Clive Lewis on just wars and the threat of further conflicts without action on climate
Below is the text of a speech given by Clive Lewis on Saturday 11th March to the conference Solidarity with Ukraine – Building a new internationalism, hosted at the London School of Economics & Political Science by the LSE Conflict and Civicness Research Group. Over 200 people attended the conference which had over twenty speakers, many from Ukraine. The conference was sponsored by the Ukraine Solidarity Campaign amongst many other organisations.
I wanted to say first of all what a privilege it is to be invited to speak in the opening plenary session of such an important conference at such an important moment.
It’s a moment where – as we reach the 20th anniversary of the protests against the War in Iraq – progressives in this country have been able to remember that important moment when millions stood up to unjust war and said, “Not in our name.”
But it’s also a moment of nuance. One where progressives have made a crucial distinction between their own country’s wars of imperialism from that of another democracy’s war of self-defence – against imperialism.
But this distinction has not come easy.
Indeed, the very concept of war is one in the western world that has long been permeated with a duality. The root meaning of the word ‘war’ is one meaning both confusion and discord but also honour and the defence of that which is most valued. War, then, is driven forwards because something that really matters is at stake, yet shaped by means that are inherently destructive, unruly, hard to control and contain.
I’ll come back to this a little later when I address the very real risks this war poses, not just because of Putin and his nuclear-capable oligarchy, but also because of the scepticism we rightly have of our own government and its economic and geopolitical motivations for supporting the war in Ukraine.
So, it goes without saying that as progressives, all wars should sit uncomfortably with us. But we do accept that duality, that understanding of the notion of a war of necessity.
I know I’ve found it uncomfortable. I still do, even now. Ask my liaison in the Ukraine Solidarity Campaign what it’s been like for him to get me to put down an Early Day Motion demanding more weapons be sent to Ukraine. I’ve agonised over it. I’ve been torn by it. And do you know what? It’s OK to be torn; it’s OK to have doubts and to keep having doubts because the waging or supporting of war should never come easy to us.
Unlike in the movies, the world rarely fits into a simplistic narrative of absolutes. Of good vs evil. Of black and white. Instead, we find it in shades of grey where moral absolutes are few and far between.
I didn’t want to see more money and power put into the hands of the arms dealers and the military industrial complex. I didn’t want to find myself on the same side in Parliament as the Tories and other assorted warmongers of the past. But I understood my political misgivings. My discomfort was as nothing compared to the existential fight and the sacrifices the people of Ukraine were making, and continue to make to this day, to defend their homes, their families and their democracy from brutal, naked aggression. I understood, as complex as it is, that supporting the Ukrainian people in their hour of need was and is the right thing to do.
Now, contrary to what some on the left think about my military service – that somehow it makes me more prone to militarism or imperial adventurism – they’re wrong. For me, it actually works in the opposite way. It makes me warier of making the same mistake again.
Firstly, whilst I don’t regret the vast majority of my personal experiences in Afghanistan in 2009, I do regret western motivation for the intervention itself – an intervention that saw me and thousands of others end up serving there. No, it wasn’t Iraq; but at the same time, I believe in hindsight. It failed the litmus test of a just war. It wasn’t.
It was ill-thought-through and ultimately a victim of the ‘paradox of security’. Now, the best analogy I can give for this concept as a fan of science fiction is the classic example where the main protagonists, confronted by an enemy vessel with super-sophisticated force fields, discovers to their horror that the more phasers they fire at their enemy the stronger their enemy’s shields and weapons become. Which is more or less what has happened in Iraq and Afghanistan, where purportedly self-evident military intervention as a reaction to external threats have merely fostered a spiral of violent regression and ever-greater instability.
If you doubt that, then simply look at the failed states, violence and chaos that now engulfs, Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. It is, as I will touch on later, a grim warning about the current western approach to the issue of global security, which is still a one-size-fits-all militarism.
And secondly, if you’ve seen the consequences of war, the mutilated civilians, the mentally broken soldiers, the people you spoke to one day [who are] gone the next, you’d not be so keen to see a repeat of that. And that’s a good thing. And it’s why millions of people, 20 years ago, called it right when they came out in their millions against the Iraq war.
But this is a different war, one whose conclusion is as yet unknown. Now, before I conclude with what we can learn from this conflict and our approaches to it for sustainable global security, I want to quickly touch on the possible dangers for escalation – in particular, nuclear escalation.
President Putin has inferred that Russia would be prepared to use nuclear weapons if NATO was to interfere excessively. What that looks like, nobody knows. But it means Biden – and by default the UK, who are closely shadowing the US on this issue – are unlikely to provide weapons that allow Ukraine longer-range weaponry to go on the offensive in Crimea and other sensitive areas for Russia. This implies NATO planners, who themselves have a first-strike doctrine like Russia, are aware of this danger. To my mind, that means there are limits to how far our support in terms of weaponry to Ukraine can go. It cannot be a blank cheque. But nor should it be a drip feeding of ineffective, insufficient military support that sees Ukraine and its people cynically used up to weaken Russia.
Now, unfortunately, I’ve left less time to discuss the second half of this topic – ‘future global security’ – than I did the first part of it, which was ‘solidarity with Ukraine’… I’m therefore going to quickly focus on one key theme, which I feel is the most important but also covers many of the other themes critical to rethinking progressive security in the 21st century, namely climate justice.
The threat of ‘climate chaos‘ hangs over the globe, and particularly over the global south. A growing body of evidence suggests there are strong links between climate and conflict in both developed and developing countries. The effects of climate change, such as changes in temperature and precipitation, can increase the likelihood and intensity of conflict and violence.
Climate change, then, is a threat multiplier.
An influential paper [pdf] published in 2015 found that changes in temperatures and precipitation patterns increase the risk of conflict: every one degree Celsius increase in temperature increases conflict between individuals (for example, assault, murder) by 2.4% and conflict between groups (for example, riots, civil war) by 11.3%.
The implications of global security deteriorating even more dramatically this century are, therefore, clear.
In our Green New Deal Bill that myself and Caroline Lucas are co-sponsoring in Parliament, two key themes are integral to it: mitigation and adaption, and accountability and democracy.
Contrary to popular belief, the GND isn’t just about building more wind turbines and planting more trees – as critical as those both are. The Green New Deal – which is now also a Global Green New Deal, backed by legislators across the world – implicitly understands that at both a national and international level, the only way we will navigate this century successfully is to make both our own country and the world less unequal, both in terms of power and wealth.
That redistribution of wealth – from global north to south via reparations, technology transfers and just trade deals – won’t happen with the emaciated institutions and crumbling democratic apparatus we have both here in the UK and internationally. The climate crisis is as much a failure of democracy as it is markets.
So, just as domestically we know knee-jerk ‘law & order’ responses – which aim to shore up crumbling hierarchies and do nothing to enhance societal glue – fail to make anyone safer, the same applies to global security and how we as progressives must approach it.
The US – one of the richest but also unequal and violent societies in the world, as well as rapidly falling down the democracy league tables – is in many ways a microcosm of the current global security approach the West takes. Compare the US and its emphasis on ‘law & order’ approaches as opposed to policies that promote social cohesion as found in countries like Finland and Norway. Here, they have universal welfare systems, lower inequality and more robust democratic practices, with the resulting enhanced social trust and community cohesion.
It’s this kind of security in depth – but on an international scale – that is required now. Simply responding to the unfolding chaos with ever-greater military responses will see increasingly destructive negative feedbacks.
A simple example of security in frith: the ceres2030 research group has estimated that a zero hunger goal by 2030, and all that entails in terms of enhanced global stability, would be possible at a cost of £330bn, compared with the £1,917bn world annual military spend.
I’ll conclude by warning that the peace we build after the conflict in Ukraine has concluded – and it will – must be sustainable with an economy closer to Finland than the US. It should be a template for the new concept of security in depth. Because an unequal, privatised, authoritarian Ukraine will be far more likely to shift to the authoritarian right. That could yet see Ukraine fall into the orbit of an increasingly right-wing and authoritarian Russia, like Belarus, or a more authoritarian and nationalist regime intent on antagonising and provoking its larger neighbour and the consequences that will have for all of us.