Conflict as Ideology

Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Odessa, 1996, Digital c-print on Kodak matte paper © Philip-Lorca diCorcia


Conflict as Ideology

Jonathan White on the European Project.

Odessa in 1996: a place of jovialty and leisure, a city during peacetime, resplendent in the freedoms that are now being devastated by Putin’s invasion. When the US-American photographer Philip-Lorca diCorcia visited the Ukraine’s third-largest city, it had not yet shed its Soviet identity. He was shown around by an ex-soldier with whom he became friendly, not knowing what to expect. Looking back, he said: “I didn’t think of Odessa as Ukraine, I just thought of it as Odessa.

Jonathan White on the European Project

For many in Europe and beyond, Ukraine has become a crucible for an ideological clash of wider significance. Call it liberalism vs fascism, or democracy vs authoritarianism – people argue over the labels because each is too simple, but all of them conjure a larger context. Few see this war as just one country against another. Likewise the notion that it is just one madman against all the rest has largely been abandoned. Instead, this conflict is seen as a conflict of worldviews.

This means those far from the front line may feel implicated in the outcome – the conflict is one they can more easily relate to than others. As in previous eras with the proxy wars of the Cold War, the Spanish Civil War, or all the way back to the French Revolution, outsiders find political and moral significance in this conflict, whether accurately or not. Even those reluctant to identify with one side can take their bearings and set their priorities. This notion of an ideological confrontation is quite different from how Europeans have tended to see the conflicts around them in recent decades. Whether in the Middle East, Africa or the Balkans, most conflicts have been treated more prosaically – as one group of people against another, engaged in an enmity that is either senseless or parochial.

In many ways, the desire to see what is happening in Ukraine as a clash of worldviews is not helpful. To do so filters out many of the motivations at play and threatens a wider escalation. Conflicts of ideology are notoriously hard to resolve: it is easier to compromise, and expect compromise from others, when there is nothing lofty at stake. Any peace can look unjust when it means ceding some principled ground, and it can be tempting to interfere in any conflict when it seems to stand for something larger. After all, international realists tend to downplay the role of ideas in politics for a reason, namely because ideas are always hard to contain.

Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Odessa, 1996, Digital c-print on Kodak matte paper © Philip-Lorca diCorcia

However, other aspects of this perspective are less negative. The ideologization of conflict seems to foster a willingness to help, whether in material terms or the reception of refugees. A conflict felt to embody a wider cause is likely to generate solidarity as well as cultivate an appetite for authorities at home to take a stand. When a conflict is of global significance, people expect their government to take a position, and demand the same of the institutions they might usually ignore. If this is a conflict that strengthens the European Union, it will in part be because of the expectations that are projected onto it – the sense of its relevance, and the desire for its visibility. If it is a conflict that weakens the EU, it will be through the sense that its representatives were so immersed in material considerations (gas deliveries, etc.) that they failed to appreciate the ideals at stake.

On one level, this concern with the -isms in play simply reflects the nature of Russia’s invasion and the growing realization that it has an ideological edge. The Russian government has described the conflict in ideological terms from the beginning – as an exercise in "de-Nazification" – and it seems increasingly clear there is a Russian-nationalist project attached to this. Maybe Aleksandr Dugin, ideologue of a reborn Novorossiya, has been more influential than was previously thought. Meanwhile Ukraine’s president Zelensky has convincingly conveyed, and indeed tried to expand, the scope of the conflict, evoking the threat Russia poses to the "whole European project". Indeed, outsiders find global stakes in the conflict because the immediate protagonists portray it in these terms.

Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Odessa, 1996, Digital c-print on Kodak matte paper © Philip-Lorca diCorcia

However, on another level the ideologization of the conflict is anything but self-evident. The question is why this war is seen so readily by Europeans in these terms when many in Asia and the global South are more reluctant, and why other wars, such as in Syria, tend to be denied this reading despite the obvious overlaps. Conflicts close to home that are likely to shape the European continent for decades seem to be elevated to a special category. Perhaps this is especially the case when the status quo can no longer be taken for granted – when our ideologies seem to be in question. In addition, one can hardly overlook the racial undertones: it seems easier to find meaning and principle in wars where the protagonists look like "us".

The truth is that almost all conflicts are conflicts of ideas, but we are only sometimes inclined to hear it. Very rarely is it a matter of senseless bloodshed on both sides or of purely local material calculus – the ideational element tends to be very much present in every case. Perhaps we would be more willing to show solidarity, and more willing to hold our authorities to account, if we saw all conflicts near and far as a crucible for something wider, as a place where there might be potential allies. That certainly needn’t mean intervention, but it may mean assistance, and at the minimum it means an interest in causes and goals. It means not only scrutinizing the -isms that make an appearance, but also those that are omitted and should be brought into view. One thing to take from the Ukrainian tragedy is the habit of approaching all conflicts, provisionally at least, as the extension of a wider struggle.

Jonathan White is Professor of Politics at the London School of Economics and a fellow in “The Future of Democracy” program at THE NEW INSTITUTE.

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