Democracies civilise societies, turn enemies into adversaries, channel conflicts and neutralise violence. This does not mean that there are not deep differences and rifts in them, but only that we have given up considering them as a sufficient reason to resort to physical force. Antagonism is often more about gestures and interests than anything else, but even when speeches express great hostility they do not lead to the consequences that would follow from taking literally the words that are spoken. Democratic learning involves, among other things, the ability to decode speeches, especially the most aggressive ones. Not only is it highly implausible for one democratic state to wage war against another, but democracy offers other channels, with greater or lesser effectiveness, so that conflicts, however intense they may be, can be resolved without resorting to violence.
One might contradict this idea by pointing to the increase in verbal aggression on social networks, but here the adjective “verbal” is key. The current polarisation has nothing to do with the drama of war; it is literally its opposite. Despite the epic tone of many speeches, tension and dramatised antagonisms, we have fully entered what I like to call “postheroic societies”, where ideological agitation is not resolved in victories and defeats, where there are many limitations, external and internal, so that even the most hostile calls to combat do not translate into acts of violence. Terrorism was merely the survival of a world that had long since disappeared, and the assault on the Capitol in Washington was a punctual phenomenon that did not endanger democracy but rather the assault’s perpetrators.
The outbreak of a near-war with all its features shows, by contrast, the extent to which the polarisation of a democratic society – however regrettable it may be – is nothing like a warlike confrontation, nor the preamble to a war, but what replaces it. In democratic societies, shouting and fragmentation rarely translate into physical violence. Contrary to the commonplace that equates democratic conflict with a latent war, in my view it is exactly the opposite: it is the kind of ideological confrontation that those of us who know that we are restrained by a relationship with our adversaries that is only warlike in gesture and vocabulary can afford to indulge in.
If the military invasion of Ukraine shocks us, it is because it produces a simplification to which we had become unaccustomed. This conflict is not only characterised by the prominence of brute force, but also it has simplified the world and made us rediscover the enemy, now without any civilising nuance. Suddenly we no longer live in that democracy without enemies that Ulrich Beck saw as the consequence of the globalised world. The world is once again divided, good and evil clash on the battlefield, there seems to be nothing but democracies or authoritarian systems, and even the European Union forgets for a moment its usual bickering and fractures. But we should not lose sight of the fact that the war only apparently divides the world in two (there is still a world society unified by interdependent relations) and only provisionally unifies the interior of each of these two sides (as soon as things are settled, the unanimity of the European Union will disappear, for example, and perhaps we will see relevant dissensions in Russian society). Unity and diversity are two variables that never completely disappear in our societies, which only combine in different ways depending on the historical moment in question. Disparity of opinions and interests is the norm, while unity is always the result of an imposition or an effort to agree and compromise.
Although Russia’s invasion has taken us back to the brutality of the colonial past rather than the civilised global world, this war is taking place in an interdependent world and it is best seen through the instrument of economic sanctions, their effectiveness and their ambiguity. These sanctions only make sense and have punitive effects insofar as Russia is not an autarkic power but highly dependent on the rest of the world. “Although Russia’s economic interdependence did not prevent war, the globalisation of the Russian economy is now providing the most significant opportunity to achieve peace” (Zedillo / Levinsohn). It is the growing interdependence of post-Soviet Russia that provides a non-military opportunity to force a rectification. Countries defending Ukraine against Russian aggression can resort to such instruments of pressure rather than classic military interventions because Russia has been increasing its dependence on the world for years.
War simplifies, but not entirely and not for long. Complexity appears in another way, well-illustrated by the controversial nature of sanctions, which also have a negative effect on those who impose them. “Weaponised interdependence” (Farrell/Newman) is not without a double-edged sword, with its damaging effects also on those who use it, of which Europe’s energy dependence on Russia is a singular case; hence, it has limited sanctions in this area. The simple ideological oppositions that war amplifies are one thing; the way in which all the actors depend on each other is another. We have rediscovered an enemy but also someone on whom we depend, precisely because we are on a global stage of reciprocal dependencies, in terms of the energy market, the global division of labour, supply chains or infrastructures. Even in the midst of open warfare, much of this is uninterrupted, controversial in its possible effects or openly rejected (as in Germany’s refusal to stop receiving Russian gas, on which it is so dependent).
Sanctions are possible in a globalised world, even though they are also harmful in some way to those who enact them. Whoever threatens militarily becomes the object of threat. Expelling Russia from the SWIFT system also harms those of us who remain in it and will not be able to receive the payments it owes us. Banning exports limits us in many ways. Interrupting Russia’s economic relations with the rest of the world is tantamount to interrupting the rest of the world’s economic relations with Russia. Cutting off a certain energy supply forces us to seek it elsewhere. One objective of sanctions against Russia is to strengthen opposition against Putin there, but it can also strengthen cohesion around the sanctioned leader. The crisis will have negative effects on the global economy in terms of weak growth, disrupted trade and higher inflation.
The possibility of waging war by other means and the impossibility of escaping the negative impacts of such war-making are due to the very nature of the interdependent world. The density of dependencies is so dense – in some matters perhaps too dense – that, while it has had undeniable civilising effects, it has also allowed the survival of unacceptable regimes on which we depended. It will take a special skill to turn interdependence into a civilising factor and to minimise the opportunities it gives to those who benefit from the fact that we are dependent, for example, on such an unsuitable energy supplier as Russia. War polarises but does not entirely suppress the fact that we share the same world, a world that is not binary but complexly coupled, interconnected for both good and bad. To govern it well is to facilitate those dependencies that have pacifying and civilising effects, while reducing those that put us in the hands of any tyrant.