There is war in Europe. I'm not using the historic present tense to evoke August 1914. I'm talking about August 2014. What is happening in eastern Ukraine is war — “ambiguous war” as a British parliamentary committee calls it, rather than outright, declared war, but still war. And war rages around the ragged edges of Europe, in Syria, Iraq and Gaza.
I do not say “Europe is at war.” Most European countries are not directly engaged in armed conflict. Still, we should be under no illusions. For decades, we have lived with the comforting notion that Europe has been at peace since 1945. This was always an overstatement, and not least in the 1990s, when Yugoslavia was torn apart in a series of wars — as a recent European Union report , credibly charging Kosovo Liberation Army leaders with war crimes, has just reminded us.
Kosovo was where I first saw corpses in makeshift body bags and blood in the snow. While that blood was still fresh, I talked to one KLA commander, Ramush Haradinaj, who memorably observed, “Me, I couldn't be no Mother Teresa.” (He became prime minister of Kosovo, resigned when indicted on war crimes charges in The Hague and was twice acquitted.) Then I would fly back to Britain or Germany or France, to find people arguing over which acronym had “kept the peace” in Europe.
Was it the EU, NATO or perhaps the interdependence organizations, the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) and the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe), or maybe even the U.N.? The peace premise was false then, and is even more so now.
For all the differences, the dirty little wars of 2014 have an important connection to the horrendous Great War that began in 1914. Many of them involve struggles over patchwork territories left behind by the multiethnic empires that clashed 100 years ago. Thus, for example, the battle for eastern Ukraine is about the boundaries of the Russian empire. Some of the leaders of the armed pro-Russia movement in eastern Ukraine characterize themselves as “imperial nationalists.” From their point of view, they are not separatists but unionists.
During the Balkan wars of the 1990s, jigsaw pieces from the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires were fought over, and then reassembled into new, smaller puzzles, such as Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia. Today's map of the Middle East goes back to the settlement at the end of World War I, when Western colonial powers spliced together parts of the former Ottoman Empire into new protectorates — Iraq, Syria, Palestine. The big exception is Israel, but it, too, can trace a lineage back to the deadly afterlife of European empires. For Nazi Germany, which attempted to exterminate the Jews, was the last hideous fling of German racial and territorial imperialism.
So what is Europe going to do about the long-term consequences of that 100-year-old war? Europeans must wake up to the fact that we live in a dangerous neighborhood. Being Greater Switzerland — neutral, removed — is neither a moral nor a practical option: Of all people, Europeans should never be silent while war crimes are being committed; nor can we insulate ourselves from the effects. Today's fighters in Syria will be tomorrow's terrorists in Europe. Today's dispossessed are tomorrow's illegal immigrants. Let these little wars burn, and you will be shot down out of the sky on your way from the Netherlands to Malaysia on Flight 17. No one is safe.
Whereas in the past the wake-up call was the annexation of a territory, most Western Europeans slept through Russian President Vladimir Putin's anschluss of Crimea. As Stephen Holmes and Ivan Krastev point out in Foreign Affairs, the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner on July 17 was a turning point, not least because commercial air corridors are the place where businesspeople live. Without the that transformative event, it is unlikely that Chancellor Angela Merkel could have convinced the German public and German business of the need for tougher sanctions on Russia.
But what use is the EU's slow, soft economic power against the Kremlin's rapid, hard power? Or, indeed, against all the rapid hard powers of the Middle East? What use is butter against guns? The answer is: More than you might think.
Europe alone cannot stop war in the Middle East. Only working with the United States, and with some cooperation from — of all places — Russia, can it bring peace to Syria or Gaza. It does, however, have the power to punish Russia for shelling the regular Ukrainian army fighting for its own territory. Europe also has the capacity to persuade and enable the legitimate Ukrainian authorities to make the most generous internal settlement possible with Ukraine's eastern regions and Russian-speakers, as soon as control over its sovereign territory has been restored.
Even the minor sanctions that Europe has thus far implemented have been gnawing away at the Putin regime. The larger sanctions Europe agreed to this week will, with time, increase the impact. Liberal democracies are usually more slow to act than dictatorships, and the EU, a voluntary community of 28 such democracies, is bound to be slower still. Economic measures take more time to bite than military ones, but they can be more effective in the end.
A century ago we had “the guns of August,” in Barbara Tuchman's resonant phrase. Now we have the butter of August. Note the different role played by Germany then and now. Slowly, the Berlin government is doing the right thing. Germany is bringing the unique weight of its economic relationship with Russia to bear, while reasonably insisting that the pain be shared with France, Britain and Italy. Some things do change. Some even get better.
Timothy Garton Ash is a contributing writer to Opinion, professor of European studies at Oxford University, and a fellow Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.
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