by Peter Franklin
Monday, 28
February 2022
Response
14:15

Why the West cares more about Ukraine

Our shared cultural identity is a legitimate factor
by Peter Franklin
Protestors in New York, USA. Credit: Getty

Why do we care so much about the invasion of Ukraine — and not, say, the current conflict in Ethiopia? That too involves violence against civilians, so why aren’t western capitals thronged with marchers for Tigray? 

Does our concern for suffering people stop at the borders of Europe? According to Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Pulitzer-winning journalist, what we think of as our continent is a “geopolitical fiction” and thus the “alarm” over the Ukraine is a “dog whistle to tell us we should care because they are like us”:

The first thing to say is that the situation in Ukraine is special, because one country is being invaded by another country. Almost every other active conflict in the world today is taking place within — not between — sovereign states. Furthermore, this is happening right on the borders of NATO (and the EU). It is thus of urgent relevance to the nations of the West. The aggressor nation, Russia, has threatened Ukraine’s neighbours with “immediate consequences” if they try to intervene. Yesterday, those warnings literally went nuclear. 

Therefore, I hope the whataboutery brigade will understand if we focus on Ukraine for the moment. After all, it’s not as if we’ve made a habit of it. Over the last thirty years we’ve paid remarkably little attention to the nations of the former Soviet Union. And that’s not because nothing much has happened there — it most certainly has. 

However, western foreign policy has been focused on the Middle East and Afghanistan. In 2012 Mitt Romney was mocked by Barack Obama for saying that Russia was a “geopolitical foe”. Indeed, Obama’s overarching foreign objective was a “Pivot to Asia” — which de-emphasised the trans-Atlantic relationship. The Trump Presidency was marked by overt impatience with America’s European allies and a focus on diplomatic initiatives in the Middle East, and a trade war with China. 

On the geopolitical level, the West has been very far from obsessed with Ukraine. It’s much more accurate to say that we’ve been caught unawares and are desperately trying to catch-up. But can we be accused of cultural chauvinism — of sympathising with the Ukrainians because we believe them to more “like us” than people elsewhere in the world? Perhaps, but it’s entirely natural that we should identify with people with whom we have things in common. Europe is not a mere “geopolitical fiction”. There is a shared culture that stretches back for centuries.

A sense of shared cultural identity impacts our engagement with world news all the time. And it’s not just a limited to ‘European-ness’. For instance, the murder of George Floyd had a massive impact well beyond America. That included the UK, despite our very different police practices.

And yet a “what about?” argument could have been made back then too. The brutalisation of the Uyghurs in China was (and is) taking place on a vastly greater scale, but didn’t get the same attention. Does that mean that Britons were wrong to protest Floyd’s murder? Of course not. Caring about something is more important than caring equally about everything.

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Margaret Tudeau-Clayton
Margaret Tudeau-Clayton
5 months ago

A very striking confirmation of the argument has been furnished by Poland — the nation that a few months ago built a barbed wire wall to keep out refugees from other continents — which has welcomed fleeing Ukranians.

Michael James
Michael James
5 months ago

Poland is acutely aware it may be next on Putin’s list.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
5 months ago

People have been protesting China’s treatment of the Uyghurs. It’s just that many companies in the West have a vested interest in maintaining good ties with China, therefore the media will not criticize them, simply preferring to blame all white people for the world’s miseries as outlined by the perfect example provided by racialist Nikole Hannah-Jones.

Jane Watson
Jane Watson
5 months ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

And China are expert at preventing us gathering evidence of their gross misdeeds are they not? I remember reading an article in my mum’s copy of the Catholic Herald or Universe, can’t remember which, more than 20 years ago. It was about the authorities rounding up and performing late term abortions on women who were ‘illegally’ pregnant with a 2nd child. The details were horrifying, but I never saw it reported in the mainstream.

Richard Gasson
Richard Gasson
5 months ago

I have to say that I find any position that Nikole Hannah Jones very useful, a bit like a political/cultural weathervane. Whatever position she has the opposite one is probably the best one to take

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
5 months ago

This is pointing out the bleedin’ obvious – of course we care more about people in our geographical vicinity, since we’ll be more affected by it. But with the Washington Post putting up an article about our care in the west being racist (link below), it obviously needs saying.
https://www.washingtonpost.com/media/2022/02/27/media-ukraine-offensive-comparisons/
Ridiculous these people applying identity politics endlessly.

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
5 months ago

First off, there’s hardly nothing that comes out of Nikole Hannah-Jones’ mouth that is credible; Her 1619 tale or I should say, ‘slant on history’, has been debunked and corrected numerous times even by its original publisher the NYTimes. A lot of what NHJ states also smacks of her own special kind of racism.
Secondly, why shouldn’t we care more about a European War? It has nothing to do with skin color as much as it does with Europe’s horrific past history. There are still enough older people about who can tell the tales as well as thousands of books on the subject. However, too many young people today, including HNJ herself, who have little or no understanding of the two world wars. Just make simple queries at a dinner party about the topic and that immediately becomes apparent. Crickets & glazed eyes.
Thirdly, It’s getting more than tiresome to hear every topic today framed as ‘racial / racist’. Cry wolf. One begins to block the ears.

Mike Doyle
Mike Doyle
5 months ago

I may simply have a poor memory, but I cannot recall the Ukraine ever being decribed as part of Europe, prior to this conflict. This would not make it untrue; rather, that a narrative is being constructed to ensure our engagement with conflict.

Rob Lothian
Rob Lothian
5 months ago
Reply to  Mike Doyle

I have never heard Ukraine being described geographically as anything other than part of Europe? Which other continent have you seen it being attributed to?

Mike Doyle
Mike Doyle
5 months ago
Reply to  Rob Lothian

I do not believe I had previously heard it described as anything other than a part of the USSR and, subsequently, as an adjunct to Russia.

Frederick B
Frederick B
5 months ago
Reply to  Mike Doyle

Clearly you take inspiration from the late Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, who is alleged to have said on crossing the Elbe “farewell to Europe”.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
5 months ago
Reply to  Mike Doyle

Jeez Mike, your listening sources are very limited. You’ll never see Ukraine described as anything other than part of Europe.

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
5 months ago
Reply to  Mike Doyle

Geographically Europe ends at the Urals. Culturally Russians see themselves as ‘Eurasian’. Their slavic heartland is on an axis from St Petersburg to Kyiv but was fluid during history. The Pechenegs for example dominated much of Ukraine and Cossacks were considered different. Crimea was Tartar and Greek always until Stalin forcibly deported the population in WW2 to perish in the East. What a country!

Judy Englander
Judy Englander
5 months ago
Reply to  Mike Doyle

I suspect you’re confusing Europe with the European Union.

Sean Penley
Sean Penley
5 months ago
Reply to  Mike Doyle

At least in Soviet times, and I’m pretty sure it’s true today, in the southern part of the country Europe was considered to end at the Volga (the mountains were the boundary further north). That was why it was both a moment of terror for the Russians and a moment of almost-triumph for the Germans when they reached Stalingrad. They were on the verge of pushing the Red Army out of Europe (in the south only, the front line was further west up north). Of course that operation was initially just to screen their drive to the oil fields in the Caucasus region, but it would have been quite a morale victory to be able to say that, at least in places, they had conquered to the very edge of Europe.

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
5 months ago

True, Ukrainians are not like Ida Bae.

Frank Freeman
Frank Freeman
5 months ago

It is they way it has been spun by western Governments and Media. The west were hoping Putin would respond to the provocations, and he has duly (and stupidly) obliged. Now they have an excuse to sanction Russia back to the 19th century. Strange how the media ignored Ukrainian attacks on the Donbass, which western government encouraged.
I don’t think it is racism, as many people in the UK don’t know much about the 377,000 deaths in Yemen that have been caused By Saudi bombing with weapons we sold them. Also the Impending famine in Afghanistan has been knocked of the news.

Stephen Magee
Stephen Magee
5 months ago
Reply to  Frank Freeman

Yep – Yeltsin has had the patience of a saint when faced with Western provokatsiya such as the Salisbury poisonings, the invasion and annexation of Crimea, the invasion of Georgia, the imprisonment of political opponents, the kidnapping of critics on international flights …

Fran Martinez
Fran Martinez
5 months ago

It seems to me that the West “caring” more about Ukraine has to do more with the MSM apparatus saying so than any “cultural” issues. If MSM says covid, covid it is. Ukraine, Ukraine it is. Global warming, etc.
I wonder when they are going to talk about all the power grab that governments in the west have carried out during the last 2 years. I guess never …

Margaret Donaldson
Margaret Donaldson
5 months ago

Three more reasons why Europeans care about the invasion of Ukraine. Firstly, they are near enough geographically to be able easily to offer practical and emotional support that may make a difference. (Unlike just grieving over China’s action over Tibet and the Uyghurs.) Secondly, for the first time since the Iron Curtain fell on Europe, Europeans can actively help oppose the totalitarian and toxic legacy of Soviet Communism. Finally, Ukraine and Europe share the same culture and Christian faith so we can relate to them more easily in their struggle against evil. Putin has treated Just War Theory with contempt and ignored the Geneva Convention. He is a bully of the most vicious sort, (remember Navalny and Novichok?) and if the Russians can’t get rid of him, then the West must at least try by supporting Ukraine in whatever way possible short of entering the war ourselves. ‘Finally they came for me. And there was nobody left for me.’ Remember that poem? Just as relevant today as it ever was.

Arnold Grutt
Arnold Grutt
5 months ago

“Finally, Ukraine and Europe share the same culture and Christian faith so we can relate to them more easily in their struggle against evil.”

There is no one ‘Christian Faith’. Orthodox Christianity split with the Roman Catholic Church in 1054 and the Reformation hived off the Protestants. Both divisions remain to this day. This determination to erase or smooth over these conflicts (let alone ignoring ‘atheism’ and ‘humanism’ altogether) does not help, and implies all sorts of ‘unities’ and ‘relationships’ which are completely fictitious.

Last edited 5 months ago by Arnold Grutt
Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
5 months ago

If Ukrainian refugees enter America, are they going to find it amusing when they encounter folk reminding them of their so-called white privilege?

Is it only from multicultural Western countries where concern about Ukraine consuming the West’s attention is affected? Might well be. Wouldn’t you know!

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
5 months ago

Just to add, in case some Americans do not look at maps, and at the countries near Ukraine, Europe itself is a huge chunk of the West, of Western Civilisation. Even if at EU level, the leading personalities only mention Europe or “the European way of life”. For some of them, it seems, mere mention of “the West”, let alone “Western Civilisation”, is anathema.

James Chater
James Chater
5 months ago

Everything about it is so grossly unjust and brutal. Thankfully most people will always back the ‘underdog’ – it is hardwired – even if it transpires this apparent ‘underdog’ is not so.
Unfortunate metaphor. Maybe the cliched David & Goliath story is more appropriate?

Last edited 5 months ago by James Chater