Prof Ashok Swain

The strange disappearance of the anti-war movement

July 12, 2023
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The US decision to send cluster bombs to aid Ukraine in its war effort, along with the suggestion that more Western countries may follow suit, has provoked condemnation in some corners but has elsewhere been hailed as an accelerant for victory against Vladimir Putin’s forces. The recent coverage has prompted reminders of the risks the munitions pose to innocent civilians long after battles have been fought. 

Joining UnHerd to talk about why so few voices in public life and the media have spoken out against the shipment of cluster bombs, and about the recession of anti-war sentiment more widely, is the academic and writer Ashok Swain. A professor of peace and conflict research at Uppsala University in Sweden, he is one of the world’s leading experts on conflict resolution. His nation of residence is now set to join Nato, and he sat down with Freddie Sayers to unpick how Sweden’s proposed membership goes against its history of neutrality. 

“Sweden has remained peaceful for 200 years,” Swain said, “and has kept its territorial integrity without being part of any military alliance.” Despite cooperation with the Allied powers, Sweden was nominally neutral during the Second World War. Its decision to join Nato now, Swain claimed, is “sad” because “it’s an open country, it has a free press, and was at the forefront” of foreign opposition to the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s. “You expect these kinds of debates [about the risks of joining military alliances] to come in this country, but they never came in,” he argued. 

According to Swain, “any opinion which is critical of the mainstream or dominant official stance is seen as siding with the dictator, or siding with your enemy.” This applies to Sweden’s discarded neutrality as much as it does to the Ukraine war. “Putin is, in this case, the aggressor,” Swain said. “There is no doubt about that […] But can you address this issue by spending trillions of dollars just increasing your military? Has militarisation stopped the war in the past? How do you then come to the conclusion that it will stop the war in the future?”

The proposed delivery of cluster bombs from the US is “sad, but not unexpected,” he suggested. “Cluster bombs mostly kill civilians after the war is over […] 40-50% of them are children.” Considering this long-term damage, and bearing in mind that Putin was last year criticised for using the same explosives during the war, Swain asked, “Do you think anyone who wants really good things for Ukraine will want to put those kinds of weapons on Ukrainian land, which will kill generations of Ukrainians when the time comes?” He went on: “if Putin’s use of cluster bombs was considered a crime against humanity, how on earth can we supply cluster bombs?”

The academic implored viewers to “look at what is happening in Afghanistan: in the 20 years of US involvement, $2.2 trillion has been spent. How much money has the US given to Afghanistan as development aid in that time? $38 billion. So, who has taken this money? It’s the military contractors. The military establishment has taken that money.”

The comparison to Afghanistan is pertinent when considering the war in Ukraine. “How come the US has run out of regular ammunition to send to Ukraine?” Swain pondered. “This set of questions need to be asked. If you don’t have ammunition to fight the war in one corner of the world, how do you maintain a military alliance to fight a global war?”


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