The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Calling Ukrainian refugees more ‘civilized’ than Syrians requires willful amnesia

The history of the West suggests something else entirely

A rescued Syrian man holds the Koran inside an Open Arms rescue boat off the Libyan coast on March 5. (Andoni Lubaki/AP)
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With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, many in the news media covering reactions to Ukrainian refugees have made casually derogatory comments about non-European refugees. For instance, ABC News correspondent Kelly Cobiella said, “These are not refugees from Syria … These are Christians. They’re White. They’re very similar to people who live in Poland.” Many Western countries have responded to the invasion by recovering a shared identity as a political-military alliance guarding civilization. But the concept of Europe as the home of peaceful nations and societies requires willful amnesia about its imperial history.

Willful amnesia

In 2001, political scientist Sankaran Krishna argued that the emergence of the modern sovereign state system in Europe was made possible through the enslavement of Africans, colonization and genocides of Indigenous people. He further argued that too many scholars, instead of engaging with this history, studied international relations in a way “predicated on a systematic forgetting, a willful amnesia, on the question of race.” By willful amnesia, he meant the process by which historical events such as wars and atrocities are treated as distant parts of Europe’s past — something that only happens today in the Global South, unrelated to Europe’s past interventions.

Observers speak and write about the conflict in Ukraine in clear examples of willful amnesia. Some prominent figures describe the invasion as a “shock,” as if war on the European continent were a total abnormality. But the idea that Europe has been peaceful since 1945 requires ignoring significant parts of European history, such as the Kosovo War, or the 1992-1995 genocide of Bosnian Muslims, or the ongoing violence at European borders.

When observers talk about White Ukrainian refugees as people who look like “us” — and therefore different from the millions of Syrians who fled to Europe since their civil war began in 2011 — that suggests that a race-based perception of who counts as “civilized” also shapes who is deemed to have the right to flee violence and deserve peace.

For example, many Black African students fleeing Ukraine had reportedly been turned away or put at the end of the line while White Ukrainian refugees have been quickly taken in. That’s a stark reminder that color-coded boundaries around humanity persist in the West.

Check out TMC’s coverage of the Russia and Ukraine crisis in our new topic guide: Russia and its neighbors

Recovering the West

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine confirms Western allies’ worries that the rise of non-Western, non-liberal powers threatens post-1945 rules and institutions of global politics. The invasion has prompted those allies to recommit themselves to their collective institutions. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Ukraine is “one of us and we want them in the European Union.” President Biden’s statement on the invasion noted that his administration would work with the U.S.’s Group of Seven counterparts and NATO allies.

In “A World Safe for Democracy,” political scientist G. John Ikenberry argued that the post-Cold War, rules-based international order faced some key problems. Primarily, the West tried too hard to transform the rest of the world into its vision of liberal democracies. Such transformation was pursued both through nonviolent means, adding human rights conditions to trade deals and development aid, and violently in “democracy-promotion” wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. His proposed solution: The West should stop trying to remake the world in its image and focus on cooperation among liberal democratic countries.

In a way, the war on Ukraine opened an opportunity for NATO allies to perform unity in standing against aggression and speaking up for peace. This includes European countries’ unprecedented mobilization to sanction Russia and to aid Ukraine and new countries considering NATO membership. But NATO’s unifying Ukraine moment is narrow in its West-centric scope. In line with Ikenberry’s vision, the West projects itself as a force for peace to defend the domain of liberal democracies.

This approach overlooks two political-historical dynamics. At work is willful amnesia, which forgets how Europe has been engaged in violence, past and present, in parts of the world that fall outside the protected Western domains. It does not also acknowledge the visions of the Global South for a global politics free from imperial aggression broadly.

For instance, in his Feb. 21 speech to the U.N. Security Council, Kenyan Ambassador Martin Kimani called on Russia to abandon imperial nostalgia. He pointed to the idea of an international order built around a common humanity that protects all from imperial expansionism, aggression and nuclear catastrophe.

Russia believes tanks trump international law. Smaller countries like Kenya are using the UN to push back.

The West rediscovers nukes

Putin’s announcement that he had ordered his nuclear forces into “special combat readiness” shocked many in the United States and Europe. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations lamented “another escalatory and unnecessary step that threatens us all.” In reality, however, the threat of nuclear annihilation has always been with us.

Many vulnerable communities in the West and populations in the Global South have already encountered nuclear harm. Since 1945, nuclear powers have detonated more than 2,000 nuclear devices. Between 1946 and 1958 alone, the United States detonated 67 nuclear and thermonuclear bombs in the Marshall Islands, then a U.S. trust territory.

As historians Merze Tate and Doris Hull showed in 1964, throughout the 1950s, the Marshallese unsuccessfully petitioned the U.N. Trusteeship Council to have the United States halt the nuclear tests, which violated the U.N. Charter and the Trusteeship Agreement. The United States, the United Kingdom, France, the Soviet Union and China continued to detonate nuclear bombs on the far reaches of their military empires and domestic landmasses, away from their “civilized” citizens.

In fact, the Global South engaged in decades of anti-nuclear activism. The 1955 Bandung Conference called for dismantling nuclear arsenals — so did the 1958 First Conference of Independent African States. When France detonated a nuclear weapons bomb in Algeria in 1960, Ghana’s president, Kwame Nkrumah, froze French assets and suspended diplomatic ties. Political scientist Robbie Shilliam has documented how Indigenous people pioneered efforts for a nuclear-free Pacific.

Yet Western uneasiness with Putin’s nuclear arsenal three decades after the Cold War ended ignores the fact that populations in the Global South actually endured nuclear fallouts many times over and consistently called for nuclear disarmament.

Responding to Russia’s aggression on Ukraine as an attack on Western civilization might have provided a pretext for the West to act in unity for self-preservation. But asserting that the West is acting righteously willfully ignores the history of those who have endured Western violence and its imperial order and their ideas for nonviolent global politics.

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Elif Kalaycioglu (@elifkalay ) is assistant professor of political science at the University of Alabama. The opinions expressed in this article are her own and do not represent the position of her employer.

Lina Benabdallah (@Lbenabdallah) is assistant professor of politics and international affairs at Wake Forest University.

Oumar Ba (@OumarKBa) is assistant professor of international relations at Cornell University.

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