Europe seeks peace, not war. But will it be ready if war comes to Europe?

October 18, 2023
To survive Russia’s neo-imperialism, Europe’s democracies must find a balance between their desire for peace and their own defence
Photo credit: Kostiantyn & Vlada Liberov
  • Volodymyr Yermolenko, Ukrainian philosopher, journalist and writer, the president of PEN Ukraine and the editor-in-chief of UkraineWorld, for The Guardian.

In 2003, the philosophers Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida published a joint article in Germany's and France's leading newspapers. In it, they criticised the American invasion of Iraq and called on Europeans to "assume a reflexive distance from themselves", in particular their imperialism and colonialism.

The pair's criticism of George W Bush's imperialism was justified; and their suggestion that Europe could lead the world towards a post-imperial future was a nice idea. Today, however, confronted with Russia's genocidal invasion of Ukraine, the question is whether such a post-imperial world can be achieved through the means that the two philosophers proposed.

The Europe they imagined was a Europe of dialogue, of conversation and the embrace of differences. This is, certainly, a dignified idea. The problem is that it is powerless when one is faced with evil.

Europe's conception of itself after the second world war focused on the self-evidence of peace. It asked how peace could be enlarged territorially, but not how peace should be defended.

It was attracted to the idea of removing borders for the circulation of the good (as a moral concept, as well as goods as an economic concept), but not how to strengthen borders against evil. It relativised the question of evil, thinking that all evil could be reintegrated simply by the attractiveness of the good. This formed Europe's (primarily Germany's and France's) long-lasting affair with Russia. In this relationship, Europe took Goethe's Faust literally by testing the idea that one can make a deal with the devil. But it forgot how the story ends.

There are two ethical systems on which Europe has been built, two ways of determining attitudes towards others.

One is the ethics exchange, of the agora. In the agora (marketplace in ancient Greece), we give away something to get more than we had. We exchange goods, objects, ideas, stories and experiences. The agora is a positive-sum game: everyone wins, even though some try to win more than others.

The other ethical system is that of agon. Agon is a battlefield. We enter agon not to exchange, but to fight. We dream of winning but are also prepared to lose - including to lose ourselves, even in the literal sense of dying for a great cause. This is not the logic of a positive-sum game; there can be no "win-win", because one of the sides will certainly lose.

Ukrainian servicemen in Kostyantynivka, Donetsk, 25 September 2023. Photograph: Roman Pilipey/AFP/Getty Images

Europe has built itself as a combination of agora and agon. It bears the image of both the knight and the bourgeois.

Europe's cultural legacy is unthinkable without the ethics of agon: whether it is medieval novels with their cult of chivalry and loyalty, or early modern dramas whose characters stand to die for their principles and passions. But Europe is also unthinkable without the culture of the agora, of conversation, compromise, of softness, of Voltairean mœurs douces.

Both these ethical systems contain profound human values. But taken to their extremes, they are dangerous and need to be balanced by the other.

The ethics of the agon teach us to see all humans as potential adversaries, and to consider all interaction as a latent fight. This can lead to war of all against all.

Radical agora ethics, on the contrary, absolutise exchange and compromise. Here, exchange and dialogue are the answers to all questions.

War and conflict are considered consequences of human insanity and the only reason people fight is that they did not have the chance to talk enough to each other.

If the agora logic is applied universally and infinitely, we would lose a sense of where to stop in our passion for exchange. We cannot and should not talk to a killer at the moment he is about to kill us; and we cannot and should not "exchange" the lives of our loved ones or fellow citizens for something else.

Truth and justice thus emerge as a balance between our readiness to exchange and our understanding that some things are unexchangeable and irreplaceable. For example, human lives.

Despite their philosophical disagreements, Habermas and Derrida shared something important. This was the idea that agora should replace agon, and consign it to oblivion.

The problem they failed to see is that agora is impossible without agon. You cannot have infinite dialogue inside a city-state unless you build a fortress protecting your city against would-be destroyers.

The Europe of Habermas and Derrida was built on the naive belief that all enemies were gone and security was no longer anything to worry about. They chose to ignore the possibility that our enemies would only leave after they had killed our kids.

The hypocrisy inherent in the conception of Europe as a continent of "eternal peace" and "infinite agora" is that it has only been made possible under the security umbrella of Nato.

While Europe was building welfare states, the US was building a security framework, providing the conditions under which Europe could continue to be a social paradise. The US was not from Mars, and Europe from Venus, as Robert Kagan believed; the US just filled the gap of agon (ie the walls of defence) that Europe had left, believing too much in the self-evidence of peace and the self-reproduction of agoras.

If our goal is to build a more just post-imperialist world, it is important to point to the parallels between the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and Russia's invasion of Georgia in 2008, Ukraine in 2014, Syria in 2015 and Ukraine again in 2022. Yet there is a crucial difference.

The war in 2003 was the result of a democracy cheating itself, hiding its imperialism behind an alluring democratic rhetoric. It was partially caused by the fact that the "western" world still felt strong, so strong that it thought it could risk doing whatever it wanted - a direct path to tyranny. The events of 2003 were the result of an anachronistic self-confidence - born of the idea of "the end of history" - not knowing how to react to the shock of 9/11.

Twenty years on, we are living in a different reality. Democracy is no longer turning into an empire; it is being attacked by empire.

This empire and its authoritarian allies see that democracies are weak and unprotected. That they have lost the spirit of agon. That they mock the knightly culture of the past. And that they can therefore be attacked and eventually destroyed.

The ongoing Russian war on Ukraine is an attack on Europe. Russia is at war with Europe. It is time to accept this fact fully and draw all the necessary conclusions. The agora is not enough. There are times when to defend it you need to revive the agon as an element of your identity.

It's not because you want war. It's because sometimes war comes to you. In order to defend your peace, you must become a warrior - or at least align with the warrior as much as you can. Sometimes it is not enough to avoid evil. Sometimes you need to confront it, face to face.

This article is adapted from an essay originally published jointly by Voxeurop and Eurozine in Lessons of War, a series on the implications of Russia's war on Ukraine for the future of Europe

Volodymyr Yermolenko
Editor-in-chief of UkraineWorld