In danger of moral escalation: Hybrid wars and the revival of neutrality

Topics: | EAST - WEST |
Hybrid wars and the revival of neutrality
Mariupol, Ukraine. Copyright: palinchak/Bigstock (via:

If the recent statements by President Donald Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and National Security Advisor John Bolton have one positive effect, it is that they may remind less hawkish politicians about how thin the line is between a war of words and a war of arms.

This is all the more important as the world has adapted to increasing levels of confrontation, manifest in the spreading of hybrid wars: sanctions and counter-sanctions, information, cyber and proxy wars, regime change, disinformation, subversion, etc. Often overlooked is the fact that hybrid wars are remarkably sustainable with limited physical damage. They may contain military elements, yes, but even these are delegated to local or regional hot spots. Present examples include Syria, Yemen, and Eastern Ukraine. Tomorrow the list could include the South China Sea and other places, depending on the willingness of global or regional actors to invest in a show of force or a military strike. However, the legitimate conclusion is that the new phenomenon of hybrid warfare does not mean that antagonists will neither sever the highly interconnected and global communication lines, nor any established logistical and value added chains.

Nevertheless, as hybrid wars become an increasingly accepted feature of the 21st century, the world is treading a dangerous path. In essence, they are a war game played out in earnest. But the world has no experience yet as to how easily such games may turn into real, conventional warfare. It is the apparent sustainability that makes hybrid wars so tempting, fostering the illusion that a war can be fought and, at the same time, peaceful lives be enjoyed. It is a feeling not so far from what one German burgher expressed in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust I:

On holidays and Sundays naught know I more inviting
Than chatting about war and war’s alarms,
When folk in Turkey, up in arms,
Far off, are ’gainst each other fighting.
We at the window stand, our glasses drain,
And watch adown the stream the painted vessels gliding
Then joyful we at eve come home again,
And peaceful times we bless, peace long-abiding.

Hopefully our political classes will welcome the recent White House rhetoric as a wakeup call. Standing up for just causes or taking the moral high ground may be laudable in itself. But neither of these justifies the unleashing of fire and fury on rivals and enemies. In times when individuals of a less mature disposition get carried away by the certainty of their conviction and their insistence on being right, more sober politicians are well advised to remember the virtues of restraint and humility. Both are closely linked to the concept of neutrality – which means consciously abstaining from judgment and intentionally not taking sides.

Over the past decades, noble-minded thinkers in the Western world have been developing the assumption that politics, in particular foreign affairs, should and could be governed by morality. Termed ‘value based foreign policy’, the concept is a staple of the European political debate in the 21st century. Subjugating politics to moral values, however humane the endeavour may seem at first glance, carries some dangerous consequences. One is that it will provoke partisanship, i.e., taking sides as already mentioned. He, who refrains from making moral judgments or who refuses to pick the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ sides in a given conflict may even invite the accusation of cold-heartedness or a lack of moral conviction.

One of the consequences is that the political concept of neutrality lost most of its previous primacy – as can be seen in the fate of the two classic European neutral powers, Sweden and Switzerland. During two centuries both countries prided themselves on their ability not to get tangled up in their neighbours’ clashes, instead providing them with a common meeting ground and peace brokering services. Today Sweden and Switzerland relate to their neutrality almost as if it were an obsolete feature. Sweden publicly debates joining NATO, while Switzerland has ceased to be a haven for politicians and governments that the leading Western power, the US, label as villains or rogue states. The development is due partly to pressure from Washington and other Western powers and partly to changes in European public opinion, where the primacy of morality over politics has taken a firm hold.

A recent DOC round table in Vienna – ‘The deterioration of East-West Relations’ – confirmed the dilemma. Academicians from Austria, the US, Russia, and Germany concluded that both sides’ narratives, equally incompatible but logically stringent within their own frameworks, proved sufficient to nurture a hybrid conflict for years, effectively nullifying the possibility of rapprochement and peace. As long as hybrid warfare offers the illusion of viability, the hope for an eventual game changer like a regime change will outweigh any incentive to sit down, talk, and compromise. Why should there be, when betting on victory requires only a limited wager?

Few members of the Western political class would admit that the conflicts along the East-West frontline are not at all centered around moral or legal values. They will righteously deny the pursuit of interests and refute terms like ‘rivalry’ or ‘spheres of influence’. When listening to politician, it seems as if interests and influence were concepts destined for the dustbin of history. But all the while, interests – be they of economic, military or political nature – prevail. And what is guised as the firm moral basis of politics is ideology, or better weltanschauung[1]. Whereby the difference between morality and a particular worldview is that the latter incorporates moral values in a pre-processed manner, by which they combine the imprint of a particular interpretation with a universal claim for validity. What that leads to is the confrontation of subjective morality with the real world, summed up well in an aphorism by T.S. Eliot: “Most of the evil in this world is done by people with good intentions”.

In that real world, there are no good and no bad guys in a civil war. Brothers and sisters kill brothers and sisters. Hollywood categories do not apply. And of course interests – be it gas or oil, profits or logistics, the establishment of bridgeheads or the projection of power – play a significant role. The denial of the presence of interests and the claim for the moral high ground, combined with aggressive world views, rivalries on the global stage, and the seeming viability of hybrid warfare make for a poisonous mix. To diminish the danger of imminent escalation, cross-border and cross-frontline dialogue becomes ever more important. That urgently calls for the revival of neutrality as a concept to keep the existing geopolitical conflicts in check. There is not much more than brokered dialogue, neutrality, and old-fashioned virtues like restraint and humility that can save the polycentric and multitudinous round world from the righteous hawks having set out to flatten it with their two-dimensional ideologies.

[1] A particular philosophy or view of life; the world view of an individual or group.

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