Civilizations, barbarity, conquest, legitimacy and crimes of war

Missile strikes on Ukrainian cities are targeting civilians. Such punishing retaliation for the loss of Moscow’s vital bridge to Crimea further betrays Putin’s brutal tactics. In times of escalating war crimes, centuries old questions about peace and freedom are ever more urgent. What would be a rational horizon for collective hope over time?

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February of this year or, to put it more accurately, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine – since it was his choice and his alone to launch it – has cast a glaring new light on a very old but ever more urgent question: Are there any terms on which the human population of the world could still hope to live with one another in peace and personal freedom into future generations? Could we still create a modus vivendi of real duration?

We now know, as we didn’t yet in 1940, that any future generational horizon is going to be in ever starker jeopardy because of the colossal and ever less controllable harm we’re inflicting as a species on our global habitat. We know, as we could have known in much of Europe for at least the last three centuries, that the world was then, as it mercilessly remains, a vast distance from realizing those terms, and that it couldn’t in principle realize them at all rapidly. We only have a tiny repertoire of forms through which to try to act collectively on any scale: international agencies, civilizations maybe, states, peoples, or, if you prefer, nations – each of doubtful efficacy and eminently questionable legitimacy. Which of these forms could still take how much of the strain of creating and sustaining the framework for sharing the Earth? And how and why could war still feature as anything but the grounds for despair within that ever more desperate struggle?

Civilized behaviour

Civilization is the grandest, largest, most enduring unit that humans have yet created for trying to live together for the better over time. It’s not a bounded territorial unit or an integrated unit of coercive control and putative authority that any state must aspire to be, nor is it an immense and opaque tissue of instrumental exchange, like the global market. Every civilization is an edifice of value, and a focus of pride for those who see and feel themselves as belonging to it. It necessarily values itself, but it always has more discretion over how far to value any other civilization and risks its own diminution by doing so.

Defining barbarity

Barbarity, by definition, is the enemy of any civilization, a vacuum of value, and a menace to any hope that humans on any scale can live together for the better. Barbarity isn’t other people’s. It’s what human beings must not do.

It works permanently within every civilization, blunting the aspirations of all who belong to it whenever it breaks out into the open, cancelling most of the value of the civilization itself. Plainly, it’s not an ethnographic category, in the way I’m thinking of it: a full and accurate description of any grouping of human beings as a particular point in time. Rather, it’s a fiercely assertive normative category with a very volatile hold on any of us over time, especially in times of war.

The essence of barbarity is the destruction of human value, at its worst on a colossal scale. The peak episodes of barbarity in the last century were Germany’s Third Reich, the Japanese Imperial assault on China, Southeast Asia, and, in the end, with wild improvements, the USA. That time, barbarity was defeated in the end by means all too barbarous in themselves.

Barbarity never simply disappears from the world. It’s been prominent enough in recent decades: in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Syria and Libya, in Yemen, in Central Africa and in Ethiopia. Today, appallingly, it’s come back on a huge scale in Europe, the continent that prided itself so much on having put war firmly behind it. In so doing, it’s brought two great military powers into increasingly direct confrontation, each fully equipped to destroy the world by choice.

A civil basis

Kyiv metro station as shelter. Image by Kyiv City State Administration via Wikimedia Commons

Why begin to think of this huge crisis through, of all categories, that of civilization? I begin with it now because there’s nothing else beyond it for us still to appeal to. Those of us who come from Europe see ourselves naturally from the horizon of our own continent. And the value register through which we think and feel is a historical product of the history of that continent over a very long time. Three or so centuries ago, almost everyone who held articulated beliefs about the values for human beings in West Europe believed they lived in a world designed and made by an omnipotent and beneficent creator. When all else failed, as of course it frequently did, they could and often did appeal to heaven itself. In the words of John Milton: ‘Avenge, O Lord, thy slaughtered saints, whose bones lie scattered on the Alpine valleys cold.’

Now, even most of those who still believe there to be a heaven would seldom think to look to it for practical aid, especially in conditions of great collective peril. In a global crisis as acute as this one, the bearers of any civilization have no choice but to reach out as bravely and lucidly as they can to other civilizations still active in the world and appeal to their values. That appeal may fail, as it has plainly failed already in the case of Russia.

Twisted civility

To reach that degree of abandon of human decency, Russia’s citizens have had to submit to a vast befuddlement and embrace a ludicrous picture of Ukraine’s inhabitants. More disconcertingly still, it requires them to succumb to attitudes towards other human beings, which are shockingly vicious.

No war brings out what is best in human beings, especially when it becomes intense, lasts for any amount of time and involves much of a population. But this war has barely begun for most Russian citizens, except those unlucky enough to be drafted to fight in person. In unleashing this attack at this point in his personal tenure of power, Vladimir Putin has done something truly terrible: he has made himself an enemy of the human race as a whole. In his own eyes, as he told his subjects and the world at large, he did so to re-establish and reassert Russia’s power in the world, and do so on behalf of its historical civilization.

Conquest or peace?

Most civilizations today don’t view their own value through the prism of conquest. Seen domestically, the rule of civilization must always be a regime of peace. But every civilization, like almost every external state, won its territorial and demographic extension, and established whatever sway it now holds over its population, largely through military conquest. Most civilizations across history have viewed their own military extension unapologetically and proudly; it’s inherently easier to distinguish civilization from barbarity at any point in time if you’re not on the receiving end of brutality.

Now that human beings have accumulated the power to destroy the conditions of their own existence, whether all but instantaneously or by relatively slow and cumulative ecological degradation, any hope for the future of humans requires that civilizations can and will learn not merely to coexist in peace but also to cooperate closely and unreservedly together in arresting ecological degradation, and reversing as much of it as possible. We need, more urgently than ever before, to arrest barbarity across the world. We have no choice but to implement coexistence and cooperation predominantly through the existing system of states and its fragile structures for acting internationally.

Invading states

Civilizations can’t govern. And most of the states which now claim to govern for them still do so quite ineffectually. The miserably and, in many ways, absurdly disunited United Nations is a comprehensively proven failure at governing the world. How can it hope to do anything of the kind when its principal instrument for uniting for peace, the Security Council, contains a power which has chosen to make itself the enemy of mankind? It matters more than ever before how far the states of today can exercise their power to rule legitimately. All states, of course, claim to do so by exercising the power they need for the purpose and, in doing so, as a right, but both claims are always to some degree strained in practice, and the two are readily confounded. It’s the claim to rule by right which is voided by barbarity and can never hold up beyond the state’s territorial frontier.

The states of today offer a miscellany of grounds for viewing their own rule as legitimate, from the explicit choices of their own citizens to the evident benefits these citizens derive from being ruled as they are – and others too, of course. None of those grounds runs through conquest as such, and none, any longer, can afford to.

To make war on another state today on any grounds but immediate territorial self-defence or resistance to unprovoked aggression cannot be legitimate. It is a war crime in itself. To attack civilian populations on a vast scale, destroy whole cities, and deliberately kill women and children in huge numbers destroys the legitimacy of any invading state. Few, if any, states are qualified to judge the domestic legitimacy of another regime. But international aggression is far easier to judge.

The Russian Republic under its present leadership has voided any claim it may have held to be a site of civilization. In choosing barbarity, it’s made itself the enemy of the future of humankind. A state run by criminals should be answerable to the peoples of every other state for the crimes they continue blatantly to commit. The case for any political regime is fragile, poor, partial and always very far from transparent. The case against barbarity is immediate, peremptory and conclusive. It vaporizes any claim to act by right and with due entitlement.

Recognizing an unequal past

Nevertheless, most states are ascertainably the result of historical military conquest, every bit as much so on the continent of Europe itself as anywhere else. And those conquests were virtually never the outcome of anything plausibly conceived of as a just war but, virtually, always the product of armed assault, or other strategies of appropriation. Even for those few countries outside Europe lucky or clever enough to have escaped conquest or devastating molestation from the European continent, it is merely ludicrous to see that history as a basis of right in any way superior to their own. And for the very considerable number of countries that were at one point or another, deliberately subjugated or massively disrupted through the exercise of European military and naval power, it is actively and intensively offensive.

So the question of where the legitimacy of the state does come from, when and where, and if it comes at all, is harder and more perturbing, and the need to pose that question now, as we survey the shaky edifice of human interaction across the globe, open our eyes and ears to the scale and ferocity of the challenges that face our species, is more urgent than it’s ever been before in our collective history. There’s no chance whatsoever of their proving to be a simple and compelling formula, which will answer that question for us, and do so right across the living membership of our species, if only it were conveyed to them lucidly and accurately enough.

Waking up to reality

You scarcely need to think at all to recognize that we urgently need peace. And you don’t need to think at all hard to recognize we need it right across the world, still more urgently than we’ve ever needed it before as a species. But we don’t need it with anything like the same urgency. Those who need peace most urgently are always those who don’t currently have it. Those directly menaced in and by war. They have long been many millions of people with that urgency across the world: in Asia, in Africa and Latin America. And now there are millions who need it in Europe too. Tens of thousands of lives that have been terminated or ruined in the last few months. Once you’re dead, of course, you no longer need peace. Peace is a need of the living. Peace is what life requires for it to go on.

It was to meet that need effectively that the idea of the state was first fully forged. It was forged, of course, as any complicated idea would have to be out of a range of earlier ideas. But in its full elaboration, it consisted in one core purpose: to make and keep peace between a set of human beings. Those human beings in themselves lacked either the steady will or the dependable power to make and keep peace with one another. And each of them hence had good reason to submit their own will and judgment to its will and judgment in securing that peace.

The idea of the state was first articulated clearly in the pages of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan in 1651, sometime before it was realized at all, fully, anywhere in political, economic and social structures. It was on the need to survive and live a life worth living that Hobbes grounded his argument: that all human beings need the protection of a state and have a compelling reason to give their allegiance to and to obey one if they’re fortunate enough to find themselves subject to it.

No state on its own can provide that protection and furnish its subjects with the life they have come to see and feel as worth living in a global habitat that is rapidly being destroyed. Only a union of states and perhaps only a union of nations, which identifies those states as their own, could hope to act together to arrest that hectic process of destruction, still less begin to reverse it. Any such union, unsurprisingly, has always proved far beyond our reach so far.

The grim circumstances of the present could scarcely be less propitious for a brisk movement in that direction. But their very goodness is itself an index of its ever-growing urgency. The League of Nations and the United Nations, each came into existence in the wake of terrible wars, and with the mission to prevent the recurrence of any such war. And, so far, has proven unable to prevent or briskly bring an end to any war at all.

Who does Vladimir Putin protect?

States today, in all their heterogeneity, all demand obedience, but they vary greatly in the strength of their claim to receive it. Today, as in the seventeenth century, each of them deserves allegiance only in so far as it does seek to provide protection and succeeds in doing so. And it deserves it only from those to whom it does provide that protection.

When Putin’s war began, the Republic of Ukraine, like most other states in the world today, was not an especially effective state in quite a number of ways. But it’s wholly false to suggest that it wasn’t a state and hasn’t been one throughout the term of its current presidency, fully and sincerely dedicated to the effort to provide protection and do so impartially, for all its citizens. That’s why for years, and for those of its citizens who give it their full allegiance, this monstrous war is a wholly just war. While for the government of the Russian Federation, and those of its citizens who’ve chosen to make it so wholeheartedly their own war too, it’s a wholly unjust war.

What matters about states isn’t their origins, none of which are above suspicion. It’s their present conduct, and what that conduct makes it reasonable to believe about how they will conduct themselves in the future. The idea of the state was forged deliberately to counter and disempower a wide range of rival claims, especially claims advanced on the presumption of religious authority, and from civic or group solidarities, what we might now call pluralist claims.

Peace is a great good and a pressing need today for every individual human being and every human society. But it can’t be secured just by recognizing the urgency and universality of that need. For there to be peace, it must be kept. And it can be kept only by providing effective protection against all who threaten it. It’s hard, perhaps simply impossible, to provide peace at all effectively within the borders of a state against those who currently direct that state. That’s the political story of humanitarian intervention.

Between states, it can be protected only by defeating any state which decides to violate it. Uniting to protect is still the constitutive purpose of the United Nations and the deliberate and increasingly routine frustration of that purpose, by the exercise of a veto by a permanent member of the Security Council, which remains the UN’s principal impotence as a peacekeeping agency. This is clearly against even the medium-term interest of every human population, however desperate and wretchedly misgoverned. It remains, unfortunately, clearly in the short-term interest of a number of those who still hold authority in several states which do hold a veto, and not always for the same states over time.

For as long as it remains so constituted, the Security Council will remain a standing guarantee of global insecurity. And insecurity, appallingly intensified ever since more than one state came to possess thermonuclear weapons, and especially in the brief interval when only one state had them. From that time on, our species has stood in jeopardy to thermonuclear blackmail, to every threat to use those weapons regardless of the consequences. To implement that threat would always be a hideous gamble. The impulse to level the field once you’ve acquired the weapons has often proved hard to resist.

It’s unsurprising that this should have prompted nuclear proliferation on the scale that has already occurred, and short of a reliably effective union of states for peace, it’s hard to see how that proliferation can ever be stopped.

Seeking civilization

Civilization is quite a nebulous idea, and already incitement to narcissistic illusion. But there is nothing nebulous about barbarity. This has never been a just world for its human inhabitants, and no one has ever had a clear conception of how it could be made one in practice. The nastier legacies of history can be palliated, but they can never be rectified. History, necessarily, in Edward Albee’s stinging phrase, is all ‘blood under the bridge’. But perhaps even the grim and perilous world in which we now live could still become, and if it could, it certainly should eventually be made into one, in which every human being could live in peace and live a life worth living.

Any hope of extended survival for human life on a civilized scale is quite extreme at this point. But it surely remains a rational horizon for collective human hope over time. In a world preserved in that form, if only in that form, it might still make sense to hope that all its human inhabitants could live in peace and live lives which were worth living. And even in that world, it would surely remain more extravagant to expect that that’s what all of them would choose.

The struggle against barbarity is pervasive and ceaseless. At this point in time, it’s assumed an unusually clear outline, and its demands on all of us are just as pressing as they’d come to be for those who faced them on this and other continents in the bleak winter of 1941. There’s no hope we will meet all those demands in full. The colossal crime of the war itself can’t just be terminated abruptly by anything within our power. Until it is terminated, the innumerable individual crimes it continues to prompt will go on multiplying uncontrollably. The vast mountains of rubble will continue to pile up. The searing weight of pain will press ever harder. And hundreds and thousands of further lives will be ruined forever.

We’ve always failed as a species in the struggle against barbarity. And the circumstances of the present preclude are fully succeeding now, but this time as never before, if we fail, we have to once again, we must, in Beckett’s lapidary phrase, fail better. Because this war is everyone’s war – perhaps the first real world war.


John Dunn spoke at the IWM Library on 31 May 2022. The full transcript can be downloaded as a PDF.

Published 10 October 2022
Original in English
First published by Institute for Human Sciences (IWM), long transcript; Eurozine, shortened transcript

Contributed by Institute for Human Sciences (IWM) © John Dunn / Institute for Human Sciences (IWM) / Eurozine



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