment of families, what will the citizens think in terms of political choices made in the name of protecting them? Will they not be attracted to opt for the parties that have shown the least enthusiasm for the warmongering jingoism that caused their impoverishment?
Citizen safety: In June 2022, Interpol made public its concern that a large number of the weapons supplied to Ukraine could enter the illegal arms market and end up in the hands of criminals. This situation is all the more serious since some of the equipment provided to Ukraine includes heavy artillery. The experience of what has happened in the past in other theaters of war justifies this concern. For example, much of the war material supplied by the U.S. to Afghanistan ended up in the hands of the Taliban against whom the U.S. army was fighting. The U.S. tragedy of successive massacres caused by armed civilians is well known. What will happen in Europe if the easy accessibility of these weapons leads to them ending up in the wrong hands?
Normalization of Nazism: Shortly before the war in Ukraine, several intelligence services and security think tanks had been warning about the strong presence of neo-Nazi groups in Ukraine, their military training and equipment, and the way they were being integrated into the regular military forces, which is unprecedented. Understandably, the outbreak of war has put this concern to rest. What is at issue now is whether Nazism can be turned into a nationalist ideology like any other and whether its recurrent attacks on progressive politicians in Ukraine can be converted into patriotic acts. It remains to be seen what impact this will have in Europe, against the background of the growth of the extreme right.
Phantom anti-communism: The anti-Russian hatred that has been exacerbated in Europe by the invasion of Ukraine subliminally contains anti-communist hatred, even if it is known that the Communist Party is a minority in Russia and that President Vladimir Putin is a right-wing politician who is a friend of the European far right. For sectors of the ultra-right, communism is now an empty signifier and serves as a weapon to demonize political opponents, to justify canceling those opponents on social media, and to promote hate speech. It is to be feared that this hangover will remain in political life beyond the war in Ukraine.
Crime and injustice in the Balkans: The war in Ukraine has had the effect of bringing to the attention of more informed Europeans the arbitrary way Yugoslavia was destroyed, the NATO bombing of civilian targets in 1999, and the war crimes that were committed by all sides in former Yugoslavia. Historical and religious anti-Balkan prejudice—Chancellor Klemens von Metternich of the Austrian Empire (in office 1821-1848) used to say that Asia began on Landstrasse, the street in Vienna where Balkan immigrants lived—has come to be reflected in the way some countries in the region have been waiting for many years to join the EU.
It is too early for a general assessment of the times we are living through, but the signs are disturbing and do not bode well.
*Boaventura de Sousa Santos is Portuguese professor of Sociology at the School of Economics, University of Coimbra (Portugal), distinguished legal scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School, and global legal scholar at the University of Warwick. Co-founder and one of the main leaders of the World Social Forum.