Putin’s Invasion of Ukraine RevealsMoral and Intellectual Rot of the ‘Anti-War’ Left
CJ Werleman argues that, though their arguments had relevance decades ago, analysts of US imperialism such as John Pilger and Noam Chomsky are no guides to the present
When comments resurfaced on social media, in which legendary American intellectual Noam Chomsky blamed NATO for the Russian-Ukraine crisis, Ukrainian writer Artem Chapeye responded with a sharp and biting retort: “Please start your analysis with the suffering of millions of people, rather than geopolitical chess moves.”
He continued: “When you’re being bombed, when you’re thinking of ways to evacuate your kids, you have a different perspective than when you’re sitting cosy in an office somewhere in Arizona. Yes, Noam Chomsky, I’m looking at you, among others.”
Here’s something every scholar of international relations knows to be true about Chomsky: when you read him as a college sophomore, you think he’s the most profoundly brilliant man on the planet. When you re-read him as a graduate student, you come to regard him as an individual blinkered by his own myopia.
In the mind of Chomsky – and, by extension, the collective minds of the anti-US imperialist and anti-war movements he has inspired around the world for the past five decades – there exists only a single imperialist power: the United States.
And while that may have been a somewhat reasonable but not entirely accurate assessment of the period spanning the collapse of the Soviet Union and the first major US withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, the recent emergence of a multi-polar international system – one comprising three great powers and more than a dozen middle powers – has made the Chomsky view of the world obsolete.
In fact, Russia’s imperialist ambitions in Europe and central Asia, along with China’s military expansionist policies in Indo Pacific, has made him and his anti-US imperialist and anti-war brethren appear thoroughly delusional – if not downright dangerous.
Europe has been reawakened by the well-known Latin proverb ‘si vis pacem, para bellum‘ – ‘if you want peace, prepare for war’, as noted by Foreign Policy columnist Caroline de Gruyter. As every student of international relations understands, the international system rewards nations that prepare for war and punishes those that don’t.
Were you to condense a four-year undergraduate degree in international relations into a single paragraph, it would read like this: an international system absent a global authority or police force, or what scholars call a state of anarchy, leaves each country responsible for its own security, and because no country can never truly know the intent of its neighbours or rivals, it must accumulate as much power as possible to safeguard its sovereignty.
Tragically, this realist lens of the world not only encourages arms races – but also invites both insecure and ambitious states to do awful things to their neighbours, rivals and pesky minorities. This is not the way the world should be, but it is the way it is.
More to the point, it explains the conditions that produce war and peace. It gives reason, not justification, to China’s occupation of Tibet, persecution of Uyghur Muslims along its north-western frontier, and military aggression in South China Sea, along with its recent and ongoing military threats against Taiwan. It also explains, not justifies, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Buying Into Russian Propaganda
This simple reading or understanding of the world as it is is one lost on large segments of the anti-war left, specifically those who continue to wrongly believe that US foreign policy is the root of all evil. This includes veteran Australian journalist John Pilger, who has won numerous awards for exposing injustice and promoting human rights.
His commentary during the Russian military build-up typified the anti-war left’s response to the war in Ukraine. Pilger – not once, but five times – mocked the US for warning of a Russian invasion tweeting that “Russian aggression in Europe is a fraud”, while accusing the US and UK Governments in an article on selling a fictitious war for the “restoration of imperial mythology” and “permanent enemy”.
Worse, he parrots Kremlin propaganda by smearing and dehumanising Ukrainians as a land of “Nazi cultists” – a bogus claim that has been regurgitated across the leftist blogosphere, which serves only to undermine global solidarity for the besieged Ukrainian people.
Unsurprisingly, they tend to be the same individuals and outlets that parroted Kremlin propaganda and conspiracy theories during the Syrian civil war, including those that dehumanised opponents of the Assad regime as ‘violent jihadists’, civilians killed under Russian aerial bombardment as ‘crisis actors’, and first responders in rebel-held territory as ‘al Qaeda propagandists’.
Ibrahim al-Assil, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, says progressive millennials are facing an “intellectual dilemma” because they have never lived with a threat from another great power, having grown up in a US-dominated international system. Their world views were shaped under Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush, when the US did whatever it wanted, unchallenged.
“The main global event for progressive millennials was the invasion of Iraq,” says al-Assil. “While they spent their adult life criticising it, it left them with a deep sense of guilt and shame… The sense of guilt, coupled with a distorted view of global politics, where the US is always secure and dominant, resulted in progressive millennials buying into two notions they loath: American supremacy and tolerating imperialism as long as it’s anti-US dominance.”
He believes that this view – which posits the US as the sole bad actor – has left progressive millennials blind to crimes committed by rivals to American power, which explains why many ignore and even whitewash the “horrible and unprecedented human suffering” caused by Russia in Syria and Ukraine; Iran in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon; and China in Xinjiang.
“They saw the war in Syria as a pure foreign power intervention, ignoring the main role of Assad and how much Syrians didn’t want to live under him no matter what,” he observes. “In Ukraine, many argue that it was the West’s fault ignoring that Ukrainians made their decision to look West.”
They ignore that polls conducted in 2014, 2017 and 2022 showed that an overwhelming majority of Ukrainians wished to join the EU and NATO and to shun Russia. They ignore NATO is a voluntary association. They ignore that eastern European countries Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia pleaded to join NATO to protect themselves from Russian aggression. They ignore that Russia has 3,000 combat tanks, 1,900 warplanes and one million soldiers within uninterrupted walking distance to the Ukrainian border. Most significantly, they ignore that there wasn’t a single NATO soldier on Ukrainian soil prior to the Russian invasion.
In other words, there is no legitimate reason to excuse Russia’s criminal actions against a sovereign country that posed zero threat.
Europe has been jolted wide awake to the necessity of hard power to resist Vladimir Putin’s imperialist ambitions, having learnt the hard way that ‘soft power’ – ideals, culture, and persuasion – isn’t enough to counter kinetic and hybrid military threats and attacks.
But to attain and maintain peace, Europe will need to commit to building an even stronger military alliance and spending more on defence – as the US has long demanded – which means that the Chomsky, Pilger and their ilk should quietly take a back seat. Their time has now passed.