To end all wars
In today's nuclear age we won't survive another world war, so we need to address the deeper causes of such conflicts before it's too late.
A new war has begun, this time between Russia and Ukraine. At this point it’s not clear how long it will last and whether the fighting will stay within Ukraine or spread beyond its borders. Obviously the best case scenario would be a peace deal brokered immediately, before more lives are lost. The worst case scenario would involve Russia and the West engaging in direct conflict and detonating some number of the thousands of nukes they have pointed at each other, as the New York Times reminded us on the first day of fighting:
Putin warned other countries that interfering with the invasion would bring about “such consequences as you have never before experienced in your history.” Some analysts wondered whether that line amounted to a threat to use nuclear weapons.
Since then, Putin has put his nuclear forces on high alert.
Anyone who’s ever imagined what a nuclear war might look like (and the “nuclear winter” that could follow it), should be praying this blaze doesn’t spread. Now is not the time to be pushing our leaders to take up arms — we shouldn’t be feeding the flames but doing everything we can to contain them.
And if we do survive this episode, we’ll still be living in a world on the brink of war — a world where there’s deep distrust between world powers armed to the teeth and vying for global hegemony, and a world where discussions of civil war are becoming ever more regular. It seems love for our neighbors is in short supply.
But a question that’s rarely, if ever, asked is, How can we create a lasting peace? How can we create a world without war?
At the end of World War I, officials in the Austrian and German governments asked this question of the Austrian spiritual philosopher Rudolf Steiner. His response cut to the heart of the matter, and the proposal he made a century ago is still the best, and probably only, chance we have to sharply curtail hostilities today. But to understand his response, first we have to look more closely at the causes of war, including some of the causes of the current conflict in Ukraine.
Of course there are many causes of war. It’s likely that greed or the pure desire for power lie hidden in the hearts of most leaders who send their troops to battle, but, nonetheless, they can’t justify war in those terms. They can’t rally their citizens with claims that war will enrich them — that they’ll sell more arms, or that it will open up new markets for their products. To justify a war, there has to be some moral reason for it — some Good that one’s trying to protect, or some Evil that one’s trying to destroy.
The Good that’s most often being fought for is simply one’s own culture, one’s way of life; and the Evil that’s being fought against is the “other,” the foreigner, those who in some way threaten one’s identity. It’s what’s often called tribalism, nationalism, or ethnic strife that fuels almost all conflicts in one way or another.
Because the reality is that we live in a world packed with different ethnic groups, different nations. The word “nation,” itself, comes from the Latin root nat, which means to be born (think “native” or “nativity”) — so it signifies a group of people with a shared origin and lineage. It’s a kind of extended family — a solidarity that encompasses all those who look, act, and speak like us… and excludes everyone else.
Of course we can, and often do, live in peace with neighbors who are radically different than us. But problems arise when all of a sudden we feel our basic identity under threat. When that occurs, what then will stop the violence? You can say, “You are all Rwandan, it should not matter if you’re Tutsi or Hutu…” or “You’re all Iraqi, regardless of whether you’re Sunni or Shia…” or “You’re all Indian, it doesn’t matter if you’re Hindu or Muslim.” But it does. Our ethnic-cultural identities are strong, they give our lives meaning. And so, from one day to the next, neighbors who lived together for generations can turn on one another.
Perhaps you don’t feel so tied to your own ethnic culture, but how would you act if you thought your life, or your family’s lives were in danger? If, for instance, violence erupted in the streets between the most racialized factions in your country, would you worry that someone with a different skin color might attack you?
And nationalism isn’t just the cause of ethnic feuds in far off countries, it’s also one of the main reasons for the rapid rise of authoritarianism across the globe in recent decades. Living in uncertain times, we’re often willing to permit a tyrant to take over, as long as it’s our group’s tyrant.
It is, of course, entirely understandable that people would want to protect their culture and way of life. But we should beware: ethnic identity is always in danger of becoming ethnic pride — a hot-headed chauvinism, a hawkish nationalism.
Examples of ethnic conflict are all around us — in China, Myanmar, Israel-Palestine, Ethiopia, there’s even concerns that Bosnia might relapse into civil war; the list goes on and on. And we can see it clearly in Putin’s justification for invading Ukraine: he has claimed the Ukrainian army is committing genocide against the roughly 1/3 of the country who speak Russian, and that separatists in the east have asked for his protection. In Putin’s mind, such Russian-speakers are part of a larger “Russian world” that’s constantly under threat from the West. As the New York Times reported just before the war began, “In (Putin’s) telling, (the “Russian world”) is a sphere of influence rooted in ethnicity — an ethnicity that faces continuing threats of genocide.”
Such ethnic strife within Ukraine is not entirely Putin’s invention. For decades there have been tensions between Russian-speakers and Ukrainian-speakers, even just around the question of language itself. The Ukrainian language was decreed the official state language in the 1996 constitution but, by 2004, Ukrainian officials felt that the Russian language was overwhelming the country, especially in the media, and so Borys Kholod, then-head of the television and radio council, ordered all national news media to broadcast in Ukrainian:
“The issue of the Ukrainian language in society and in our independent country is today a very serious problem, not only for television and radio but for all the mass media, including publishing.”
…Schevchenko, of the television and radio council, says Ukraine faces the prospect of Russian superseding Ukrainian: “Our working group that collected data has identified a situation whereby Ukraine is becoming a unique country in Europe because it is losing its own language, which is being squeezed out by the official language of another country.”
But the battle over which language should be used in public life — which language would be spoken in schools, businesses, and courts of law — was in no way settled by the changes made in 2004. The tensions continued.
In 2012 a new controversial law was passed that allowed regional and local governments to grant official status to minority languages, including Russian, as long as they’re spoken by at least 10 percent of their population. The drafting of that law led to fistfights in parliament.
In 2018 Ukraine’s Constitutional Court ruled the 2012 law unconstitutional, paving the way for a new state language law in 2019. Then, in January of this year, a new provision to that law concerning print media made “exceptions for certain minority languages, English and official EU languages, but not for Russian. Ukrainian authorities justify this by referring to the country’s European ambitions and ‘the century of oppression of… Ukrainian in favor of Russian.’”
It’s clear that the struggle over the very language people speak won’t just be quietly laid to rest.
Living in a world with different ethnic cultures, each wanting to preserve its autonomy and fearful of the others, the prospects for peace look dim. It seems the only way to ensure our group’s survival is to become “king of the hill” — at the global level, as well as within our own countries and neighborhoods. But this struggle for dominion is not inevitable and is actually largely due to the way we’ve formed society.
The structure of modern societies seems to make sense when you look at some of the most elementary forms of human community. For instance, in many parts of the world, we’ve evolved from small ethnic tribes, each with their own basic form of governance and internal economy. So it’s understandable that over time we simply scaled things up by forming political states based on those same ethnic nationalities (what we call “nation-states”), each with their own national economy. It seems natural to keep the cultural, political, and economic dimensions of life fused into one. Except it isn’t natural. It’s lazy.
Because today’s reality is that those who live in the same political state don’t belong to the same nationality. As much as the French government might wish Muslim immigrants to integrate into their “secular society” (and that Muslim women would discard their hijabs), it’s obviously not true that, as then-French president Nicolas Sarkozy said in 2016, “As soon as you become French, your ancestors are the Gauls.”
Just because we live in the same state doesn’t mean we share the same lineage or language. We all have different stories, beliefs, and traditions. And this is ok. Just because we live next to each other, doesn’t mean we have to be the same.
The problem is that we’ve let the state become a battleground for our belief systems. We’ve let the culture wars spill into the halls of congress and parliament, tarnish our laws, and trouble the scales that should only weigh questions of equality — what’s the same for everyone, regardless of class, color, or creed; Lady Justice is meant to be blind to difference. What beliefs we hold, what identities we express and languages we speak, is not the purview of politicians, but of our own conscience.
Which brings us back to Rudolf Steiner’s response to the question of how to create a lasting peace. At the end of World War I, Woodrow Wilson championed the idea of the “self-determination of nations” — that every nation should become its own state, that the two should everywhere be bound together. This was a useful way to break up enemy territories (Austria-Hungary, for instance, was the second largest country in Europe and had at least 13 major nationalities within its borders), but of course it didn’t apply to the Allied powers themselves (England, for instance, didn’t give up Scotland, Wales, or Ireland, nor did any of the Allies walk away from a single one of their colonies).
Though the idea of national self-determination sounds beautiful in theory, it’s impossible in practice because nationality is fluid. People move, and they bring their ethnicity with them. A 1918 map of Austria-Hungary doesn’t show 13 easily definable ethnic areas, it shows 13 ethnic groups spread out in clumps all across the country. And if you were to microscope down into any one area of predominantly Hungarian or Romanian or Slovak people, you would of course find whole towns and villages of other nationalities.
Steiner grew up in Austria-Hungary and knew the solution wasn’t to artificially separate the different ethnic nations, but instead to separate nation and state. Let people observe their own culture wherever they are, in whatever state they live in, and never give cultural questions any quarter in the deliberations of government.
This can be hard to grasp at first because it’s so radical in its implications. And that’s understandable: it took millennia for humanity to recognize the need to separate church and state, whereas now it’s obvious — whenever the government establishes or prohibits a religion, it puts its finger on the scale in favor of one or the other.
It’s the same with ethnicity — with all of culture. We’ve separated church and state, but now we need to separate culture and state. Because when the government supports some news organizations, it tips the scales. When it supports some artistic, scientific, or medical practices, it tips the scales. When it supports some schools and even decides the curriculum they teach (the history our children learn, and the languages they speak), it knocks the scales clean off the table. It favors certain cultural expressions, certain thoughts and beliefs, over others. And by doing so, it oversteps its role and trespasses on the sacred ground where only the individual conscience should tread.
Of course, if the government favors your views, then you might not care. You might even cheer them on if they go after “alternative” medicines you think are bogus, or if they lean on social media giants to ban anyone who questions the scientific “consensus.” You might be glad if they censor critical race theory from the schools (or you might be glad if they require teachers to teach it). We’re so used to crying out for the government to outlaw anything we don’t like that we don’t realize it’s not their role to referee cultural disputes, and that we’re only escalating and embittering the culture wars by doing so.
The fact that we have different cultures is not something to lament but to celebrate. Cultures give our lives meaning — they should be as lively, creative, and vital as possible. People should be able to read, write, practice, and teach whatever they feel called to. But that’s not the world we live in. Instead we live in a world where everyone’s taken up battle stations, afraid their very identities will be destroyed.
It’s time to lay down our weapons, and the first of these must be the state. If we allow the state to be identified with any one nationality, if we allow it to take up questions of culture and to favor one group over another, then there will be no end to the bloodshed. Instead, we need to make it impossible for one group to wield political power against another by ensuring complete sovereignty of the individual in their own national and cultural self-determination.
This, of course, will in no way end all disagreements and conflicts. But it will take away the most significant justification politicians have for waging war, and it will force people with different worldviews to engage in the only kind of battle appropriate in the realm of culture — the battle of ideas. And maybe, in time, we’ll become a little less battle-scarred and weary. Maybe we’ll find new energy, new creativity pulsing through our cultures, a new spiritual enthusiasm to enliven our lives. And maybe, in time, we’ll be able to transform the battle of ideas into an actual conversation.
POSTSCRIPT: Some people might still have the question, “But what about the ways that money still twists everything? — Even if Ukrainian newspapers and TV shows could broadcast in any language they liked, free of state censorship, wouldn’t rich business people just pour their money into the media and try to overwhelm the country with one language or another?” They likely would, and in both Russia and Ukraine there is a kind of delicate balance between the state and the wealthy oligarchs who run the economy. Though we don’t use that term to refer to billionaires in the West, it’s no different here. We don’t have state-controlled media outlets, but big monied interests certainly have an outsized influence on journalism, education, medicine, and every other cultural field. This is one reason that Steiner also proposed separating the economy from both the nation and the state (another reason being that economic activity has simply outgrown the state — it’s a global affair). Culture needs to be independent and self-determining — our evolution absolutely depends on it — so it needs to be free from both government and economic interests.
This threefold articulation of society is known as “social threefolding.” If you want to understand these insights better, you could pick up a book by Steiner (I’d recommend Towards Social Renewal), and subscribe for free to keep reading articles at The Whole Social.