The idea we evoke with the words “our civilization” refers to the state of mind an entire population shares concerning the conditions required for its collective survival and continued prosperity. When any one of the fundamental conditions is threatened, we call the problem “existential.” Ideally, civilizations put in place a complex of structures designed to maintain a level of confidence and trust permitting its members to live their lives in peace and harmony.
Today’s civilization is increasingly defined by its technology. We have evolved into a civilization in which, as Marshall McLuhan famously revealed, “the medium is the message.” We can now count on the media to transmit all the important messages. One of those tasks is promoting existential threats.
Existential threats now come in two varieties. There are real ones and then there are politically or technologically fabricated ones. Climate change, nuclear war and financial collapse are among the real ones that have now become palpable. But there are others that delight the media, such as the fear that autocracy may replace democracy; that the Democratic party in the US will impose a Marxist dictatorship on freedom-loving Americans and confiscate everyone’s guns; or that Donald Trump will transform the US into a white nationalist, fascist nation. As citizens, we are constantly being encouraged to make decisions not on their own grounds but to avoid an “existential threat.”
The Economist recently produced a slick propaganda video designed for that purpose. It aims to convince doubting Westerners that Ukraine still has a chance to win a war most Western experts quietly believe is clearly lost. Despite the title, Winning the Long War in Ukraine, it is less about winning than pursuing a “long war” of attrition. At two points, to give legitimacy to the continued conflict, the journal’s Russia and Eastern Europe editor, Arkady Ostrovsky, states plainly: “This is an existential war.”
So what is the appropriate answer to an existential threat? US President George W Bush provided the solution when, two decades ago, he responded to his “Global War on Terror” (GWOT) by launching wars whose logic turned out to be simply to have no endgame. The current US President Joe Biden updated that logic by promising to make the current war in Ukraine last “as long as it takes.” Bush’s GWOT itself was a largely imaginary creation, but the endless wars it permitted quickly became a banal geopolitical reality.
The Economist maintains that noble tradition. Rather than admitting what most experts now realize — that Ukraine has no chance of winning this war — the journal’s senior editors proudly celebrate the fact that “Ukrainians are preparing for the war to last for years.” According to Ostrovsky, the Ukrainians are as happy as he himself seems to be to see an indefinitely prolonged war as “a new normal.” As he notes, the war “will end when a Ukrainian victory comes. It’s an existential war.”
The Economist’s defense editor Shashank Joshi is slightly less optimistic. While admitting the idea that “the Ukrainian offensive is going to smash the Russian lines” is “unlikely,” he declares, almost with a sense of glee, that “the most important question to me is the balance of attrition.”
Today’s Weekly Devil’s Dictionary definition:
Balance of attrition:
A modern military term used to describe the conditions strategically required to maintain a forever war.
By insisting that for Ukrainians this is an existential question, Ostrovsky may be echoing political scientist John Mearsheimer, who has been repeating precisely the same message for at least a decade. But Mearsheimer’s existential threat did not concern Ukraine, but Russia. In his reading, the US commitment to Ukraine has even turned the conflict into an existential threat to the US itself, not as a nation, but in its capacity as global hegemon. Squeezed between the logic of two nuclear powers, Ukraine has become the helpless victim of their struggle.
The Economist sees the existential stakes for Ukraine as a recent phenomenon: it was born as a direct consequence of the Russian invasion. For the past decade, Mearsheimer has consistently warned that the Russians, going back to Gorbachev and Yeltsin, perceive the eastward expansion of NATO as a dire existential threat, a curious psychological prolongation of the Cold War. He cites William Burns, the current CIA director, who insisted on that very point when, as US ambassador to Russia in 2008, he described NATO expansion as “the brightest of all red lines.” But, as historian Ronald Suny reminds us, Burns was already saying the same thing nearly three decades ago. In 1995, Suny writes, Burns warned that “hostility to early NATO expansion is almost universally felt across the domestic political spectrum here.”
Students of history, or simply of logic, should be forgiven for wondering how the experts at The Economist can construe a war of attrition that they clearly wish to see continued as the appropriate response to an existential threat. Mearsheimer insists that the Russian perception of an existential threat means that “Putin is committed to making sure that Ukraine is either a truly neutral state with no military ties to the West, or a dysfunctional rump state that is effectively useless to the West.” He also speculates, in a piece called “Bound to Lose,” that “the war will go on and eventually end in a frozen conflict with Russia in possession of a significant portion of Ukrainian territory. But that outcome will not put an end to the competition and conflict between Russia and Ukraine or between Russia and the West.”
That appears to describe a different “balance of attrition” than the one The Economist’s editors are cheering on. Or perhaps that’s the one they secretly wish to see continue.
Who can now doubt that we are living in an age in which the choices we make must increasingly appear as a response to an “existential threat?” In the romanticized story about human evolution we were all taught in our youth, our ancestors — the cavemen — faced an omnipresent existential risk and began devising the means of defending themselves against predatory beasts. This struggle led to the taming of fire and the production of increasingly sophisticated tools; in short, to the “dawn of civilization.” Thanks to that evolution, the human race ultimately elaborated and installed the powerful institutions and scientifically perfected technologies that were designed precisely to eliminate the very idea of existential threat. Our ancestors’ diligent work over countless generations produced the utopian consumer society we in the West have now become accustomed to.
Many people shared Francis Fukuyama’s feeling that after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the “new world order” promised by President George H.W. Bush, the “end of history” had arrived. He was in effect claiming that the pretext for existential threats, at least on the political level, had vanished from history. Quarrels and disputes might continue locally, but it was time to sit back and enjoy life in the liberal order that had given us the consumer society.
Many commentators have pointed out that the events of the 21st century, especially the one that provoked Bush’s GWOT in September 2001, have exposed Fukuyama’s optimism as historical blindness. But blaming a single event makes no sense. It revealed something deeper. Our civilization requires the perception of existential threats. If a real one isn’t available, we have the means — thanks to our politicians’ and media’s addiction to sensationalism — to create them.
And that is what we now do. We fabricate existential threats. The culture wars in the US are framed as existential threats. For Democrats, Donald Trump’s character is an existential threat. It turns out to be a very convenient one because he is so present in the media. For Republicans and Libertarians, the existence of “big government” poses an “existential threat” to individual liberty. Those same people fail to reflect that big government is a precondition of any political entity that sees itself as “the greatest nation” or claims to possess the world’s most powerful military.
In short, contrary to our ancestors in the caves, we need existential threats. They justify our policies and politics. And of course, they do one other thing: they guarantee the existence of multiple forever wars of attrition.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of Fair Observer Devil’s Dictionary.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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