“On the Edge of the Abyss or, How to Wage War on War?” By Edgar Morin

On the Edge of the Abyss


How to Wage War on War?

By Edgar Morin

March 9, 2022

Now in his 100th year, Edgar Morin is a leading French public intellectual. A radically transdisciplinary thinker, Morin is the author of more than fifty volumes on complexity theory, sociology, human nature, ecology, popular culture, politics, and more, including Thinking about Europe and The Nature of the USSR: Totalitarian Complex and New Empire.

Writing these lines, I am reminded of the anguish that gripped me during the Russian missile crisis in Cuba in 1962. I was hospitalized in New York and my friend Stanley Plastrick told me daily that New York was in danger of being annihilated by an atomic bomb. Then the compromise came in extremis and Khrushchev withdrew his missiles.

Today, once again I see us on the brink of an abyss, and in the absolute uncertainty of tomorrow.

The simple and the complex

Let us try to see clearly what is simple and at the same time complex. The simplicity lies in the fact that there is an aggressor and an aggressed, that the aggressor is a great power and the aggressed a peaceful nation. The complexity is that the Ukrainian problem is not only tragic and upsetting but has multiple intertwined implications and multiple unknowns.

Let us then try to imagine a possible peaceful solution that would not spell the peace of the graveyard for Ukraine.

Let us also recall that Ukraine was divided at the end of the 18th century by Poland (itself subsequently divided), the Russian Empire, and the Austrian Empire. It became independent during the wars following the revolution of 1917, but was defeated in 1920 and integrated into the Soviet Union. Its peasantry suffered cruelly from the kholkozification of agriculture and the great famine of 1931. For a while, Ukrainians had the illusion of being delivered by the Wehrmacht; in 1941, Bandera, an independence fighter who had become a collaborator, proclaimed a pseudo-independent republic under the German occupation. Ukrainians, however, actively participated in the resistance to Nazism.

It is during the decomposition of the USSR that Ukraine and Belarus gained independence in agreement with Russia, led by Yeltsin. 

The situation of Ukraine worsened concomitantly with the worsening of relations between Russia and the United States.

Ukraine is not only a major geopolitical prey for Russia and America, it is also a major economic prey. It is the leading European reserve for uranium, the second for titanium, manganese, iron, and mercury.  It has the largest area of arable land in Europe and 25% of the world’s black soil. It produces and exports barley, corn, and other agricultural products.

Following a democratic revolution, Ukraine came under increasing pressure from Russia and in 2014 aspired to join the European Union. Putin then annexed Crimea and fostered the uprising and autonomy of the Russian-speaking region of Donbas. It must be recognized that Crimea is a Russianified Tatar province but not Ukrainian and that keeping the Donbas in Ukraine would require a federal solution. Putin justified his action by proclaiming on March 18, 2014, “they lied to us repeatedly, they made decisions behind our backs, they presented us with a fait accompli. This happened with the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization [NATO] to the east, as well as with the deployment of military infrastructure on our borders.”

In fact, an ongoing war in the Donbass had begun despite the Minsk agreements.

In an article published in Le Monde on May 3, 2014, I predicted the danger: “Unfortunately, as far as Europe is concerned, the impotence of the West is not only military in character. It is not only an impotence of will. It is an impotence of political thinking, and of thinking as a whole. It would be desirable that Hollande, Fabius, and Manuel Valls become aware of the merciless rise of the perils and propose the only coherent plan of peace, that of a federal Ukraine, a link between West and East. We are no longer in the time when we must seek the best, we are in the time when we must avoid the worst.”

Since 2014 the infernal feedback loop of East-West conflict has worsened and the worst has happened in March, 2022.

The fatal spiral

This conflict has been provoked both by Putin’s growing ambition to integrate the Slavic part of the Russian Empire into his domain, and by the concomitant enlargement of NATO around Russia. It is more broadly determined by the intensifying conflicts of interest between the two superpowers following the Bush-Putin entente of 2001.

There was the reconstitution of Russia as a military superpower, establishing its zones of influence in Syria and Africa, the bloody reintegration of Chechnya through two wars (1994-1996 and 1999-2001), the military intervention in Georgia (2008), and then the growing pressure on Ukraine. At the same time, without a UN mandate, the second war of invasion of Iraq by the United States in 2003 was catastrophic for the entire Middle East, followed by internal wars at least until 2009, and the invasion of Libya in 2011. Finally, the United States was engaged in a war in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2021.

While in 1991 the American president had verbally promised Gorbachev that NATO would not be enlarged to include the former People’s Democracies, in 1999 NATO integrated Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, then the Baltic republics, followed by Romania, Slovenia, then Albania and Croatia in 2004, creating a de facto encirclement of Russia (with two gaps, Georgia and Ukraine).

This “objective” encirclement has reminded the Kremlin of the encirclement of the USSR by the capitalist countries between the two wars and the “containment” policy of the Cold War.

Hence, from a more subjective viewpoint, we see the development of an obsessive psychology in Putin and the hardening of his authoritarian regime.

Under the guise of war against Afghanistan, the USA has installed military bases in the former Soviet republics of the south, in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, while also in practice pursuing encirclement in Siberia.

We cannot hide either the role of growing opposition between two superpowers to extend or safeguard their areas of influence, or the role of encirclement by NATO.

A significant development is that, since the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the United States is now determined to avoid any distant war while the Ukrainian government aspires to be protected by the European Union and NATO.

However, it is necessary to consider that Vladimir Putin feels more and more strongly that what is tolerated for the United States, especially military interference in sovereign countries, is condemned for Russia. He will not tolerate Ukraine’s move to the West. He knows that the United States would not intervene militarily if he invades Ukraine. He may be thinking of a quick invasion and he has already organized reserves in case of economic sanctions, which he underestimates in the long term, but maybe he thinks that everything will be settled in the short term. Without wanting to be psychological, I can imagine the evolution of this authoritarian personality, for whom Western democracies are decadent, who is increasingly hardening his military-police regime in Russia, who believed for a time in 2001, in mutual sympathy with Bush, that the United States would treat his great country with dignity. He tends to hide the fact that his wars in Chechnya, his interventions in Georgia and finally in Ukraine in 2014 have put America and Europe on alert.

Cautious and cunning at first, Putin became bold in 2014 and is now driven by a terrible rage. 

It should also be recognized that, while Russian troops were concentrated on the border of Ukraine, Biden made a speech on March 1, 2022, intransigent in tone but where there is a small capital phrase—”we will not make war”—which, while legitimate, has upset the United States in the balance of power. And similarly, no people, no government in Europe has considered going to war over invaded Ukraine, despite the constant appeals of President Zelenski and Macron’s multiple attempts to negotiate with Putin. 

The difficulty of waging war on war

The heroic resistance of President Zelenski, his government, and the Ukrainian people has undoubtedly surprised Putin as much as it has aroused our admiration. It even made Putin abandon the huge lie of denazification, speaking now instead of Ukrainian nationalists. It has undoubtedly helped to unify democratic and national Ukraine.

Similarly, Putin’s war is unifying Europe, in its disapproval and reaction, at least for a while. The West is trying to do everything short of outright war: this would be a generalized catastrophe that would plunge Ukraine, Europe, and America into a terrifying new world war. Hence the economic response of multiple and generalized sanctions (personally I deeply oppose sanctions against culture, music, theater, the arts); then the response is amplified by economic aid, then with military assistance to Ukraine, and the organization of reception of refugees. And then we have the formation of a legion of volunteers to fight in Ukraine. One of the features of the tragedy is that we can afford neither weakness nor strength and that we are forced to navigate between the two in an uncertain manner.

That said, it should be remembered that sanctions also hit those who carry them out. Thus Europe will risk a shortage of gas and other products.

The economic war could be effective in the long term but by then Ukraine will have been swallowed. It could have major effects in Russia, impoverish the population, arouse a strong opposition (accurate information is already coming through a thousand private channels in Russian cities), and strengthen or overthrow Putin’s authoritarian power.  

Where is the borderline between economic warfare, assistance in arms, the intervention of volunteers, and the war itself? 

The distant bombings, the ruins, the deaths, the exodus that hit Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan are on our doorstep. 

At this point we have Putin’s repeated threat of an unstoppable weapon against those who would attack Russia: “you would all be vitrified”. Would he, in an excess of rage, be capable of taking action? In any case, the slippage towards a war that would exceed in horror the two previous world wars is not an impossibility.

As I write these lines, Kiev has not fallen.

Macron has made a new and valiant effort with Putin, without result.

Everything is uncertain, everything is dangerous.

The compromise solution acceptable to all would be a neutral and federal Ukraine, given its ethnic and religious diversity. It is currently unattainable.

A peaceful settlement of the war would allow for more general negotiations between Russia, the United States, and Europe. I don’t know if the Unity acquired during the crisis by the European Union will be maintained; there will be a new element: German rearmament, which will give Germany a hegemony that will not be only economic.

While waiting for a hypothetical solution, the permanent danger remains.  How can we find the way between culpable weakness and irresponsible intervention?

In any case, we have very often seen that the consequences of interventions go against intentions and decisions, both in the East and in the West.


English Translation by Sean Kelly

PDF of this article:

Philosophy, society, politics and the decline of America

Jason/Immanence Transcendence brought my attention to this critique of Graham Harman‘s Object-Oriented Ontology. The critique, written by Alexander Galloway, complains that OOO’s lack of a political dimension makes it a nonstarter as a groundwork for philosophizing in public. In today’s global context, where neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism have collided (and colluded) to bring Starbucks to Baghdad, I’d agree with Galloway that “a philosophy without a political theory is no philosophy at all.” Other thinkers associated with OOO, like Levi Bryant/Larval Subjects, have written about political questions far more extensively than Harman (which Galloway mentions), but I remain unconvinced that either Bryant’s politics or his ethical theory necessarily follow from his ontology. Bryant and I have discussed this underdetermination in the past in relation to his appropriation of Brassier’s ontology of extinction.

A rather boisterous discussion erupted among commenters beneath Galloway’s critique. Some were upset by Harman’s dismissive responses (HERE, HERE, and HERE), and took the opportunity to vent their frustration with how some in the OOO blogosphere seem unable to play nice with others. Jason made several substantive comments about moral nominalism in response to Bryant. His comments reminded me of a post made late last year on the same issue. Both are worth reading.

On a more personal note, since Tuesday I’ve been visiting my mother’s side of the family in Cincinnati, OH. I live in a bit of an political bubble in San Francisco surrounded by an eclectic mix of eco-Marxist radicals and psychedelic shamans. My trip to the post-industrial wasteland that is the tri-state area (Indiana, Ohio, and Kentucky) has given me an opportunity to reflect on the sad state of American society. I visited my cousin and her two young daughters Tuesday evening and ended up talking politics and religion with her husband until 3AM. He served in Iraq with the Army for almost a year back in 2004-5. Despite his desire to continue to serve in some capacity, a knee injury prevented him from being redeployed to Iraq. His commanding officer gave him an ultimatum: suffer through the pain in combat or get the hell out of the Army. He was discharged, but not before being diagnosed by military doctors with “axis-2 PTSD.” Axis-2 is APA-speak for a form of PTSD compounded with a personality disorder of some type, which in my cousin-in-law’s case involves “sociopathic tendencies.” These tendencies were less noticeable to me this visit than they were 3 years ago (my last visit), but clearly he still hasn’t adequately re-adjusted to civilian life upon returning from war. One clue was the way he checked to see if a few Hot Pockets were cooked all the way through: pulling them out of the oven, he found the largest knife in the kitchen and preceded to forcefully disembowel them. Another clue is the room-sized armory he keeps behind lock and key upstairs.

He is certainly not an anomaly. At least 20% of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are diagnosed with PTSD. Particularly disturbing is the fact that, among female soldiers, more than 70% develop PTSD as a result of being sexually assaulted by other soldiers. I suggested to my cousin-in-law that the prevalence of PTSD is no surprise, since even before stepping foot in a war zone, basic training is in large part designed to prepare recruits for a sociopathic situation. He preceded to describe the rules of engagement issued to every soldier on a small laminated card. Basically, no one is to be trusted: even innocent looking women and children could have bombs strapped to them or have been instructed to shield shooters in public areas. Soldiers must be ready to kill anyone at any moment.

Our conversation drifted to domestic politics by way of my outrage over defense spending (if you include the “police actions” in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere in the Middle East, defense accounts for more than half of all government spending). My cousin-in-law is rather conservative, though I have a feeling his political opinions come straight out of the mouth of a hand full of AM radio personalities like Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin. For the most part, he is against anything and everything the big bad “government” wants to do, aside from build bombs and wage wars. I brought up the ecological crisis as something states, corporations, and individuals cannot respond to adequately without some sort of top-down influence from government. He was willing to admit that the EPA should regulate some forms of pollution, but he doesn’t think human beings are capable of changing the climate of the whole planet or driving other species into extinction. That scientific consensus considers climate change and mass extinction to be plain as day facts verified by empirical data hardly matters, since such scientists are just part of a vast liberal conspiracy to destroy the American dream and take over the world.

Needless to say, I was frustrated by the content of our conversation, even though the form was cordial enough. It’s made me realize that political discourse is way messier than most ontologies let on. I think the panexperiential process ontology I’ve been trying to develop on this blog with help from Schelling and Whitehead certainly has political implications [see Adam/Knowledge-Ecology’s recent post on panpsychism and politics], but how am I to justify these implications to someone who could care less about the abstract forms of reasoning characteristic of metaphysics? What do the negative determinations of the understanding or the constitutive relationality of finite actual occasions have to do with securing a job and raising a family? Blue collar Americans are more skeptical of the intellectual classes than ever before. I think Rick Santorum was basically correct when he said that a college education leads to liberalism. Unfortunately, college is too expensive for most blue collar students, and anyways, liberalism rests upon some Enlightenment assumptions about Reason and its relationship to Nature that make absolutely no sense to me philosophically. Indeed, these assumptions seem to be causally related to the social and ecological ills of our civilization. I just don’t know if we have another 300 years to wait for today’s subversive ontologies to trickle down into our legal and political discourse.

I think the philosophically-inclined political activist’s best bet is something like what Bruno Latour is doing with “political art.” As Schelling argued long ago, art is the eternal organon of philosophy, since only it is capable of making reason sensuous and mythology rational.