Wanted! A New Perspective on Handling World Wars
What many hoped would never happen again, has happened. Armed conflict has broken out once more in the heart of Europe, and through the intricate ties between major global players, it threatens to pull the world into a third world war, just like it did in the 20th century.
Actually… Not quite like it did back then. It is true that by roping themselves together NATO members have created an undesired snowball effect whereby any conflict involving one member automatically catapults all other members into it. But in this conflict we are experiencing quite the opposite of what is known as Germany’s 1914 “Blank Check” to the Austro-Hungarian emperor.
“Caution” is a buzzword when it comes to current policy around this conflict- be it in Europe, across the pond, or on the Coast of the Pacific Ocean. Aside from Ukraine, who is fighting for its life with its own military, the world’s reaction has revolved around “softer” sanctions with only a tepid trickle of military assistance. Assets have been frozen, Russia has been cut off from global financial networks, humanitarian aid and refugee admission have been offered. Social media networks and private sector companies have also used their market power to take a stand and influence the situation.
But will these work?
We are at a turning point in history, with little current precedent to compare to (at least in the European context). Dominant international relations theories seem outdated and are struggling to provide answers in a world that no longer tolerates open violence (that is, on European soil, and compared to the previous century).
This crossroads is particularly interesting because unlike in 1914 or 1939, the highest positions in defence and public diplomacy are increasingly held by women. The internet is bubbling with memes either applauding or decrying this fact.
Can we put our money where our mouth is?
The positive effects of gender balance have been championed and celebrated, and have starred as a hot topic for several years now. Governments and cabinets in the West (and not only) have seen a steep rise in positions held by women.
The question now is whether we can show in action that this is indeed the key to more responsible leadership, to a minimisation of casualties and to creative and effective conflict resolution.
Three out of seven Secretaries of Defense in the G7 are women. Their military careers are essentially non-existent as their background lies mostly in law and economics. As an example, German Secretary of defense Christine Lambrecht only just entered office in December of 2021. So did Annalena Baerbock, the German Minister of Foreign Affairs.
Many of the women holding relevant office have been doing so for anything from a few months to a few years. Though they all hold impressive political careers, it is hard to say that they are well-versed in the field of war. Comparing this to the 45-year-long military career of Sergey Shoygu, Russia’s Minister of defense, or to the diplomatic experience of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov who has held his position for 17 years, an image of stark contrast emerges.
Are these new forces in Europe a match to the war dogs of the old world? And what resources could they draw upon to devise their strategy in a world where precedent in feminine war-time leadership and diplomatic strategy are scarce?
Ministers of Defense at the outset of World War II, vs. today
Foreign Secretaries at the outset of World War II, vs. today
The baggage that comes with gender
With gender, as with any sort of differentiating identity, comes a different world of life experiences that govern our behaviour and perception. It is only natural for leaders and decision-makers to draw upon precedent and personal experience to devise methodologies, strategies, and policy.
But female role models in the context of war and diplomacy, though they certainly exist, are harder to come by than male ones. As in many other fields, women are cutting a new, unfamiliar path for themselves and their constituents. Can they devise a competent military doctrine, without the historical muscle memory most male leaders enjoy?
Can we provide a fresh and relevant perspective to the age-old question of how one is to vanquish a bully?
I argue that we do have the muscle memory to answer this question- and urge female leaders to turn to our own life experiences for answers. We have been defending ourselves and others in solidarity for millennia!
We have rescued friends from drunk aggressors and abusive relationships, walked them home safely, and stood up to violent partners. As the physically “weaker” sex, we are bound by a different set of rules and constraints. We are more inclined to disregard such ideas as “the balance of powers”, because we are usually the underdog. And we cannot lose ourselves in arm-wrestling contests for prestige, because we cannot afford to lose sight of a goal that eludes us much more than it does our male counterparts- to simply stay safe.
Female solidarity has a different context to that of men (though both are equally noble). We are accustomed to talking about brothers in arms when it comes to loyalty, or comparing war and politics to sports and hunting - worlds that have typically been dominated by men.
What is required of us now is a challenging mental exercise- of redefining these worlds through a whole new language and perspective- that of the female experience.
One framework that leaders (both female and feminist!) can look to in analysing this situation, is the reality women face when facing an abusive or violent aggressor. This is a world many women are sadly well-versed and familiar with, be it in their romantic encounters, within the family, or in the workplace.
The roles in this allegory are clear - In his words and actions Vladimir Putin has ticked all the boxes of an abusive partner. This includes threatening to demolish the Ukraine should it decide to leave him, and acting upon his threats. It also includes blaming the Ukraine for what “it has forced him to do”, namely the acts of violence he alone decided to inflict upon it.
The Ukraine, inevitably chained to Russia by a common history and physical proximity, has suffered violence and denigration including false accusations as to its nature and intent- including that it is run by nazis and drug addicts. Its very right and capability for independent existence have been purposefully undermined.
As always, when fending off an abuser, there is no maximising of gains, only minimising of damage that results from their bully-ish outbursts. It is a different type of negotiation, where one has to be smart because they do not have the privilege to be right. It is not about winning an argument against Russia like one would in a situation with a more equitable balance of powers. It is about salvaging as much as possible of Ukraine’s physical integrity and fending off the attack.
She's with us
How do you help a woman suffering abuse?
To begin with, you do all you can to get her safely away from harm, or create a buffer between her and the abuser. Or rather, her and the children, who in the case of this allegory include all of Ukraine’s innocent citizens, be they mothers and daughters, or fathers and sons who were tragically forced to tear away from their families to defend their homeland. They must all be protected and assisted.
This could express itself in establishing a no-flight zone, insisting on demilitarised buffer zones, increasing rescue efforts and housing refugees.
Next comes surrounding that woman and her family with support. Bullies thrive on the sense that their victim is isolated and helpless. A strong, clear message must be sent- “She’s with us.” Most women know all too well that simply pretending to speak on the phone to someone as they walk home at night can deter aggressors from approaching them, because they appear not to be “alone”. This message has not yet been cried out loud enough- on the contrary, talk has surfaced of a deal encouraging the Ukraine to "compromise" on its military capabilities, territorial integrity and affiliation with the West, in return for a Russian retreat.
Can the world stand up to Putin?
Admittedly, NATO has woven itself into quite the pickle. With all its muscle-flexing and bandwagoning, it has effectively tied its hands in classic “political consideration”. So much so that it is powerless to stand by Ukraine, the unwilling victim of NATO and Russia’s power plays.
But there are many other countries that are not members of NATO whose hands are not tied by the same considerations. Some of these in Europe are Austria, Cyprus, Finland, Ireland, Malta, and Sweden. Non-NATO countries outside Europe could equally qualify for providing military aid to Ukraine.
After de-escalation and containment comes the difficult part- acknowledging that a situation that involves family ties and intertwined interests is more complicated to solve than can be summarised in click-bait.
Women in abusive homes are often faced with reproach for staying in contact with their aggressors. The men are left to drown in their own toxic mess, although their outburst may stem from reasons that are worth listening to (though they in no way justify the hurting of innocents).
The day after the click-bait dies down, both husband and wife, or their children, will be forced to pick up the pieces of a shattered reality. Those who make it out alive of the situation of course. Ukrainian President Zelensky made admirable reference to these bonds in his video appeal to Russian nationals on February 24th, the day Russia invaded Ukraine.
The solutions devised must be intelligent and creative. They must involve a transformative approach to conflict resolution since simply ganging up on one country has proven to be ineffective, even counterproductive. Listening, empathy, and some honest, egoless soul-seeking are required. Could the current reality have to do with an orientalistic, old-world approach towards Russia that must be reconsidered?
Russia has reportedly asked to join NATO in the past, and was refused. In the long run, reconsidering this option could potentially stabilise the region and disincentivize Russia from stirring conflict. This would require all parties to step away from the mentality that has dominated politics for at least the past 100 years - that there is always an us against them and that Russia and the US are eternal enemies. Russia joining NATO should not be more unthinkable than Germany doing so post-Second World War.
The key to solving this situation is the cooperation of the genders of course. Leaders of all genders must join arms to come up with a solution to this human tragedy. Men, I urge you! Listen to the women, they’ve done this before. And women, I urge you to liberate yourselves from the expectation to behave like your male predecessors, with all due respect to their legacy.