Brisbane, September 2 (2014) Alochonaa: For years in the West we have been massacring the English language. Deliberately, systemically, successfully and without remorse we have ignored, sidelined, murdered and disposed of certain words and replaced them with cheap artificial substitutes with entirely different meanings whilst hoping no one would notice. Sometimes this was done purely to confuse domestic audiences about the morality of some social policy, like the use of the terms “illegal immigrants,” “undocumented migrants,” “refugees” and “asylum seekers”. Other times it was done to confuse international audiences or make arguments in international institutions, like the use of the terms “intervention,” “airstrikes,” “drone strikes,” “no-fly zone,” “humanitarian mission” or “war.”
When someone in the USA refers to a Mexican immigrant as an “undocumented migrant” what they are really trying to say is that they believe it is ethically justified that people are crossing sovereign borders without permission. Rather than make that controversial, partisan argument directly they massacre a language which already had a neutral, objective term for people who cross borders without legal permission, rightly or wrongly, ethically or not, to do harm or just to survive. Likewise, when American forces declare that they are seeking “regime change” in Iraq or are enforcing a “no-fly zone” in Libya what they are really saying is “we are at war but we can’t muster the domestic support, legal authority or political courage to say so” or, even more specifically, “we are at war but are afraid of the political consequences of saying so, even though we believe we are right.” Rather than admit to a war and make that controversial, partisan argument directly they simply massacre a language which already had an objective, neutral term for when your military attacks another country, rightly or wrongly, in self-defense or aggression.
The removal of the term “war” from the political vocabulary of international relations has been one of the more bizarre idiosyncrasies of the powerful Western states of the modern era, especially since the term is used so flippantly in our own countries. It has even been degraded to the level of an allegory, a parody so ubiquitous that it almost cannot be applied to conventional armed conflict anymore – that would need a far more serious word because an armed conflict is much more serious than most wars. After all, we have a war on drugs, a war on crime, a war on terror, a war on minorities, a war on Christmas and even a war on whales (I was bitterly disappointed to find out that this was about stopping Japanese whalers and not about promoting much-needed humpback whale regime change or disarmament). In other words, in the West we are constantly at war but never at war.
What does any of this matter for “high politics” like the Ukraine crisis today? After all, I would often be the first to argue that platitudes and semantics matter little in the face of determined political opponents, but today it is different. Today we are seeing the consequences of linguistic decay or manipulation in stark relief. Last month, as I explained why the downing of Malaysian flight MH-17 was not a game changer, I questioned the possibility that Russian forces would attempt an actual game changer and send in peacekeepers, humanitarian aid convoys or other forces. This, it seems, they have done. Of course, they deny this, as they denied being in Crimea prior to annexation, and here is the dilemma and the relationship to the use of language.
Russia and Ukraine are now at war. They are not figuratively or emotionally at war, they are literally at war. Ukraine has been invaded, it has had territory taken from it, and it is now fighting Russian forces. War has broken out, and this is an objective fact unless you believe the denials by Russia that they are completely not involved in the conflict. If you do believe this, that is fine, we all face the trust dilemma in this age of misinformation, but if you accept that Russian troops are in Ukraine then you must accept that there is a real war going on between Russia and Ukraine.
The problem is the word now lacks any objective meaning, which makes declarations of war intensely symbolic. War no longer describes a situation in which “one state sends its army to attack another state’s army or occupy its territory.” Instead, it has two separate meanings, one of which is objective but political, the other of which is rhetorical and almost meaningless. In the first instance, “war” is a condition which states enter into by a legal declaration. In this conception it is not their actions that matter – the USA, Russia or France can bomb whoever they want but it isn’t a war unless they say so. In the second instance, a war simply denotes a state of generally adversarial aims elevated to an indistinct level of intensity – hence the lack of differentiation between the war on Christmas and the war in Ukraine.
For the Ukrainians and the European Union they are now faced with an uncomfortable fact. Russia has attacked its neighbor but hasn’t declared war (as is now usual practice), which means that it is totally up to Ukraine whether it declares war on Russia. If Ukraine does it will be an enormous diplomatic step, one not taken by a major European state for a very long time; it will infuriate Russians; it will allow Russia to claim it was attacked and that Ukraine initiated the war; it will embolden Russia to take and hold a larger amount of territory as a war prize; and it will legitimize the widening of Russian attacks in the Ukraine to force the Kiev government to the negotiating table to carve up Ukraine. NATO states are still not interested in anything but sanctions, and even then they appear more and more dissatisfied with their sway over Russia and less enthusiastic about the chances of forcing Russia to back down.
Not wanting to lose soldiers over places like Donetsk, NATO probably isn’t going to be there to win the war for Ukraine any time soon. It is all still up to the Ukrainians but they can’t defeat the insurgency if Russia simply rolls in periodically to take away their hard-won gains. They also can’t declare war because that will help Russia, and they can’t continue the way things are and expect to get the eastern part of the country back. Should the Ukrainians do the unthinkable and call a war a war? Or should they muddle along in a proxy-war phase and accept that Russia can enter Ukraine as it pleases, when it pleases?
These questions illustrate the importance of words in international politics and the way a seemingly innocuous legal confirmation (a declaration) of existing events (such as a war) have vast repercussions and create realities of their own. There is a war in Ukraine, certainly, just be careful of saying so because that might start a…war.
*Dr. Simon Leitch is the Editor in Chief, Foreign Policy and International Affairs,Alochonaa. He taught International Relations and Security Studies at Griffith University. His research interests are in foreign policy and strategy with a particular interest in the interaction of the great powers.
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Categories: International Relations
This is a very good essay. It’s a shame that Alochonaa doesn’t have a larger audience.