The world is watching in horror as Russia wages a fully committed war on Ukrainian sovereignty. Europe and the United States have both been vocal in support for Kiev and censure for Putin’s aggressive campaign. Along with government aid and sanctions, ordinary citizens have donated to charities, gathered in protest and prayer outside of embassies in capitals the world over. In the border nations surrounding Ukraine, where refugees have been pouring in by the thousands, people have been opening up their homes, volunteering, and calling for increased aid and placement. The response to this war has been swift and unified, marked by an absolute condemnation of Putin’s aggression and an expression of deep and fraternal solidarity with the Ukrainian people.
Regardless of the efficacy or justification of these responses to Russia—I’m thinking particularly of the cultural boycotts and condemnation of individual Russians throughout Europe and the United States—it has been an impressive show of unity. However, it did not take long for grievances to flow in. Social media is filled with posts on the hypocrisy of the Western response. Articles have proliferated on the “white supremacy” of Europe’s response to a war on its own continent and to the preference of Ukrainian over Syrian, Yemeni, or other refugees. Why are Europeans more horrified at the war today than the proxy war in Yemen? Or the civil war in Syria? Why is the violation of Ukrainian sovereignty so easily condemned when the struggle for Palestinian statehood is marked by many as mere terrorism? And, of course, there is the question of refugees. As one CNN pundit put it: “We are painfully seeing that refugees are selectively welcomed, and war criminals are selectively punished. It’s not just the western media that is biased; it’s the western world.”
There is no denying the parallels between these simultaneous conflicts, and indeed most conflicts throughout history. The suffering and desolation experienced by each survivor weighs equally, regardless of race, religion, or location. It is important that each nation contributes what it can to end these crises; those nations that can claim responsibility for a conflict are morally bound to provide aid and resources for rebuilding. No reasonable person of upright character could argue otherwise. It is obvious that many governments fail to fulfill this obligation, as with the United States in its recent withdrawal from Afghanistan.
However, there is a very real distinction between the responsibilities of the state and the sentiments of the individual. A person’s feelings and actions cannot be expected or forced to conform to a government’s foreign policy. To demand this is to blur a vital line between state and citizen, between objective policy and subjective feeling. While this may seem a rather callous response, it is one that recognizes and conforms to the human experience. I am not my government, and I cannot bear the moral, spiritual, and emotional weight of decisions made in far-off bureaucracies that affect far-flung lands. I cannot be expected to react to tragedies the world over as if they were taking place in my own community.
In light of this, I think it is important to note the underlying presumptions and even inhumanity in these accusations. These allegations are only feasible in a world interpreted through the theory of the ‘global community.’ Only an individual that is religiously wed to this concept would demand that every catastrophe, no matter where it occurs, must be answered by the people of all nations with the equal vigor and emotional investment. Of course, practically speaking, this would ensnare all men in a constant state of agony and uproar, but theorists have little time for the mundane realities of how man functions.
It is convenient then that the blame for the disparity between Europe’s reaction to different conflicts and consequential refugee populations is laid squarely at the feet of the Western world’s bias and racism, either implicit or explicit. This claim serves to bolster the intellectually trendy reduction of the West to little more than a vehicle for violent and racist imperialism, a projection of arbitrary and wanton power over more innocent peoples and cultures. It is odd then that with this repudiation of the West, there is, at the same time, a clamor for Western involvement in the sufferings resulting from various global conflicts.
This is not to deny that there can, and in certain cases must, be global responses to various crises. While many are agitating at the West’s relatively muted response to the Syrian civil war or the proxy war in Yemen, few seem interested in recalling that the whole world showed up when Saddam invaded Kuwait in August 1990. Nor do many recognize that, in fact, Europe and the United States have taken in refugees from Syria and Iraq, among other conflicts. Recently, with the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, I joined a group of American veterans working feverishly, day and night, volunteering time and money to get Afghanis facing Taliban retribution to the United States. This project, joined by thousands of veterans across the country, became known on social media as digital Dunkirk. When the United States government failed utterly, I witnessed heroism from private citizens that went nearly unnoticed and unthanked by a media more concerned with whipping up resentment and division.
It does appear that there is generally more openness to embracing Ukrainian refugees in surrounding countries than in welcoming asylum seekers from distant regions. Some individuals are likely motivated by religious or racial bigotry. That should be condemned completely, but it is a serious misstep to project that cynicism onto the hearts and minds of all involved.
As the CNN pundit continued railing against Europe’s reaction, she said it “as if what is defined as ‘a human worth saving’ is identified by the color of their skin, the language they speak, the religion they practice or where they were born. The ugly truth is our humanity is skin deep. And it breaks my heart.” And yet what here is actually skin deep? Is she truly going to look into the eyes of all those overwhelmed with agony and rage at the violation of their brother nation and insist that this response is motivated merely by blond hair and blue eyes? What of the shared and ancient heritage of these peoples? What of their shared resilience and suffering over the last century?
It was not so long ago that the old order dissolved under the crushing weight of nearly 20 million dead in the first World War. After that, Central European countries were subject to Nazi and Communist occupation. In the 1930s, roughly 4 million Ukranians were starved to death in a USSR-manufactured famine now known as the Holodomor. Many Polish peoples were sequestered and enslaved in gulags, and the estimates of those killed under Soviet repression are in the millions. The Hungarians suffered immensely as well, perhaps best exemplified in the uprisings of 1956. These are only a few examples from the litany of horrors that Central and Eastern Europeans endured in the 20th century. The threat of the Russian bear is real and looms large.
And yet, for all this, there is little room for mercy or understanding. Instead, it can be for no other reason than arbitrary contempt that many Europeans feel and fear this invasion so acutely and are happy to open their borders to a people whose traditions they understand, whose history they share, and whose sufferings they have also been marked with.
This leads to perhaps the most fatal and ideological flaw in this framework. What many globalist idealists cannot accept is that it is in man’s nature to love more strongly according to proximity. There are bonds that run deeply within the human heart and mind and are the center of community and cultures. The love and concern of the individual radiates out into a type of charity that is expressed most immediately and intensely to those who are closest to a person; we might think of this as a ‘charity of proximity.’ I primarily love myself and my family; this is my first and greatest responsibility in life. This extends out to my communities, my nation, and the world. I have a natural solidarity and obligation to those with a shared homeland, heritage, history, and foundation.
It is inappropriate for me to be as distraught about the sufferings in Kashmir as I would be about strife in my own country. I do not have the same responsibility to those suffering in Yemen and Syria as I do to those suffering in my own town. This does not mean that somehow the focus of my attention dictates any hierarchy of which crisis is more or less important as such, but it does determine what is more or less relative to me and my sphere of responsibilities.
Perhaps this is what is happening in Europe today; perhaps it is more deeply heartfelt and sincere than vulgar hypocrisy or racism. No theories, no matter how lovely and seductive on paper, will ever shift the proximate orientation of the human heart. There is no such thing as a global community, and if this invasion has taught us anything, it should be that. This does not mean we are all doomed to mutual hatred and suspicion; we can look at human beings from the most alien cultures and recognize in them their divine spark and inherent dignity. However, we should learn to cultivate and embrace our rootedness and natural solidarities.
It is good that an Iraqi is concerned with Iraq; it is right that a Syrian mourns and grieves the destruction of his nation in a civil war. I would never fault him for paying little heed to what is happening in Europe or the West generally. In the spirit of compassion and human solidarity, we can commiserate with those suffering through these catastrophes and work to better them as we can, through charity, through accepting refugees when possible, and through support. We must press our governments to be responsible in their foreign policy, with an awareness of the great value and dignity of the human being. But we should never be shamed for the fact that our hearts are tied more readily to our surroundings, our heritage, and those who share the roots and foundations we rely upon.