Multipolar dispute: between old mistakes and new uncertainties (Part II)


Irene López | Marta Cazorla

Jun, 2023
“Only the dead have seen the end of the war”, said Plato in Menexenus. More than 20 centuries have passed since then and, undeniably, war seems to be an eternal, inextinguishable problem, threatening to rear its ugly head even in civilised Europe, in a post-heroic era we thought was strained by terrorism and so-called hybrid wars but free of the kind of conflicts so typical of the 20th century. The Russian-Ukrainian war, however, is more classic than hybrid, with widespread recruitment and troop mobilisation, and something we were even more unaccustomed to seeing: soldiers and victims with pale complexions and fair hair.

The reappearance of the old spectre of war in the heart of continental Europe brought astonishment but also—first and foremost—a surprising enthusiasm for war. A seeming “blood-craziness” [1][1] Glover, Jonathan, Humanidad e inhumanidad, Una historia moral del siglo XX [Humanity and Inhumanity, A Moral History of the 20th Century], Cátedra, Madrid, 2013., undisguised by rulers and analysts alike, who appeared to find something aesthetic (or at least epic) in war. A sort of sensationalism that could very well be described as necrophilia because, as Chris Hedges said, war in itself is necrophiliac [2][2] Murder Is Not an Anomaly in War, Chris Hedges. Truthdig, 19/3/2012. Available here:

However, this initial militaristic exaltation, which flooded the media and official discourse during the onset months of the conflict, was followed by another equally (if not more) worrying phenomenon: the trivialisation of war in general, but especially of a nuclear threat. This trivialisation was evident in a multitude of articles published in the mainstream media, entitled “What happens when a nuclear bomb explodes?” [3][3] Qué pasa cuando explota una bomba nuclear [What happens when a nuclear bomb explodes], Antonio Nieto. El País, 7/11/2022. Available here:, “What would the consequences of a nuclear attack be?” [4][4] ¿Cómo serían las consecuencias de un ataque nuclear? Te lo contamos con un “timeline” de los primeros momentos tras el estallido [What would the consequences of a nuclear attack be like? We tell you with a timeline of the first moments after the blast], 20 minutos. 24/10/2022. Available here: and “What would your chances of getting a place in a nuclear shelter be?” [5][5] “When you hear the four-minute warning”… Whatever happened to Britain’s nuclear bunkers?, Amelia Tatit, The Guardian, 24/11/2022. Available here:, etc.

Photo_ Manhhai_ CC BY 2.0

Timelines reproducing “what the initial aftermath of a blast would be like”, computer applications simulating the extent of the fireball that would engulf Europe if the bomb detonated over Kyiv or 3D reproductions of the radius of the “mushroom cloud”, with which anyone could see on the map whether their home city would disappear entirely or whether they would be lucky and only feel the “collateral” damage of a nuclear war. We should ask ourselves whether these simulations, all of them more typical of virtual reality than of journalistic dissemination, have contributed towards creating a healthy awareness among the population about the catastrophic consequences of nuclear weapons; or whether, on the contrary, they have played down a grave issue, handling it like science fiction content, or like the special effects of a videogame. As war psychology already warned, the sensation of unreality causes a desensitisation of sympathy [6][6] Alexievich, Svetlana, Zinky boys: Soviet voices from a forgotten war, Chatto & Windus, 1992., or the neutralisation and annulment of all moral principles, which, based on respect for human dignity, protect people from barbaric treatment. Or indifference in the face of atrocities.

In any case, what seems clear is that the normalisation of this type of headline in a leading newspaper speaks rather badly of our current situation. With global citizenry, on the one hand, reaccustomed to coverage of overrun cities and bombed civilian targets; and with a media that has progressively moved this type of news downwards, on the other, while readers stopped clicking on the news because they had accepted that there is a war in Europe and that this time, the refugees have pale skin and fair hair.

Whether by handling it as science fiction content, or through sensationalism, the media has contributed to the simultaneous normalization and trivialization of the nuclear threat.

In their article Abolishing Geopolitics and Building a World Without State Violence, Ray Acheson states, “Mainstream media and political pundits speak of ‘tactical’ nuclear weapons or ‘second strike capabilities’ as abstract concepts that have nothing to do with wiping people out or the melting of their flesh” [7][7] Acheson, Ray. Abolishing Geopolitics and Building a World Without State Violence, Metapolis V3N2, September 2022..

“Every single bomb is designed to melt flesh, burn cities, decimate plants and animals, and unleash radioactive poison that lasts for generations. Even the use of one of these weapons would be disastrous”, they write in this issue to explain that the devastating consequences of nuclear weapons have nothing to do with the game of soldiers that the media insist on presenting to us, whitewashing war with technostrategic and patriarchal language and adding a dangerous “grain of sand to the long historical narrative of normalising war” [8][8] Idem..

Acheson also discusses the “natural death” of the US empire and the “zombification” of the Russian Federation, the worldwide nuclear famine and winter if only 1% of the global nuclear arsenal were activated, and the need to progress from the nation-state (an eminently colonial form) to “communities of care” that provide real answers for the survival of humanity.

Our times are times of unprecedented acceleration of war and warmongering, breaking all the geopolitical taboos and barriers we thought to be firmly in place. The US president seems to have forgotten the blunt words he uttered just ten months ago when he cautioned that sending offensive weapons—tanks, he said—was synonymous with World War III. “Don’t be fooled,” he told journalists from his lectern, with a clarity that sends shivers down the spine at this stage of what is not a movie, although not far from it.

Unfortunately, Europe’s trajectory was no different. Germany, so reluctant to get into public debt in recent years, amended its constitution to allow it to spend 100 billion euros on rearmament, increasing its defence spending to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) target of 2 per cent, known as the “Zeitenwende” or “change of era”. This represents the country’s foreign and security policy shift, unprecedented since the Second World War. A break with one of the historical premises of European construction and the post-war Atlantic alliance («Americans in, Germans down, Soviets out»: this is how NATO’s first Secretary General summed up its purpose) [9][9] La escalada: peligros de la guerra en Europa [The escalation: dangers of war in Europe], Pablo Bustinduy. Diario Público, 01/03/2022. Available here: If, after the fall of the Wall thirty years ago, someone had told any passer-by on the streets of Berlin that German tanks would set foot on Ukrainian soil again, no one would have believed it.

This is the latest in a series of steps Axel Ruppert recounts in his article on the EU’s controversial “geopolitical awakening”, A geopolitical European Union to what end? Ruppert points to two crucial mechanisms within EU’s increasing militarisation: on the one hand, Permanent Structured Cooperation, which seeks to integrate Europe into the lucrative business of the international military-industrial complex; and on the other, the establishment of the European Peace Facility (EPF). This instrument, he argues, “turns the EU into a weapons dealer, as it funds the delivery of military equipment, including ammunition and lethal weapons, to states already facing tension or internal conflicts. Since deliveries of that kind cannot be funded via the EU budget, the EPF is an off-budget instrument financed directly by the member states. As such, it evades parliamentary scrutiny at national and European levels” [10][10] Ruppert, Axel, A geopolitical European Union to what end?, Metapolis V3N2, November 2022..

The Russo-Ukrainian war is more classic in nature than it is hybrid, with widespread conscription and mobilization, and something we were even less accustomed to seeing: soldiers and victims with white skin and fair hair.

The paradigm shift towards militarisation and hard power in the EU’s geopolitical strategy, which began long before the war in Ukraine, did not achieve its goal of providing more security within and beyond its borders, nor guaranteeing more autonomy for the region in an increasingly multipolar world. Ruppert argues for a collective security approach that opposes current war-like security policies and structures based on a neo-colonial backyard policy.

Furthermore, it is one of the EU institutions, the European Parliament, from where Idoia Villanueva argues that “demilitarisation and denuclearisation are strategic interests for Europe and the world”. In her article A more multipolar but not more democratic international scenario: the geopolitical (dis)order of a world in reconfiguration, the MEP also analyses the Russo-Ukrainian war as an unexpected (and undesirable) phenomenon for European partners. For the EU, which depends on Russia for energy but remains a military ally of the United States, the war in Ukraine has created a geopolitical turmoil that makes it, as the author criticises, “fodder for the superpowers”.

In her article, María Lois analyses the geopolitical treatment of movement and borders. In Movement and (in)security: from the politics of surveillance to the politics of compassion, Lois reflects on the narratives and public discourses around movement that inform public opinion and the public and institutional policies that regulate it. The author focuses on the EU’s territorial strategies, especially with the COVID-19 pandemic and the Ukraine crisis and calls for thinking openly about the institutional and non-institutional rhetorics production circuits on mobility.

Following the activation of the Temporary Protection Directive in March 2022, which granted expedited protection for one year to people fleeing the war in Ukraine, Lois analyses the “spectacularisation of certain movements around signifiers and meanings of racialisation, gender, or criminalisable forms of migration as references feeding large-scale policies to identify and control migration” [11][11] Lois, María. Movement and (in)security: from the politics of surveillance to the politics of compassion, Metapolis V3N2, julio de 2022.. And she points to the vast discrepancy between the perception and policy narrative on movement and the data.

In his article, The Geopolitics of Migratory Horror, Jacques Ramírez reflects on migratory flows, which undoubtedly determine and cross current international relations. In this issue, the Ecuadorian researcher challenges the hegemonic view of migration, which “still places migrants in a passive position of victims tied to the structures (‘subjected subjects’), even though reality shows that migrants have increasingly become actors capable of putting globalisation and statehood into question” [12][12] Ramírez, Jacques. The Geopolitics of Migratory Horror, Metapolis V3N2, August 2022.. From a decolonial perspective, the author gives numerous examples of this progressive mobilisation of the migrant community, such as «the migrant caravans of Central Americans and Mexicans that have decided to walk their way through, migrating in broad daylight and without coyotes, thanks to collective care and the protection of their own numbers». In other words, “repertoires of migratory action” that demonstrate that migrants are increasingly less afraid and more capable of self-organising and participating in their host societies.

Foto_ Matthias Ripp_ CC BY 2.0

Finally, in his article Geopolitics and the generative limits of the ungovernable, Rafael Heiber recalls that, after the fall of the Soviet Union, “the ‘end of history’ and the universal triumph of liberalism came hand in hand with the fear of admitting the recovery of a country with the geographic dimensions and nuclear power quite like Russia” [13][13] Heiber, Rafael. Geopolitics and the generative limits of the ungovernable, Metapolis V3N2, December 2022.. This would have given rise to supposed “diplomatic devices” whose real purpose was to contain the Russian expansionary project beyond the borders laid down by the West, leading to the present situation in which the increasingly blurred barriers between war and peace generate “a feeling of permanent vulnerability” [14][14] Ibid.. In today’s turbulent times, we are learning to coexist with “exceptional is the new normal”, which we discussed in the previous issue of this volume.

Heiber also addresses the influence of technology on both ongoing warfare and contemporary life in general, pointing out that, in the face of “a hypothetical murder with a firearm, the responsibility does not lie solely with the human individual, nor solely with the weapon” [15][15] Ibid., but precisely with the complexity generated between the two (subject and object). In other words, technology is not “bad” per se, but neither is it, by any means, neutral nor devoid of consequences, be they spontaneous, programmed, undesired and/or irreversible.

If thirty years ago, after the fall of the Wall, someone had told any random bystander in the streets of Berlin that German tanks would ever again set foot on Ukrainian soil, no one would have believed it.

The outgoing world order leaves us on the brink of total war, with defense spending in Central and Western Europe already exceeding that of the last year of the Cold War.

While the paradox of the invention of the ship makes the shipwreck possible serves to explain Heiber’s perspective, the Russian-Ukrainian war and the current geopolitical conjuncture remind us of another classic paradox: War makes states and states make war. As Charles Tilly pointed out, war activity has historically contributed to the emergence of the state as a political form (and the creation of new states on the map), but the state as a coercive apparatus has also generated a form of conflict leading to total war, as seen in the First and Second World Wars.

In the face of that threat, Central and Western Europe’s defence spending has already exceeded that of the last year of the Cold War [16][16] “World military expenditure reaches new record high as European spending surges”, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), 24/04/2023. Available here:, and there is a seemingly outgoing world order with new uncertainties that seems to have learned little from old mistakes.

One of these is undoubtedly the underestimation of the war dividend. If war seems like an eternal, never-ending scourge—as we said at the beginning of this article—it is undoubtedly because some want it to be so. We must not lose sight of the fact that there are economic interests and perverse incentives behind any armed conflict and actors who behave like the ridiculous Princess of Bormes in Jean Cocteau’s play. That character from Thomas, the impostor who watched with concern as the field hospitals emptied, as it meant it was beginning to lack “the wounded it needs to maintain its place in the war”.

Thus, against those who want to profit from the wounded and sick by trading in their cure, against those who want the suffering of others to become chronic, against the “dogmatists of nuclear deterrence” who, as Acheson pointed out in their article, are leading us to the brink of catastrophe… this issue of Metapolis aims to offer ideas, alternatives and hopes that will help articulate the necessary political contestation to the current world order.

Examples of this are Jacques Ramírez’s proposal to move towards universal citizenship that deterritorialises human rights or achieve a paradigm of global justice based on recognising the historical asymmetries and inequalities between countries; or the concept of “Heimat” that Rafael Heiber recovers in his article, understood not only as “soil” or “earth”, but as interpreted first by German Romantic writers, and more recently by the sociologist Bruno Latour: “Heimat is about the landscape that left its mark on you, the culture that informed you and the people that inspired you when you were growing up” [17][17] Why the World Should Learn to Say “Heimat” Jochen Bittner. The New York Times, 28 February 2018. Available here: In other words, a new notion of home, common ground, and a feeling of belonging. A “mildest form of patriotism” that does not contradict the universal citizenship discussed above because it refers precisely to a “global homeland” where all people can feel at home.