The Great Theatre of the World

by Helmut Scheben*

“They think it’s life, but it’s only theatre”, says Calderon. This also applied to the G7 meeting and the Bürgenstock conference.

Every dollar and every euro invested in new weapons production now is money well spent, says Dan Altman, because it shows the Kremlin that the war is being planned for years to come and that Putin is mistaken if he believes the West will go soft in Ukraine. He cites the new General Dynamics factory in Texas, which produces 155mm shells, as an example.
  Dan Altman professes at Georgia State University, a specialist in geostrategy, deterrence, red lines, nuclear proliferation, international security and so on. In Foreign Affairs, the quarterly journal wherein one reliably finds the orthodox thinking on US foreign policy, Altman now calls on the West finally to show Russia who is the stronger. Under the title “The West must show that it can outlast Russia in Ukraine”, Altman explains that any sign of weakness will prompt Moscow to adapt its plans for conquest and advance further. According to Altman, the West must show the Russians that it is preparing to continue the war for “three, five or eight years”. Only then will the Kremlin realise that it cannot win this war and back down.

Bürgenstock: Actors and their roles

The ‘Great Theatre of the World’ by Calderón de la Barca (1600–1681) is based on the idea, common in the Baroque era, that the world is a stage and life a comedy in which everyone has a role to play. Calderón’s World Theatre is currently being performed by amateurs in front of the Einsiedeln Abbey (a famous Catholic monestary in the Swiss village of Einsiedeln), but there are also heavyweight political theatre professionals who have rehearsed it just a few kilometres away in linear distance.
  Because if there was a summit anywhere that is reminiscent of Calderón’s theatre, then it was the Bürgenstock Conference, which was first a peace conference, then a precursor conference to a later, possible or perhaps not possible, peace conference – and more of the same verbal acrobatics. The actors recited their lines,  and all wanted peace or at least “to initiate a process that could lead to peace”. The trained Ukrainian actor Volodymyr Zelensky said: “We are writing history”.
  This is El Gran Teatro del Mundo. Each and every one of the delegates sitting at the large table there knew that there was no question of peace. Russia was not invited because, as Ignazio Cassis, the Swiss foreign minister, admitted, Zelensky did not want it. China wasn’t there either, and the “NATO brass” is currently trumpeting louder than ever that it will continue the war in Ukraine. After its defeats in Syria and Afghanistan, does not want to lose any more face. This is why Ukraine is constantly rearmed. To the teeth, as they say. Vice–President Kamala Harris said at the round table with disarming clarity: “America stands with Ukraine not out of charity but because it is in our strategic interest.”
  In the end, nothing was achieved apart from 15 million Swiss francs in expenditures. As was to be expected, the world theatre did not produce even a joint declaration. Major countries of the South, which do not see Russia as a hostile power and take a more nuanced view of the question of guilt in this conflict than the Ukrainian president, sent only second-tier delegations and did not sign the declaration. These non-signatories include India, Thailand, South Africa, Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

G-7: lots of money
for the war profiteers

At their 50th meeting last week, the G-7 states decided on new sanctions against Russia and an additional $50 billion ‘loan,’ which no one expects to be repaid, for the government in Kiev (meaning for the Western defence industry). Western industrialised nations spend 62 times as much money on weapons as they do on humanitarian aid in wars and disasters. This bears repeating: sixty-two times as much on war as on peace. Of late these nations have been feeding their defence industries not only with taxpayers’ money, but also with billions from the proceeds of the reserves of the Central Bank of the Russian Federation. These reserves amount to 250 billion Swiss francs, which the West has stolen from Russia. The words used to describe this are “freeze”, “confiscate”, “block”, etc.
  War is not only death and misery for soldiers and their families, but also always a profit-making business for the rich. Not only for the gigantic armaments industry, but also for the numerous corporations that maintain the logistics of the great war machine and make speculative investments in war zones. The war economy is fuelled not only with taxpayers’ money, but also with loans from international lending institutions. Loans that are usually linked to the condition of “market liberalisation”. Ukraine, with the world’s greatest wealth of black soil, has now sold arable land the size of Italy’s entire agricultural sector to foreign corporations such as Cargill, DuPont, and Monsanto. If Russia wins the war, many investors may lose a lot of money. Hence the strong interest of many powerful speculators in the continuation of the war.
  The G-7 meeting in Apulia on 13 to 15 June was also a performance that would have inspired Pedro Calderón de la Barca to write a play. In any case, the sets were already in place. Borgo Egnazia is a luxury resort that investment banker Aldo Melpignano had remodelled to look like a real medieval Italian village from the outside. According to the advertising, the resort, with its golf courses and wellness areas, which is popular with Hollywood stars, conveys an “authentic Italian experience”.
  In this open-air theatre, Calderón, if he were born again, would perhaps have the visibly frail 82-year-old Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr., known as Joe, play Strong August, the Elector of Saxony, a 120–kilo man who is said to have bent a horseshoe with his hands. At Borgo Egnazia, Joe Biden read from his page: “Putin cannot wait us out, he cannot divide us, and we will be with Ukraine until it prevails in this war”, Biden stated.

At the end of their rope

Two other actors also made powerful stage appearances, although it is also publicised that they are at the end of their tether in their political lives. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz told us that Putin had failed if he thought he could rely on the West’s war-weariness. You could almost think the chancellor had been reading Dan Altman. Emmanuel Macron, who had already rehearsed the role of Strong August at home by proposing to send French ground troops to Ukraine, sounded a similarly pithy note. Both Scholz and Macron, as well as British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, are currently suffering a rapidly declining losses of credibility.

A majority favours
a ceasefire and negotiations

According to recent polls, an overwhelming majority of people in France, Germany, the UK and the US are in favour of a ceasefire and peace negotiations. Even the pensioner in West Virginia who has little interest in foreign policy and can no longer afford her medication might at some point come round to the idea that the multibillion-dollar packages that Washington is sending to a distant, unknown country called Ukraine would be of greater benefit to those in need at home.
  The NATO states therefore have a problem. Not in the military sphere, because Kiev is currently operating effectively (under the operational leadership of NATO experts) with attacks on Crimea and targets in Russia. But in the domestic political sphere, good advice is expensive, because the Western democracies need the approval of the voters if they want to continue this war. Even in the toughest authoritarian regimes, it is impossible to wage a war for a long time without popular support.

The mechanics of the bluff

Pedro Calderón probably didn’t know the word “bluff”, but the card players of ancient Spain certainly had a lot of expressions for deception and dissimulation. The deterrence theory of experts such as Dan Altman is based on the mechanism of the bluff. He constructs a logic that says the opponent will give up if you signal to him that you have the better cards. However, according to Altman’s diagnosis, this is currently not working because the West is not bluffing sufficiently. The Russians are not at all convinced by the cheap slogans in Brussels and Washington that they will support Ukraine “as long as it takes”. Only when the West immediately and actively invests more and more billions in an enormous rearmament will the bluff be effective enough to make Moscow realise that they mean business.
  The big mistake in this construct is ignoring the “human factor”, namely the premise that you can see into the minds of your enemies. They are as predictable as robots. Altman’s strategic recommendations could turn out to be advice for a march into the abyss. Of course, Dan Altman is not the voice of Foreign Affairs, and Foreign Affairs is not official Washington even if it reflects views that are prominent among America’s policy elites. Foreign Affairs has also featured voices criticising the failure to seize or torpedo opportunities for a ceasefire in 2022.
  The poker game that Altman recommends stems from the mentality of a group of hardliners in Washington. Throughout history, this mindset has repeatedly led governments to continue wars to the bitter end, even though it was long apparent that they could not be won. A clinging to the absurd, a policy that was directed against the interests of its own people. The US demonstrated how this works in Vietnam and Afghanistan for twenty years each.

The pathology of power

In his book ‘The Pathology of Power’ (W. W. Norton, 1987), science journalist and peace activist Norman Cousins says that he often met General Douglas McArthur, the commander-in-chief of the US Pacific Fleet during the Second World War. McArthur reported that he had not been consulted by his government when it dropped atomic bombs on Japanese cities in 1945. The general was convinced that the invention of nuclear weapons of mass destruction had made security policy and military deterrence, as we had known them before, impossible. War was no longer an option because it would inevitably lead to the destruction of both sides.
  “Polvo salgan de mi, pues polvo entraron”, says Calderón’s allegorical figure of the “world” towards the end of El Gran Teatro del Mundo, as all the actors hand in their costumes. And it sounds like an early admonition from the Spanish playwright: “They shall go from me as dust, as they came as dust.”  •

First publication: of 17 June 2024;
reprinted with kind permission of the author

Helmut Scheben was a press agency reporter and correspondent for print media in Mexico and Central America from 1980 to 1985. From 1986 he was editor of the weekly newspaper Wochenzeitung in Zurich, and from 1993 to 2012 he served as editor and reporter for Swiss television SRF, including 16 years on the news programme Tagesschau.

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