November 4, 2023

The moment Hamas carried out its heinous terror attacks against Israel, the war in Gaza was instantly globalised, reverberating in the hearts and minds of people oceans away who were neither Israeli nor Gazan. Millions on social media picked a side, proudly displaying their solidarity flags and condemning their opponents as either evil terrorists or genocidal oppressors. Both foreign states and populations assumed reflexive positions, railing against antisemitism or settler-colonialism and identifying with the “victims” in a Manichaean struggle that cares little for historical context, nuance or open debate. They became virtual participants in the conflict, as if their own lives and futures depended on it, cancelling and dehumanising their oppositional other just as the most extreme Hamasi Islamist or Israeli Zionist would do.

The entire episode parallels the global reaction to the Ukraine war, in which solidarity with Ukraine as a victim of foreign aggression or empathy with Russia as a victim of Western hegemonic overreach divided the world. Some might view this phenomenon as a hallmark of human compassion and care — the result of greater awareness of human suffering owing to the power of modern technology. Still, there are numerous examples of brutal conflicts and atrocities that do not capture international public and governmental attention and thus remain local and ultimately ignored.

Judging by history, this global internalisation of distant wars by outsiders is a highly unusual, and rather pathological, development. It happens when both the ruling classes and the civilian populations across the world begin to perceive a far-off external conflict in existential terms and put themselves at the centre of it as a messianic protagonist. The question is: why?

On the one hand, the Ukraine and Gaza wars are distinctively modern — both because of the sheer magnitude of destruction and because they are conflicts of nationalism, a contemporary ideology that links the future of peoples to states. On the other hand, the global milieu within which they take place is one of a profound crisis of meaning and legitimacy exacerbated by the identitarian turn taken by both the Left and the Right since the Sixties, and the complete politicisation of all aspects of life in late or hyper- modernity.

In today’s globalised world, identity-based existence, muddying the boundaries between the political and the personal, has become a poor man’s substitute for the deep-rooted and embodied meaning that was previously derived from communal, traditional life and held in common within a culture. Stemming from an external locus of control, all modern identities thus reflect what Nietzsche called an inherent “ressentimental” drive and are constructed around overcoming the systemic oppression of an abstract and highly symbolic “us” by a privileged “them” that is subsequently cast as evil.

In this metaphysical account, being downtrodden is morally superior. Privilege and power are inherently evil. And one can become righteous by projecting oneness or identity with the virtuous victim. In both Israel and Ukraine, we can see how this ontological, if tragic, struggle for coherence within the modern self through self-identification with the “disempowered” is carried over into the realm of global geopolitics.

Regardless of the actual historical context of the globalized conflicts and the ostensible animosity between the partisans of the two sides, the underlying motivation for the opposite sides of these seemingly binary and zero-sum conflicts (who don’t actually experience the war and its violence) is a contestation over oppression and a struggle to determine the “virtuous” victim.  In other words, real wars over land, resources, and survival are co-opted by the rest of the world and transformed into wars of victimhood with which they can intrinsically relate. War thus becomes therapeutic and is turned inward as yet another means for identity formation in one’s internal quest for social identity.

For the civilian populations living abroad, therefore, these faraway conflicts are more than mere distractions: they are an opportunity for catharsis. They offer the fleeting possibility of escaping the existential angst of an atomised life lived under the automatism of modernity, and for feeling a sense of unity, purity and spiritual community forged in the virtual fires of war — all from the safety and comfort of their digital devices. As Ernst Jünger wrote in an often-overlooked monograph War as an Inner Experience, “action in itself is nothing, conviction is everything” — and the lost mimetic souls of hypermodernity epitomise it.

But not only are these wars co-opted by the global masses seeking transcendence; they are also simultaneously internalised and instrumentalised by the establishments in foreign countries to buttress and justify their political regimes. Where civilian populations’ ontological insecurity stems from an essential need for meaning and permanence, the ruling classes suffer from an additional insecurity that is rooted in the need to legitimise their power (even to themselves) in a world where all institutional authority is increasingly doubted.

Modern statehood is predicated on political regimes, all of which, whether we are conscious of this or not, legitimise themselves according to modern ideologies that claim to be liberating and righteous. Even as modern universalist ideologies such as liberalism and Islamism dismiss each other as tyrannical and unjust, both these state ideologies, in different ways, profess to transform the world for the better by eliminating oppression as such.

Within the framework offered by globalised social justice, modern entities such as Ukraine, Israel and Palestine are removed from their concrete territorial contexts and transformed into pet projects and ideological proxies by different foreign actors. Ukraine thus becomes existential to the United States, even though the fate of Ukraine will never have a decisive impact on America’s national interest or the collective interest of Americans. Israel’s cause, meanwhile, is forever identified with the post-war liberal international order and the triumph over National Socialism: our commitment to it must thus remain sacrosanct and unwavering. Because the North Atlantic establishment essentialises liberal internationalism as part of its institutional identity, both Ukraine and Israel become places where Western political leaders can fight against the disintegration of the liberal order and hence baptise themselves in the cathartic waters of foreign wars.

Similarly, to the vanguard of the Islamic Republic in Iran backing Hezbollah (or the Muslim Brotherhood revolutionaries backing Hamas), “Palestine” has for years symbolised what Ukraine now represents to the Atlanticist elites in the West: the physical embodiment of a world-transforming “cause” and the symbol for a self-righteous ideology animated by eliminating suffering, imperialism and exploitation. In both cases, the ideological proxies become the scene for a Last Judgement, a Rapture based on a highly religious framing about innocence and transgression, purity and stain. Each ruling class sees displaying solidarity and support — whether for Ukraine and Israel or Palestine — as a test for moral purity, and victory takes on an existential and millenarian meaning, signalling the final unveiling of history to justice and salvation.

None of this is meant to discount the fact that there are genuine geopolitical causes behind these conflicts, but to emphasise that, when it comes to their globalised nature, often ontological insecurity and ideology drive foreign powers’ geopolitical interest in that region in the first place. Just as the Palestinian cause serves as a lever for Iranian influence within an Arab world steeped in post-colonial trauma and paranoia, the historical trauma many Central and Eastern Europeans experienced under Russian communism makes them understandably anxious about Russian aggression and eager to join the Western camp. Nevertheless, for the major powers outside these regions, interjection in conflicts abroad is not simply a cold calculus in realpolitik, but an opportunity to bolster their legitimacy by siding with the state or cause which serves as their ideological proxy.

Together, the civilian and political drivers that motivate the global internalisation of local wars explain the strange phenomenon already perceived by George Orwell in the 20th century as “transferred nationalism”: “Transferred nationalism, like the use of scapegoats, is a way of attaining salvation without altering one’s conduct.” Transference allows one to be “much more nationalistic than he could ever be on behalf of his native country” and gain moral capital and social prestige while doing so.

Despite the protestations from the dissident Right and the anti-war Left, Ukraine is the paradigmatic example of this; consider the overwhelming consensus between the ruling class and its civilian base in the universities, media and the professional-managerial class as to the identity of the virtuous downtrodden (hint: it wasn’t the Russians), and how this consensus mirrored by European capitals galvanized the West behind Ukraine. Yet these exercises in generating ersatz nationalism for the political regime are not always seamless, and can quickly turn toxic and corrosive.

As seen with the Israeli-Gaza conflict already, trouble arises when a regime’s establishment and its sources of civilian support find themselves on the different ends of the oppression narrative spectrum. The current rift between the Biden administration’s unquestionable support for Israel as the victim of terrorism and a large section of the Democratic base condemning what they call the “Palestinian genocide” is a clear indication that they fundamentally disagree on the identity of the “virtuous victim” here. A similar dynamic can be observed in Britain’s Labour Party. In this way, internalisation of foreign wars can become a source of political instability and domestic strife.

Moreover, not only could such internalisation of wars abroad be a source of social discord, but the public and political fixation on them could motivate more than virtual engagement — resulting in physical intervention in distant conflicts that could possibly escalate them into real regional and even world wars, not to mention completely warp the national interests and security priorities of the intervening power. After all, ideology and fanaticism resent rapprochement and diplomacy.

In one of his final commentaries before he died in September, Christopher Coker, the international theorist and scholar of war, wrote: “the existential dimension [of war] is no less important [than its political side] for it also involves power, or more correctly perhaps, the empowerment, both material and spiritual, of those who do the actual fighting.” To this we must add: “and also the desire for empowerment by those who don’t do any of the actual fighting — but who nonetheless live vicariously through it.”