To say that Ukrainian refugees are more “civilized” than Syrians requires willful amnesia

In 2001, political scientist Sankaran Krishna argued that the emergence of the modern sovereign state system in Europe was made possible through the enslavement of Africans, colonization and genocides of indigenous peoples. He further argued that too many scholars, instead of engaging with this history, have studied international relations in a manner “based on systematic forgetfulness, willful amnesia, on the question of race”. By willful amnesia, he meant the process by which historical events such as wars and atrocities are treated as distant parts of Europe’s past – something that only happens today in countries of the South, without relation to past European interventions.

When observers speak of white Ukrainian refugees as people who look like us – and therefore different from the millions of Syrians who have fled to Europe since their civil war began in 2011 – it suggests that a racial perception of who counts as “civilized”” also determines who is deemed to have the right to flee violence and deserve peace.

For example, many black African students fleeing Ukraine were reportedly turned away or put on the line while white Ukrainian refugees were quickly welcomed. It’s a stark reminder that color-coded borders around humanity persist in the West.

In “A Safe World for Democracy,” political scientist G. John Ikenberry argued that the post-Cold War rules-based international order faced some major problems. Mainly, the West has tried too hard to transform the rest of the world according to its vision of liberal democracies. Such transformation has been pursued both non-violently, by adding human rights conditions to trade deals and development aid, and violently in the “democracy promotion” wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. . His proposed solution: The West should stop trying to remake the world in its own image and focus on cooperation between liberal democratic countries.

In a way, the war against Ukraine has given NATO allies an opportunity to unite to oppose aggression and defend peace. This includes the unprecedented mobilization of European countries to sanction Russia and help Ukraine and new countries considering joining NATO. But the timing of Ukraine’s NATO unification is narrow in its Western-centric reach. Consistent with Ikenberry’s vision, the West projects itself as a force for peace to defend the domain of liberal democracies.

This approach overlooks two political-historical dynamics. At work, it’s willful amnesia, forgetting how Europe has engaged in violence, past and present, in parts of the world that fall outside the protected domains of the West. Nor does it recognize the visions of the countries of the South for a world policy free from imperial aggression in the broad sense.

For example, in his February 21 address to the UN Security Council, Kenyan Ambassador Martin Kimani called on Russia to abandon imperial nostalgia. He stressed the idea of ​​an international order built around a common humanity that protects everyone from imperial expansionism, aggression and nuclear catastrophe.

The West rediscovers nuclear weapons

Putin’s announcement that he had ordered his nuclear forces to “special combat readiness” shocked many in the United States and Europe. The US ambassador to the United Nations lamented “another escalating and unnecessary step that threatens us all”. In reality, however, the threat of nuclear annihilation has always been with us.

Many vulnerable communities in the West and populations in the South have already suffered nuclear damage. Since 1945, the nuclear powers have detonated more than 2,000 nuclear devices. Between 1946 and 1958 alone, the United States detonated 67 nuclear and thermonuclear bombs in the Marshall Islands, then a US Trust Territory.

As historians Merze Tate and Doris Hull showed in 1964, throughout the 1950s the Marshallese unsuccessfully petitioned the UN Trusteeship Council for the United States to stop nuclear testing, which violated the United Nations Charter and Trusteeship Agreement. The United States, United Kingdom, France, Soviet Union and China continued to detonate nuclear bombs on the fringes of their military empires and landmasses, far from their “civilized” citizens.

Yet Western unease with Putin’s nuclear arsenal three decades after the end of the Cold War ignores the fact that people in the Global South have in fact suffered nuclear fallout multiple times and have consistently called for nuclear disarmament.

Responding to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine as an attack on Western civilization could have provided a pretext for the West to act in unity for its own preservation. But to assert that the West is acting righteously ignores the history of those who have endured Western violence and its imperial order and their ideas for nonviolent global politics.

Elif Kalaycioglu (@elifkalay ) is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Alabama. The opinions expressed in this article are his own and do not represent the position of his employer.

Oumar Ba (@OumarKBa) is an assistant professor of international relations at Cornell University.

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