We need to step back from the brink before we are engulfed in a new world war.

Two destroyed tanks in front of a mosque in Azaz, Syria. By Christiaan Triebert - Flickr: Azaz, Syria. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Two destroyed tanks in front of a mosque in Azaz, Syria. By Christiaan Triebert – Flickr: Azaz, Syria. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The threat of war is all around us. Are we in the early stages of a war that has started in Ukraine and will end up fighting Russia. ISIS in the Middle East seems to be ratcheting up the ante, with killings in Paris. Many journalists and leader writers in our media are demanding firm military action in both Ukraine and the Middle East.

Putin is being portrayed as a megalomaniac who must be stopped by all means available, sanctions to impoverish the people of Russia, followed by what? We shudder to think. Equally ISIS in the Middle East is being portrayed as a barbaric organisation, which burns people alive, chops off heads and must therefore be defeated by what ever means we can devise.

Has the world gone mad? What are we supposed to make of it all.

Let’s look at these conflicts with new eyes, and start trying to see these conflicts from the eyes of the other side. The Western world is infinitely more powerful that ISIS and Russia. Our military ability to pulverise these societies is undoubted. And this is part of the problem. We have never been able to put ourselves in the shoes of people with less power than ourselves. To see the point of view of peoples who feel they have been oppressed, and are resisting.

Russia was heavily defeated in 1989/91, when the old USSR collapsed. Large chunks of the USSR were cut out, of the old society, and were given their independence. Russia as a whole decreased in wealth rapidly, and the age of death, went backwards for the firs time since 1919. Russia was deeply humiliated. From their position, they see the Western Powers attempting to ‘keep them in their place’ as a poor and weak nation state. If we start to understand Russia as a weak society, trying to maintain some semblance of self-respect, we might begin to understand and even empathise.

The  recent history of the Middle East has been even more humiliating. Iraq, and Libya has been laid waste, and now Syria too. A once proud Egypt has been taken over by a proxy Western military elite, and Israel has been calling the shots in the entire area for 65 years. This entire area has huge potential for growth; instead vast millions of people have been impoverished. Is it surprising that extreme forms of political response have arisen?

Instead of throwing our hands in the air and demanding more military action, we should understand the logic of the responses of peoples who feel they are being oppressed. We need to do two things, retreat in the Middle East, bring our guns and our soldier’s home. And start working on plans for development in the entire region. The world admires growth and development. We need to plan so that the entire wealth of the region can be creative. Similarly for Russia, our entire emphasis needs to be around developing the Russian peoples.

Helping other people to develop, helps ourselves. There is a way, if we want to find it. If we don’t we could easily find ourselves in a new world war.

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Roger van Zwanenberg

Dr Roger van Zwanenberg is the former managing director of Pluto Books.

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