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The World’s New Thirty Years War

How to shape a coherent long-term Western strategy for the age of new global violence.

Credit: Axel Lauer - Shutterstock.com

Takeaways


  • A war of ideas will accompany the next phase of the global age.
  • For the West, the new Thirty Years War is a quintessential test case for the credibility of its legal and political norms.
  • Religion is about self-limitation, not aggression – accepting humans’ limits in dealing with fellow humans.
  • Violence committed in the name of religion is the biggest blasphemy of all.

Given the arch of instability that is surrounding Europe in its East and in its South, Lenin’s question of 1902, “What is to be done,” has gained renewed importance – only this time for the West.

The current wave of violence and uncertainty – think of the ongoing undeclared war in Donbass or the protracted war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria – requires more than just analytical clarity about root causes and potential consequences. It also requires responses which, at least over time, can tame the flood of violence and coercion, suffering and fear.

Otherwise, the memories of the past few decades when we enjoyed the sunny side of post-Cold war politics will quickly become a faint memory.

Thinking about any Western strategic responses has to begin with self-critique: Although the center of violence and war has shifted away from Europe, the intellectual root causes of many concepts of violent politics (including autocracy, ethnic violence or the manipulation of religion for violent means) across the world today have intellectual sources in Europe.

Yes, it is true that these concepts have thankfully been overcome for the most part in Europe itself. But we Europeans cannot ignore that many of today’s biggest conflict areas still live under the long-range consequences of Europe’s colonial legacy as well the subsequent preeminence of the United States.

The West’s three-part strategy

Historic legacies aside, it is also true that we in the West, perhaps because our societies – exhausted from centuries of infighting and virulent social conflict, have become largely pacified at home.

As a result, we have underestimated that confrontational concepts of politics as well as ethnic and religious identity still have a lot of currency around the globe. People living in the more conflicted parts of the world look at the West with a curious mixture of disregard and inferiority complexes.

Under these circumstances, the West needs a three-part strategy to cope with the current tide of uncertainty, violence and disregard for human dignity and diversity that has become virulent in too many countries of the world.

The first element is strong defense: whether one likes it or not, this includes deterrence based on Article 5 of the NATO Treaty (meaning that an attack on the territory of one NATO member is an attack on all).

It includes a more efficient and flexible rapid intervention force, as agreed upon at the NATO Summit in Wales in September 2014, and urgent efforts by the EU to advance joint European counterintelligence and military procurement policies. Finally, it also includes the need to better prepare for future cyber crimes.

The second element for a successful Western strategy is the use of creative and proactive forms of crisis prevention.

This includes continuous dialogue with those in power anywhere, even if they use power for violent means. It also includes efforts to cope with the root causes of the current escalation of the politics of violence.

We need to speak clearly about some core ideas and we need to resist their violation wherever necessary.

Three core tenets of global thinking

1. No religion justifies the use of force. No search for cultural identity justifies the exclusion and elimination of minorities.

2. No quest for national pride justifies the revision of borders and annexation of territories.

3. No legitimate interest in national cohesion justifies the infringement of fundamental human rights.

But fundamentally, crisis prevention needs to start with understanding that the youth bubble in the arch of instability requires new economic strategies and more creative forms of advancing economic life chances. Otherwise, the West will continuously remain exposed to illegal migration pressure and blame-games about its egoism.

The courage of our convictions

The third element of a coherent long-term Western strategy for the age of new global violence is to support those who promote human rights and reason.

This applies especially to activists in the civil society of countries which have become the origin, source and center of conflicts with regional, if not even global ramifications.

One example of hope is the European Humanities University, founded in 1992 in Minsk, Belarus. Since 2004, it operates in exile in Vilnius, Lithuania.

The university, its founder Alexander Mikhailov and its courageous students deserve the Charlemagne Prize of the City of Aachen, the most prestigious civil society award from the European Union. The next prize will be given in May 2015. It will be the right moment to encourage civil society pluralism through intellectual diversity in Belarus.

Next: A war of ideas

A war of ideas will accompany the next phase of the global age. For the West, the new Thirty Years War at its doorsteps comes as a quintessential test case for the credibility of its legal and political norms. We must also urgently revitalize trust in moral and social values that have stood the test of history but are challenged anew today.

Credibility begins at home, which is why compassion with refugees and enforced migrants who simply look for a better life must be the starting point of any Western reaction to the arc of conflict.

Despair and disenchantment among young people are guarantees of further instability and violence if they do not find positive, constructive outlets to contribute to a better world.

Religion has its place: Self-limitation, not aggression

In preparing for such a world, we should also defend the idea of religion, provided it is properly understood. We can make the argument regarding many of the most conflicted areas that only where there is religion can violence eventually vanish.

Ultimately, religion (etymologically derived from the Latin re-ligare, reconnecting with God) is about accepting humans’ limits in dealing with fellow humans. This is why violence in the name of religion is the biggest blasphemy of all.

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About Ludger Kühnhardt

Ludger Kühnhardt is director of the Center for European Integration Studies (ZEI) at the University of Bonn, Germany.

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