Against the Holy Alliance

Against the Current, No. 81, July/August 1999

Daniel Singer

MIGHT IS RIGHT!  On June 3rd, the 72nd day of this horrid though undeclared war, it looked like a deal had been struck or, rather, imposed.  The Russians having been bullied or bribed to align themselves on the NATO positions, Belgrade stood alone and Milosevic had to surrender.

But it was not quite the end. The Russians, their military and the Duma talking of betrayal, tried to save face and the Serb commanders saw here an opportunity to improve the terms.  Thereupon NATO, determined to show that this was total surrender and that the United Nations were only involved as an irrelevant piece of decoration, resumed the bombing with sadistic glee.

It took a great deal of bargaining, including behind-the-scenes talks between Clinton and Yeltsin, to finally produce a package synchronizing the stop of the bombing, the Security Council resolution, the evacuation by the Serbs and the advance by NATO troops.

By June 9th it seemed that the armed conflict—if one may so call a confrontation between a mighty armada equipped with the latest weapons of destruction and a small country unable to hit back—was coming to an end.

Our first reaction is one of relief.  We must rejoice that the Kosovars should soon be trekking home from their wretched camps in exile and that Serbia will not be pounded back into the Middle Ages. But we must also remember that this bloody war might have been avoided and that it certainly could have been ended much earlier.

Whatever the origins of the conflict, for weeks now the main issue has been the shape of the new World Order, the position of the United States as the undisputed international gendarme, entitled to act as prosecutor, judge and executioner.

What was and is at stake is the institutionalization of American hegemony in the new era following that of the Cold War, with NATO now acting as today’s Holy Alliance, [The term Holy Alliance refers to the reactionary military-political alliance that defeated Napoleonic France and reorganized the European state system after 1815—ed.] for Europe to begin with, and then for the world at large.  The full consequences of this American victory have still to be measured, but some lessons can already be drawn from bitter experience.

In Europe the first one is that the presence of many leftish governments is no obstacle to this drive towards an American-dominated order.  Quite the contrary: If the right had been in office, the antiwar campaign in Europe would undoubtedly have been stronger.  The second European lesson of this conflict is the relative weakness of the peace movement.

We shall examine some of the reasons why: the scope and violence of the propaganda machine of the establishment; the need to condemn at once Milosevic the purger and the NATO bombers; and, in the absence of any progressive solution, the necessity to defend the bad against the worse.

The fact remains that the radical left has not been up to its tremendous task.

The NATO Eurosocialists

“Socialist” governments climbing obediently on the American bandwagon were not a real surprise.  If we were not dealing with tragedy, there was even an element of farce on this occasion as Tony Blair took Churchillian postures and the British poodle pretended to be a bulldog.

The “third way” reinvented by New Labour is an open imitation of the American model and Britain, therefore, eagerly welcomed any euratlantic project headed by Washington.  But none of the other socialist governments offered serious resistance either.  Having accepted the unconditional reign of capital, they also accepted the latest form of its rule, even if subsequently they may try to jockey for position within the existing structure.

Indeed, the degree of reluctance to toe the line depended on the amount of pressure from below.  In Italy, where the antiwar marches were numerous, where the protest movement was strongest, involving trade unions and a good proportion of Left Democrats (i.e.  converted Communists), their leader, the Prime Minister Massimo D’Alema, had at least to pretend that he was urging NATO to suspend the bombing.

The Italian party rank and file are now used to the fact that their social-democratic leaders (and the converted Communists must now be included in that category) abandon their remaining principles on entering office.  But for the German Greens it is a new experience and a particularly painful one, because pacifism was an essential element of their ideology.

It took the Greens a lot of pressure and a phony motion at a special congress to enable their leader, the once radical Joschka Fischer, to carry on as Minister of Foreign Affairs in a government of bombers.  This shift, however, is not limited to military matters.  It is part of a general acceptance of existing society.

Take Danny Cohn-Bendit, Fischer’s fellow convert to “realism,” who now leads the French Greens in the European elections.  Known in the past as Danny the Red, he is now more associated with the khaki of military uniforms, because of his zeal for armed intervention in Kosovo.

1968, when Cohn-Bendit climbed barricades against the bourgeois order, is very distant.  Resigned to capitalism, nay, preaching privatization, the color appropriate for him now is the palest pink.

But ecologists do not have the monopoly of metamorphosis.  Javier Solana, the “socialist” General-Secretary of NATO, took part in Spanish demos against American bases back in the early `80s, while Robin Cook, the war-mongering British Foreign Secretary, is a former marcher against nuclear weapons.

Coat-turning is neither a rare nor an original occupation among political climbers.  Within the membership, on the other hand, there is a great deal of disenchantment or discontent and not only among the Greens.  French Communists are puzzled as their party is, in theory, against the war but, in practice, keeps ministers in a missile-dropping government.

Many socialists, too, are beginning to ponder over the wisdom of their parties’ policies.  All this, however, has had little political impact so far. Even in Italy, when D’Alema was told to toe the NATO line, and did, his followers did not force him to keep the pledge to stop the bombing.

Failings of the Left

As it becomes increasingly obvious that the sufferings of the Kosovars and the destruction of Serbia are being extended to preserve NATO’s “credibility,” uneasiness spreads.  Why has the radical left proved unable so far to harness this dissatisfaction into a vast antiwar movement capable of swaying governments?

The first factor to take into account is the extraordinary mobilization of the propaganda machine to put moral pressure on potential critics of this war. You must have been struck by the use for this purpose of Hitler and the holocaust, either directly or by innuendo (Chamberlain, appeasement, collaborator).

Personally, I consider the holocaust as unique and comparable (unique in its scientific horror, but also a permanent reminder of the level to which humanity may descend if we are not careful) and therefore am not, in principle, allergic to references to the Shoah.  But the cold, calculated identification of Milosevic, the horrible little Balkan scoundrel, with Hitler and of the fate of the Kosovars, who deserve our deepest sympathy and support, with the extermination of the Jews is immoral and indecent.

I understand perfectly the people who are genuinely swayed by such propaganda.  I have an utter contempt for those who use it cynically to discredit or silence the critics daring to question the moral purity of their “just war.” For their side is that of the angels.

Their missiles are humanitarian.  They are unperturbed by collateral damage, even when it affects unquestionably civilian targets, because they are crusaders for democracy and the Rights of Man. We, more prosaically, must proclaim a plague on both their houses, condemn Milosevic the ethnic cleanser as well as the NATO bombers.

This is a categorical imperative.  For the left to say “he is the son of a bitch, but our son of a bitch” is the rulers’ morals, not ours. The first antiwar demonstration in Paris was spoilt by the fact that the Serbs were allowed to take part in it with their own nationalist slogans.

The tens of thousands of European marchers against unemployment, who gathered in Cologne on May 29th, could not produce a common antiwar banner, because they could not agree on a double condemnation.

Double Standards

Advocates of armed intervention, whose arguments are boosted by the media, can simply preach.  We, with infinitely smaller means at our disposal, are bound to explain, a much tougher exercise.

With all the crimes committed by the henchmen of Milosevic in Bosnia, let alone Kosovo, his indictment for crimes against humanity by the International War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague, for instance, was quite naturally welcome.

It was much more awkward to raise questions about its timing or to ask whether Louise Arbour, the chief prosecutor, having discovered how to sue a president for the crimes of his subordinates, would now proceed with the indictment of the fellow scoundrel Tudjman, the Croatian president?

To such questions, and to more general objections that you cannot base universal laws on double standards—what is virtue in the case of the Kosovars is a vice in that of the Kurds—the champions of humanitarian interference reply: Wait, it’s only the beginning .  .  .  .

Are they really so naive?  This, after all, is the law of the strong against the weak. At a pinch, one could envisage that one day it would be applied to Russia.  But to the United States, say for crimes committed in Latin America, or simply to America’s proteges?  Can you imagine a Netanyahu threatened with NATO missiles because he refuses to grant national rights to Palestinians?

This “just and humanitarian” war is being waged to establish a system in which NATO, and through it the United States, decides what the law is, who should be punished and who will be the latter-day Somozas or Suhartos allowed to get away with murder.

This having been said, the relative weakness of the antiwar movement is not only due to the relentless propaganda and its bias. It is also due to our limitations.

This is not the civil war in Spain in the 1930s, where we can join international brigades.  We are not strong enough to impose our solutions and all we can plead for are lesser evils: the United Nations (without illusions about the institution) rather than NATO; Russian (despite Chechnya) and neutral troops to prevent the American domination (direct or by proxy) and so on. Nothing inspiring.

The Future

At this stage in the conflict, as in Bosnia, there are no longer decent solutions; the damage has been done, hatred has been spread, a degree of segregation and, hence, a partial victory for ethnic cleansing has become inevitable.

The best one can hope for is that the Kosovars will return to their land, that massive economic aid will cope at once with the terrible devastation and that, time healing wounds, this region, like the whole of former Yugoslavia, will one day emerge from the nightmare of ethnic politics.

For this is where the root of the whole evil, and of our impotence, lies. It is linked with the break up of Yugoslavia, with the triumph of jingoism over a solidarity stretching beyond racial and ethnic frontiers.  You start with kith-and-kin and you end with ethnic cleansing and buckets of blood.

Milosevic, Tudjman and company are not the only ones to blame.  Intellectuals spreading the poison of chauvinism are among the worst culprits.

The left-wing parties unable to resist the nationalist tide have their share of guilt.  So have the great powers which exacerbated the conflict.  So have we, unable to influence our governments and the course of events, as the disease was spreading across the country.

The events are too recent and too important to leave them entirely to historians.  For, whatever the immediate outcome, the struggle will go on and the radical left in Europe, despite its failings, could actually take advantage of the ambiguities and betrayals revealed by this conflict.  But it will do so only if it reexamines its own conduct and even some of its principles (where, for instance, does self-determination start and where does it end?).

Since the main function of the left is to mobilize by showing the truth behind the propaganda, it is bound to be candid.  It must call a spade a spade and explain that it is against the American hegemony, not in the name of any anti-Americanism, but because the United States is at this stage the fundamental element in the world capitalist system.

Incidentally, it is absurd to suggest that the balance can be redressed thanks to a second pillar for NATO, provided by a common European defense.  U.S. domination will only be questioned if Europe, rejecting the American model, starts seeking a radically different society, still uninvented, but that we would describe as socialist.

At this point, a genuine left must fight on two fronts: against the bombers who have stopped even pretending that their targets are only Milosevic and his military; but also against ethnic cleansing.  Yet it should not be bullied into unconsidered projects and institutions by hysterical pressure.

To those who want to put the NATO noose around our necks under humanitarian disguise, the left can simply answer that the horrors, alas, did not begin in Kosovo nor will they end there.  Algeria, Chechnya, Rwanda; the crimes committed almost permanently in Africa, Asia and Latin America, are part of the system dominating our world and will only disappear with that system.

Our battle against the new Holy Alliance designed to perpetuate that system is part of our unfinished struggle against the reign of capital.

Daniel Singer is the author of Whose Millenium: Theirs or Ours?  (Monthly Review Press).  An interview with Singer appears in this issue of ATC as well.

ATC 81, July-August 1999