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From Cold War to Hot Peace

In a world shaped by the iron logic of markets and national interests, Vladimir Putin's atavistic war of conquest has mystified the "deep" strategists of realpolitik. Their mistake was to forget that under global capitalism, cultural, ethnic, and religious conflicts are the only forms of political struggle left.

LJUBLJANA – With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we are entering a new phase of warfare and global politics. Aside from a heightened risk of nuclear catastrophe, we are already in a perfect storm of mutually reinforcing global crises – the pandemic, climate change, biodiversity loss, and food and water shortages. The situation exhibits a basic madness: at a time when humanity’s very survival is jeopardized by ecological (and other) factors, and when addressing those threats should be prioritized over everything else, our primary concern has suddenly shifted – again – to a new political crisis. Just when global cooperation is needed more than ever, the “clash of civilizations” returns with a vengeance.

Why does this happen? As is often the case, a little Hegel can go a long way toward answering such questions. In the Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel famously describes the dialectic of master and servant, two “self-consciousnesses” locked in a life-or-death struggle. If each is ready to risk his own life to win, and if both persist in this, there is no winner: one dies, and the survivor no longer has anyone to recognize his own existence. The implication is that all of history and culture rest on a foundational compromise: in the eye-to-eye confrontation, one side (the future servant) “averts its eyes,” unwilling to go to the end.

But Hegel would hasten to note that there can be no final or lasting compromise between states. Relationships between sovereign nation-states are permanently under the shadow of potential war, with each epoch of peace being nothing more than a temporary armistice. Each state disciplines and educates its own members and guarantees civic peace among them, and this process produces an ethic that ultimately demands acts of heroism – a readiness to sacrifice one’s life for one’s country. The wild, barbarian relations between states thus serve as the foundation of the ethical life within states.