A monument to Vladimir Lenin, USSR, 1991 ©James Rodgers
CONFLICTS AROUND HE WORLD are daily stirred by the hand of history. How can you understand the Middle East today, or Yugoslavia in the 1990s, without knowing at least something of what had passed in those places in the preceding century?
Political discussion in western Europe is largely free of that. There are exceptions, of course: Ireland is one; recent discussions of how Spain should remember, or not, its civil war of the 1930s may become another. In Britain in recent years, mass public discussion of history and its relevance today has tended to focus on victories, however costly, in the two world wars of the last century, and on landmark moments of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II.
That has changed during the campaign leading up to the referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union. There has been debate over whether or not the E.U. has kept the peace in western Europe since 1945. The views of the wartime Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, have also been used to back both sides. One BBC story even went back as far as the Duke of Wellington — victory over Napoleon — to guess what Great Britons of the past might have thought.
War was one part of European life and history which Churchill and Wellington both knew well. This is an experience which today’s leaders largely lack: perhaps a partial explanation for the eagerness of Messrs Bush and Blair to launch the invasions they did in the first decade of this century.
As I noted in my previous post, I was there a quarter of a century ago when the USSR fell apart. In the years which followed, there was great hardship for millions of people. There were predictions of civil war. Russia avoided that — although, in the decade which followed the collapse of communism, there was fighting in the streets of Moscow, in 1993, and tens of thousands (perhaps as many as a hundred thousand or more — no one has ever come up with a reliable count) of people were killed in separatist conflicts in Chechnya .
Troops in Russia’s ‘anti-terrorist’ campaign, Chechnya, Summer 2000
Yugoslavia was another matter. The breakup of that union did lead to civil war; a refugee crisis; and a challenge to Europe’s security systems which they were unable to meet without the assistance of the United States.
No one in this referendum campaign has gone so far as to predict war if the U.K. decides to leave, although the Prime Minister, David Cameron, came close when he asked, ‘Can we be so sure that peace and stability on our continent are assured beyond any shadow of doubt? Is that a risk worth taking?’
Responding to a dangerous and terrifying world
We cannot be sure that peace and stability on our continent are assured. As Christopher Clark persuasively put it in the introduction to The Sleepwalkers, his recent book on the causes of the First World War, ‘what must strike any twenty-first-century reader who follows the course of the summer crisis of 1914 is its raw modernity.’ Clark continues, ‘Since the end of the Cold War, a system of global bipolar stability has made way for a more complex and unpredictable array of forces, including declining empires and rising powers – a state of affairs that invites comparison with the Europe of 1914.’
The European Union is not the Soviet Union — although some ‘leave’ campaigners might enjoy trying to make the comparison. Nor is it Yugoslavia. Yet the consequences of any massive political change can be catastrophic — especially when they are not addressed by good leadership. Chechnya is a case in point. The Russian Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev, was remembered even in his obituary for having boasted that the separatists could be sorted out in a couple of hours. Fifteen years after the military campaign was launched, the then President, Dmitry Medvedev, described the region as Russia’s biggest domestic problem.
In the Middle East and the former Soviet Union, I covered some of the bloody conflicts which followed the Cold War. In that world, the one in which we live today, all that is necessary is a lack of foresight, and a refusal to learn from the past, in order for disaster to strike. The ‘unpredictable array of forces’ will do the rest.
International journalists often have an insight which politicians lack. We talk to people, not just to other politicians. We also know that, while today’s world can be a dangerous and terrifying place, we cannot cut ourselves off from it any more than we can stop it raining in London in June (given some of their claims, it is almost surprising that neither side in the referendum has promised better weather).
That is one reason why I will definitely be voting for the U.K to remain a member of the European Union. There are many others. I believe that we in Britain should better direct all the energy which has gone into an increasingly poisonous referendum campaign into making the E.U. work better. I have been privileged — if that is the right word — to witness the wars of others as an observer who could usually leave if I wanted to. The conflicts I covered had an element of evil, of course, but also large measures of folly and irresponsibility. Both are better avoided. Leaving he E.U. risks doing quite the opposite.