21st Century Wars and Eurocentrism

AT THE TURN of the 20th century, the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the end of history. Liberal democracy had finally won the battle between ideologies that had characterized the century, and wars between states and ideologies were over. Conflict, of course, wasn’t over for good, but the constant warring that had always been a centerpiece of history was no more.

On September 11, 2001, two planes were hijacked and flown into the Twin Towers in New York, killing thousands of civilians. The US responded with a sudden and severe declaration of “war on terror”, whatever that means exactly, and Afghanistan and Iraq were both invaded. The last of those conflicts ended only last year. (And the results have been diastrous.)

For all intents and purposes, Fukuyama’s prophecy seemed wrong. Radical Islam had arisen as the ideological counterpart to liberal democracy, intent on its destruction.

And still. No state has truly embraced radical Islam as a political ideology, although you could certainly argue that several states are very borderline on that point, as some have done, not least of all the Bush Jr. administration with the moniker “rogue state”.) And, after all, whenever there is a war, it’s contained to the Middle East or some other far-flung place, far away from Western civilization and comfort. For most people, the only difference Islamist terrorism has led to in their lives is longer airport queues. That is not to undermine the many people who’ve been directly affected by terrorism, of course, it’s simply to establish that for most Westerners, terrorism is something “out there”, not a direct and constant threat to our lives.

So maybe Fukuyama was right. Maybe the West and liberal democracy did win the final battle of history.

Until last Friday, when millions of Europeans woke up to the news that Russia had invaded Ukraine in an unprecedented war of aggression. The reason? Suppossedly to root out neo-Nazism in the country. Something that all but the most hardline Putin fans would consider a bad excuse.

For many of us, this is the first time in our lifetime that war has happened in our backyard. And it’s the first time that there’s a lingering fear that it might spread to our own doorsteps. Into our own homes. This is the first time that a war has actually truly been felt by many young Europeans.

And it finally seems crystal clear that the end of history isn’t nigh.

A peaceful century?

For the past week, I’ve thought long and hard about how I felt about the Russian-Ukrainian War. That’s not to say which side of the conflict I sympathize with and support – I’m never for war, and certainly not unprovoked ones. Rather, it’s to say that I’ve been thinking about the war in a bigger perspective.

The Israeli historian of Sapiens-fame, Yuval Noah Harari, wrote in the Economist that what’s at stake with the war in Ukraine isn’t simply the fate of one country, but the fate of history. He and many others have argued that war has been largely defeated, that humanity has moved on to new frontiers. I’m not so sure.

A cursory look at Wikipedia reveals pages for 45 separate conflicts from 2000-2009, 61 for 2010-2019 and 32 for 2020-2022 – or 138 pages in total. This isn’t a perfect statistic, though. Some pages, such as that on the war in Afghanistan, spans all three categories, and is subdivided: The war itself and the withdrawal of the American troops from the war consists of two separate pages. And what exactly constitutes a war? Can we consider the vague “war on terror” a real war, or is it simply a political discourse?

Still, it’s clear that the 21st century isn’t as peaceful as we like to think. Quite the opposite. And while I suspected this to be the case, I’m astonished at how many conflicts have actually been going on in the 21st century – and how little we’ve heard of them.

So astonished that the aim of this post actually changed since its inception. When first envisioned, I planned to write cursorily about every war of the 21st century, from the Ethiopian Civil War to the War in Afghanistan, and argue that the century wasn’t very peaceful. But writing about more than 100 separate conflicts would require books’ worth of pages – and probably bore everybody but the most hardcore history buff. Instead, I noticed something else: Not every war seems to draw our attention equally.

A hierarchy of wars?

There are some 21st century wars that most Westerners know of: Afghanistan, Iraq, Ukraine. Then there are some that still have pretty wide range: Yemen, Ethiopia, Somalia. And then there are dozens of wars that nobody’s ever heard of – except those unlucky enough to live in their vicinity.

What the popular wars all have in common is that they’re wars that Western countries have in some way been involved in. Afghanistan and Iraq were both fought by US-led alliances, and the economic sanctions currently being put on Russia as a response to the invasion of Ukraine would, in my opinion, count as economic warfare. Not to mention the threat of nuclear warfare from Putin if the West joins the Ukrainian war formally.

Yet some conflicts seem to get far less attention than they actually deserve. Take the Second Congo War, a conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo née Zaire from 1998-2003. Over its five-year period, it involved nine African countries and about 25 armed groups, leading to the death of 5.4 million people due to warfare, famine and disease – the two last ones as a direct result of the war. It’s been so devestating that some have even called it the “African World War”. In fact, it’s the deadliest conflict in history since World War II.

Before writing this post, I’d never heard about it, and I doubt I’m the only one. Why?

There’s a term called “eurocentrism” that’s often flouted in academia. It describes a viewpoint – conscious or not – where Western, European or Anglo-American traditions, ideas or culture are elevated at the expense of everything else. But it can also describe a way of looking at the world in specifically Western-tinted glasses as compared to Asian or African glasses. Looking at the world from a Western vantage point colours everything a certain way, for example emphasizing the nation state as the proper form of government as compared to tribal or feudal forms of government – something which has had dire consequences in Africa. It makes the Western experience the one from which we judge everything, thereby excluding viewpoints from the rest of the world.

And it also makes the problems of the West the most important ones.

Hence why historians and experts from all over the world have written about Ukraine, but comparatively few experts were invited to talk about the outbreak of civil war in Ethiopia, even though the former is a country of 40 million people whereas the latter has 110 million inhabitants and is one of the fastest growing economies in the world.

It’s my suggestion, therefore, that we in the West suffer from a eurocentric view of global politics. The way that Ukraine has suddenly blown up as compared to the way we considered the war in Ethiopia, or how little is taught in Western schools about the most devestating conflict in 50 years, all serve to prove this point.

Of course the invasion of Ukraine is a disaster, and of course we should do everything in our power to help the Ukrainian people. But we shouldn’t forget that the world is greater than Europe or the West. So when the next unprovoked war of aggression happens, or other devestating conflict blows up, are we going to do as usual and keep silent? Or are we as a society going to act as resolutely and coherently as we’ve done with Ukraine, welcoming refugees with open arms and helping end injustice – wherever it happens?

Cover image: Wikimedia Commons.

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