Leave cold realism to the policy-makers and decision-takers. We have a responsibility to be emotional about what is happening to Ukraine.
The white bodies of the African victims are contorted into strange shapes.
Arranged on wooden benches they are half-decomposed, part-mummified by the lime thrown over them as they were heaped into huge pits. The pits were dug with the assistance of the Western soldiers who intervened in Rwanda on the wrong side, at the wrong time, for the wrong reasons.
The horror of the genocide memorial is too much. The numbers are too big to make sense of, so I focus on one body. A child. I decide she is a girl.
She lies on her side next to an adult. It is almost as if she was cuddling into the remains of her parent. Absurdly I find myself calculating the odds of the child having been reunited with her mother. Tens of thousands of bodies were discovered here in what was a college and then these selected victims were disinterred and displayed as proof of the genocide of the Tutsis. Attempting that maths takes me back to the horror of numbers. I realise there’s no way to comprehend what has happened other than to feel for one person.
Long before I had visited the Murambi Memorial in 2009 I had learned the history, the statistics and the politics behind the most efficient mass murder in human history. I understood how Belgium had fostered an ethnic divide to aid their colonial administration. I could explain to you how almost as many people had taken part in the killing as had been slain: as many as a million. I knew how western powers withdrew, not just failed to intervene but actually withdrew their soldiers as the killings began, only to intervene again after weeks of killing, not to defend the victims but to protect the killers. I had studied all these things, that was why I had chosen to live in that beautiful country striving to escape its history.
I knew all these things about the genocide but had I really felt it until I stood looking down at the desiccated body of that child? I realised you can’t properly understand something like this without also feeling it.
I made a quiet promise to that child that I would remember how I felt that day whenever I saw atrocities in the future.
Notes on Internationalism
This newsletter is normally about nationalism but given what is happening as you read this, this one is about internationalism. For me, that word can be an intellectual framework, a political project, or an ethical code, but before it can be any of these things it has to be a feeling. Writing in the shadow of a previous European war, Polish poet Antoni Slonimski encapsulated this:
This man, who his own fatherland forgets
When of the shedding of Czech blood he hears,
Who, as a brother feels for Yugoslavia,
Who in the pain of Norway's people shares.
Who with the Jewish mother wrings his hands
In grief and bends with her above her slain.
Who Russian is, when Russia falls and bleeds,
And with Ukrainian weeps for the Ukraine.
This man, with heart to all compassionate,
French, when France suffers in captivity,
Greek, when Greeks in cold and hunger perish,
He is my brother - man. He is Humanity.
‘Humanity’ is the collective noun for all of us on this planet, but it also describes the feeling we have for one another when we are at our best. Internationalism for me is about working to make sure that the feeling of compassion we have for each other doesn’t stop at borders. Humanity for all humanity, if you like. This is important because without motivating emotion, there is no action.
In my professional life, I spend much of my time working with democrats working under authoritarian regimes. I don’t talk much about the detail of this work for obvious reasons, but one of the things I’m paid to do is to make the emotional rational. I encourage strategic thinking that seeks to avoid the mistakes that come from allowing your passions to control your decision making. I work to create cool-headed strategies but today I write in defence of searing emotion.
Armchair generals versus couch Kissengers.
When my wife Mary was carrying our daughter she was mugged. The guy threw her over the bonnet of a car, despite her being very visibly pregnant. I can still taste the rage that overcame me when this happened. The scab of that memory was picked raw again looking at the image of the expectant mum being carried out of the bombed maternity hospital in Mariupol. How dare they do that?
I’m sure you’ve felt the same way watching the news when a story from Ukraine has moved you. I urged you not to suppress the outrage you have felt in the last two weeks, because that feeling is the people of Ukraine calling out to you for help. Ukraine won’t be helped by you exhibiting how sophisticated and nuanced your understanding of geopolitics has become in recent days. Realpolitik statesmanship is best left to statesmen.
I’ve worked around foreign policy professionals for a good chunk of my adult life. I want to reassure you that there are quite enough cautious and conservative thinkers to go around. There is no need for you to join their ranks on social media. It is the responsibility of decision-takers and policy-makers to carefully balance the strategic consequences of our actions. As citizens of this world, we have a more pressing obligation right now: to feel that motivating anger on behalf of the people of Ukraine.
As we’ve watched the agonies of Ukraine, so much of the debate has centred around the policy of a no-fly zone. Expert commentators like the excellent Ben Judah, have written about why it’s important for policymakers to be more careful about what they mean, setting out the differences between no-fly zones, safe zones, humanitarian corridors and other options. That’s essential but the distinction made is also a reminder that there are other options.
Those who warn against enlisting as an armchair general are right. You should also guard against becoming Kissenger on your couch. Impulsive calls to action might lack sophistication but substituting moral clarity for muddying cynicism doesn’t help anyone either. The anger you feel is because the values you hold dear are being violated. Hold onto that.
Ideas on aid, sanctions and refugees that would have been dismissed as naive by foreign policy realists a month ago are now accepted in capitals around the world. There has been more creative thinking about international solidarity in the last two weeks than in the last twenty years. We should use our energy pushing our leaders towards the ends rather than obsessing about the detail of the means. The aim is to better protect Ukrainians from bombardment.
It’s perfectly legitimate for our leaders to oppose a no-fly zone out of fear that this new cold war will become a hot one. For the sake of the safety of the Ukrainian people and the security of the world though, that can’t be the end of the conversation. By the way, if you listen more carefully to Ukrainians, it isn’t the end of the conversation for them. They say close the sky; or give us planes and we’ll close it; or give us more anti-air weapons and we’ll close it that way; or tell us some other way you’ll save us.
There’s a responsbility to avoid reckless actions but our leaders also have a duty to add things to the list of options, not simply to remove them. Yes, the West is doing more to help than ever before - sending weapons, opening borders, sanctioning Russia and Belarus - but still the buildings are falling down on the heads of innocents.
As Putin recruits fighters in Syria, browbeats Belarussia’s dictator into joining the war and lays down a narrative for the use of chemical weapons, it is clear he is expanding his options in support of his worldview. Will we show the same creativity and determination in support of our democratic values?
The talk is of how it will be impossible for Putin to win. I know the Ukrainians I have worked with, who in 2014 responded to sniper fire on protests by coming out in greater numbers, will never give up. However, we should not kid ourselves that a European democracy being turned into a smoking ruin with a bloody insurgency is anything other than a catastrophic defeat for the West. We will be able to take no satisfaction from the knowledge that those will be British anti-tank rockets on TV being fired from the concrete shells of apartment blocks in the wreckage of what used to be Kharkiv, Odesa, or Kyiv.
There is no action without a motivating emotion. The flip side of that is that when feelings fade stasis and inertia take over. It would be an even worse tragedy if the rage we feel about Ukraine passes, just as our revulsion at what was done to Allepo by the same army was replaced with a depressed resignation. Today those under attack are still people, they haven’t yet become statistics in a news graphic that totalises the day’s losses.
Picture in your mind the Ukrainians you have connected with over the last few days and make a quiet promise that you will remember the way you feel now.
Voices of Ukraine
A project by Ukrainians sending direct appeals to UK politicians has been launched under the banner of Voices of Ukraine. It is an unapologetically emotional effort. The videos aren’t scripted, there’s no manifesto, just cries for help.
It is built on video appeals from ordinary Ukrainians - if there can be such a thing in a country where farmers steal fighter jets and grandmothers hold back tanks with their bare hands. The videos are recorded while those asking for help are in bomb shelters, escaping from cities or finding their way in unexpected exile. They are addressed to specific UK politicians with a challenge: don’t tell me what you can do, please tell me what you will do.
You don’t have to agree with everything the Ukrainians ask for in their videos to recognise that it is important that their voices are heard, or that they deserve to be acknowledged by our leaders.
Normal service will be resumed on this newsletter before too long, it’s important our democracy continues while others fight for theirs, but for now can I ask you to amplify the voices coming out of Ukraine and hold on to what you have been feeling over the last few days.
Where a bridge stood, there’s a river.
Those of you who subscribe to this newsletter by email will notice the ungodly hour I sent this. I’ve not slept much since the war started. I was in Kyiv recently and the hotel I stayed at now has BBC reporters on its roof, struggling to be heard over air raid sirens. It’s a wonderful city and I can’t really get my head around what is happening. Sorry if that shows in this newsletter. One thing that helps is reading, and I thought I’d finish with this by Ukrainian poet Anastasia Afanasieva.
I worked for a few years in and around Nigeria. While I was there, Boco Haram displayed its penchant for cutting the throats of school boys, and incinerating them alive in their classrooms. When they realised that gynocentric western societies don't care much about boys, they switched to kidnapping schoolgirls. Only then did Michelle Obama demand that we #bringbackourgirls and everyone get emotional about what was happening to Nigeria.
I mention this because it illustrates how arbitrary are the things we decide to get emotional about. Those who demand we get emotional about issue (A) rarely explain whey they aren't demanding that we get emotional about equally deserving issues (B), (C), (D), etc. Most often, the difference is nothing more than "they look like us / they don't look like us".
You find yourself arguing that we should now get emotional about misfortunes that we are the agents of. We decided to pivot NATO from a defensive organisation to an offensive one. We decided to incite a putsch to install a client government sympathetic to Western governments, then overlook their oppression of ethnic Russian minorities. We decided to threaten the Russian navy's access to Crimea's warm water port, and pave the way to installing nuclear weapons on its borders. NATO would never have accepted China or Russia overthrowing the Mexican government, entering into an offensive military alliance with them, and parking nuclear weapons on their territory. Knowing the brutal nature of Russia, we decided to play in a space that accommodates outcomes that look like this. To be surprised now by Russia's actions and claim that we have a responsibility to be emotional about them seems to overlook our responsibility for them.
You argue that cold realism is left to policy makers and decision takers. You overlook that, in poorly governed countries such as ours, policy makers and decision makers reflect the emotional - which is to say, irrational - demands of their citizens. Look, for example, at the recent catastrophic public policy response to a 99.97% survivable virus. To argue that *we* should arbitrarily become emotional about this issue is to argue that *our policy makers and decision takers* should become emotional.
And it is when policy makers and decision takers abandon cold realism and get emotional that nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons are deployed (I make this observation as a former serving officer in the RAF).
We can distinguish between the legitimacy of Russia's rejection of NATO offensive action and the utterly deplorable means by which they are expressing that rejection. Our hearts can go out to the suffering of men, women, and children that our expansionist goals have, at least in part, led to. But however tempting (and, for some, virtuous) it might be, emotion and modern weaponry make a horrific combination, with outcomes even more horrific than the ones we have already incited. I think it is unwise of you to advocate it.
Your feelings about Ukraine are shared by every decent person Blair.
If we are going to survive this crisis decent people have to think clearly and act decisively. Things cannot be left to political leaders chasing short term advantage or their own blinkered dogmas.
This, like nearly very other problem faced by humanity, is essentially down to nationalism. In the case of Ukraine both in its evil form (Putin) and its futile form (Western failure to coordinate).
You don't need me to tell you where most of us have to fight nationalism and the experience of the last ten years teaches us that we cannot be complacent even in the face of the most ludicrous lies and self delusion by advocates of our home grown nationalism.