Why won't you threaten to bomb Russia?

By Simon Barrow
March 17, 2014

There is plenty to be disturbed about over Russia's internal policies of repression, its external policies of forced intervention and control, and a political and economic system shaped by the gangster capitalism which Western advisers went in to enthusiastically benefit from after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Crimea and Ukraine raise tough questions. The unfreezing of Cold War politics in Eastern and Central Europe lifted the lid on a cauldron of resentments, rivalries and toxic histories among the peoples and nations of the regions involved. As in the Middle East and North Africa, change towards a politics of the people rather than the politics of unaccountable power elites was always going to be a decidedly rocky ride.

In all of this, support for democratic movements, for people based solutions, for social justice, for the empowerment of women and minorities, for religious and belief expressions which are about embrace rather than exclusion is critical – and civic movements elsewhere in the world can play a very positive role in this.

Indeed it needs to be recognised that Western governments have also been profoundly shaped by what has gone on in the past in their relations with Central and Eastern Europe, as much as the emerging governments and societies there. Step changes are needed all round. Old instinctive reactions, including the gunbarrel diplomacy which has been part of the former order, needs to be questioned and replaced with a different set of political and economic impulses that make peace with justice possible.

All of this makes the central assumption behind the BBC Radio Four interview with UK Foreign Secretary William Hague on the 'Today' programme this morning (Monday, 17 March 2014) profoundly depressing.

The essential question which was being put to Mr Hague was, "Why won't you threaten to bomb Russia?" Of course, the wording was slightly more subtle. Was the Foreign Secretary ruling out military action? The issue was pressed several times, and predictably Mr Hague used a formula which indicated that there were no plans or intentions in that direction at the moment, but would not categorically say "no" – partly because government politicians have a rule about never being pinned down in that way, but also because the language of military threat has been for so long the basic grammar of international politics.

It ought not to be so easily the case in the future. The idea that 'taking action' only means something if it involves bombs, missiles and ground invasions being mounted is profoundly corrupting in the long run as well as, quite frequently, in the short run.

In situations where human rights are abused and where brutal national interests trample on people, pressure as well as appeal and persuasion will naturally be part of the response from others who have different values. But that pressure can and should be moral, political, social, cultural, economic and diplomatic. Indeed it has to be if the values are genuinely different, and not just a disguised rhetoric of advantage or competition.

Violence is part of the problem not part of the solution. The toolkit of nonviolence, of conflict transformation, of civil action and of 'peace forces' needs to become the new language of the negotiation of power relations and international settlements.

This will only happen if societies are willing to invest in such alternatives and promote them. Norms are, by definition, what is perpetuated as normal within the social order. Current norms need to be challenged and changed. Civic and faith groups need to invest in a hands-on witness to alternative ways forward.

Journalists and commentators can play a part in this by consciously trying to frame issues in ways which do not assume that military action is the only kind of action and always to be contemplated after a few mouthfuls of breakfast in a crisis situation. This will make for more interesting commentary and news than the standard, tired military cliches.

Ekklesia will go on raising nonviolent alternatives in conflict situations and will go on looking at the practical politics of those who make interventions without the use of military force in such contexts. We have been doing this since the Gulf war in 2003, a year after we were set up, when the London Evening Standard ran the headline, 'Think Tank Proposes Third Way on Iraq'.

We will do so not because we have no understanding of realpolitik, but because the nature of global politics needs changing, and this is only going to happen through the courageous actions of civil and faith communities who are prepared to go against the (main)stream.

A different kind of understanding of intervention and a different type of consensus for 'just politics' can and must be built up from below. Governments can and do change, the question is: to whose agenda?


© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. Follow him on Twitter: @simonbarrow

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.