In the climactic scene of Clint Eastwood’s dark 1992 Western, Unforgiven, Bill Daggett, the sadistic sheriff brilliantly played by Gene Hackman, realizes that the Eastwood character, Will Munny, a notorious outlaw lured out of retirement, really is about to kill him. And just before Munny fires, the sheriff blurts out: “I don't deserve this—to die like this. I was building a house.”
The response in North America and in most European countries to the Russo-Ukrainian War has had something of the same quality. To be sure, the triumphalism that was the West’s default mode during the first decade after the collapse of the Soviet Empire has largely vanished. Jihadism, the financial crisis of 2007-08, the growing realization that democracy seems to be ceding ground to autocracy across the globe, and, finally, the pandemic more than saw to that. But even in a Global North where diminished expectations have become the norm—and where the shadow of climate change has produced a young generation crippled psychically by apocalyptic fears about the future (whether or not these are justified)—almost no one expected a full-scale interstate war to break out, and least of all in Europe.
To the contrary, until the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and despite the wars of succession in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s, the dominant view in the West, though obviously held in different forms and with different emphases across the ideological spectrum, had been that interstate war is an aberration in international relations. Wars in future, it was widely assumed, would mainly take place within states and not be waged between them; they would be asymmetrical both technologically and ideologically and would not mainly involve the clash of armies. And as the British political theorist Mary Kaldor who is one of the intellectual architects of this so-called New Wars Thesis, has put it, “the inner tendency of such conflicts is not victory or defeat but for permanent inconclusive war that spreads across borders.” The US wars of choice in the 1990s, and even more what in the military is called the Long War (against jihadism), are examples of this.
In contrast, the Russo-Ukrainian War seems much like a reversion to the (supposedly banished) Clausewitzian norm. Yes, civilians are being slaughtered, as they always are in war, whether new or old, but in military terms, the center of gravity of the horror has shifted radically. This is traditional war in the sense that what will be decisive is which side’s army defeats or at least stymies the other’s on the battlefield. What is not traditional—indeed, what seems unprecedented—is the disaster the war is wreaking very far from the Ukrainian battlespace and the European countries adjoining it. To be sure, wars always affect other countries than the ones doing the fighting and their military and economic allies. But historically, these effects have tended to be regional, not global. The one exception to this is migration, but even in that case, wars are only one of a number of the reasons driving the great migration from the Global South towards richer countries within the Global South, and, of course, towards the Global North, that is now taking place and that will only intensify in the decades to come.
Despite the fantasies of left neo-pacifists, such as the Yale legal scholar and historian Samuel Moyn, that peace can somehow be made into a human right and war largely though probably not entirely abolished, and of those subscribing to what Hans Rosling triumphantly called “the secret silent miracle of human progress” that one finds in the work of Rosling himself and also of Steven Pinker, the so-called Long Peace of the post-1945 era is drawing to a close—to the extent, that is, that it ever existed in the first place. In terms of the long sweep of history, there is nothing particularly remarkable about this. But the Russo-Ukrainian War is the first conflict of its kind likely to inflict global collateral damage. By this, I mean that it now seems certain that there will be enormous loss of life and also enormous economic damage in parts of the world that have no connection whatsoever to the hostilities.
To be clear, many conflicts have had lethal effects far from the battlespace. Depending on which interpretation one accepts, the Great Bengal Famine of 1943, in which at least 3 million people died, either was caused by the British government’s decision to divert food supplies to its fighting forces, or was the result of Whitehall (and the Raj’s) indifference toward the sufferings of people they had colonized. But the Russo-Ukrainian War is different. Its most devastating collateral effects (outside Ukraine, obviously) are likely to be in large parts of the Middle East and Africa, which have long been reliant on wheat imports from Ukraine and Russia. Somalia and Benin get 100 percent of their wheat supply from Russian and/or Ukrainian suppliers, Egypt 82 percent, Sudan 75 percent, the Democratic Republic of Congo 69 percent, Senegal 66 percent (this helps explain the urgency of the Senegalese president Macky Sall’s meeting with Vladimir Putin in Moscow last week), and Tanzania 64 percent. Libya, Madagascar, and Yemen are also being hit very hard.
And yet one can say with virtual certainty that when Putin decided to invade Ukraine and when Volodymyr Zalensky decided to try to repel the invasion, neither thought of the effect the conflict would have on people in Africa living in countries already food-insecure and, in a few cases in a few regions (parts of Somalia and Sudan are likely to be particularly hard-hit) teetering on the edge of famine. But if the worst-case scenarios are even partly accurate in their predictions, the death toll will be immense. Between them, Ukraine and Russia account for more than 30 percent of the world’s wheat exports. It is perfectly possible that, even if a million people die in the Russo-Ukrainian War, many more will die of hunger in Africa than even that appalling figure.
The United Nations is by now not a shadow of its former self, but rather a shadow of a shadow of that self. That said, to his credit, its secretary-general, Antonio Guterres, has done what he can to alert the public and policymakers across the world to the looming threat, both on humanitarian grounds and also the grounds of increased migration—this, presumably to appeal to European governments whose budgets already are strained to the breaking point by monies used during the pandemic and monies now being used for Ukraine.
Journalists have begun to warn of the potential consequences. The Economist has published an article on “The Coming Food Catastrophe,” warning that “war is tipping a fragile world toward mass hunger.” On one level, this is understandable: Like UN officials and humanitarian aid workers, journalists of conscience want to rouse the public support needed in North America and Europe to pressure these rich Western governments to act. And there is absolutely no doubt that the crisis is real, and that governments in the poor world generally, but particularly in Africa, are already on their knees economically as a result of the pandemic. For example, a recent World Bank report suggests that developing countries are going to be burdened with higher interest payments that are already baked in, as interest rates rise in the developed world—a euphemistic way of saying that these countries are once again facing a major debt crisis in addition to food insecurity, war, and the global warming that, as if it didn’t have enough confronting it, on average is having far more deleterious effects on the Global South than on the Global North.
At the same time, though, scare headlines like the one in The Economist badly misstate the problem, in that they can lead the insufficiently informed reader to conclude that the problem is one of wheat production. This is false. For not only does wheat production remain high globally, but many wheat-producing countries—the United States, Canada, Argentina (which has just increased its export quotas), Australia (which already had a record-breaking 2021-2022 wheat crop), and India—could easily increase production were there a market for more of their wheat. And both India and the United States have large domestic stockpiles of wheat that they could release were they to choose to do so. As the agronomist Sarah Taber has pointed out, “the last thing you do in a food crunch is to give a room full of powerful people vague, dire news about shortages.”
The real problem, as Taber and a few others have been ceaselessly trying to point out, is with distribution and not with supply. For obvious geographical reasons, it was easier and cheaper to export wheat to North Africa from the Black Sea than from Australia. But that is not going to be the case, at least in the short and probably in the medium term—unless, that is, the United Nations or other third parties manage to get Russia and Ukraine to agree to have their grain exported in the middle of a brutal war that is only getting more brutal and may well soon involve a Russian attempt to seize Odessa and Ukraine’s other Black Sea ports. Barring a miracle, though, the challenge for those seeking to stave off the worst in the countries that have depended so heavily on Russia and Ukraine, is to provide credits to their governments to cope with the cruel rise in grain and fertilizer prices—which can be done immediately, if the political will exists to do it—and to radically change global supply chains.
That this radical change in global supply chains is necessary should be obvious. What may be less obvious is that it is eminently feasible. One need only look at the way Europe is steadily weaning itself from Russian energy, which, for all the bad faith and double games involved on the part particularly of the German government, is taking the Continent in a direction that would have been thought inconceivable even a year ago. Eppur si muove, Galileo famously said. And yet it moves.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that it will move. Pessimist though I am, I suppose one can take as a sign of moral progress the attention that these potentially catastrophic effects of the Russo-Ukrainian War on the Global South have been receiving. The war, after all, began less than four months ago and in European capitals and Washington, which effectively are co-belligerents against Moscow in more or less the same sense that the United States through Lend Lease was a co-belligerent with Britain against Hitler’s Germany long before America entered the war, the focus on Ukraine is understandably considered to be paramount. Whether this is morally right or not is another question. Perhaps were there a global government, or even a global system worthy of the name, the collateral effects of the Russo-Ukrainian War would be seen as so severe that outside powers would intervene to stop it—much as they were originally expected to do in 1945 under the UN Charter. But we do not live in such a world, and there are no empirical grounds (as opposed to hopes) for thinking we ever will.
These days, there is much debate about whether we are entering a period of “de-globalization,” the causes of which are usually attributed the steadily mounting tension between the United States and China, whether or not this amounts to a Second Cold War, and the lessons drawn from the pandemic about the fragility of, and excessive reliance on, long global supply chains. The Russo-Ukrainian War, though, teaches a different lesson, which is that the return of war to its central role in world politics and history brings with it something new—an especially malign form of globalization in which a war in a place that could not be further away from your concerns, those of your family, or those of your nation, could still end with you starving to death.