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The Devil in the Detail: How the War in Ukraine Changes Everything

Wayne Stephen Coetzee | 20 April 2022

An old German idiom tells us that the "devil is in the detail” – meaning that the details of a matter are its most problematic aspect. I was recently reminded of this axiom when discussing the ongoing war in Ukraine with a friend working for the United Nations World Food Program. While most of our discussion revolved around the strategic political, economic, and security implications of the war, and the appalling human suffering in Ukraine, he reminded me of the dark underbelly of this conflict concerning world hunger. He emphasised that “the war in Ukraine is a disaster for food security worldwide. We are reaching the stage where we might need to take food from hungry people to give to starving people. We have not seen anything like this since the Second World War”. Many humanitarian organisations echo his views. Because Ukraine and Russia are significant exporters of wheat, barley, corn, and sunflower oil (needed for food processing), current estimations are that acute hunger will rise by an additional 47 million if the war continues beyond April. The latter would mean that up to 323 million people could become acutely food insecure in 2022. Such alarming numbers are a by-product of a conflict that few of us envisioned or fully grasp. The war in Ukraine is a game-changer for the most vulnerable elements of society – be they in Europe, Africa, or the Middle East. These details matter.

But it’s not only food insecurity. Michael Hirsh, a renowned correspondent at Foreign Policy magazine, recently referred to the war in Ukraine as the “month that changed a century”. No conflict in recent memory has had such an impact on global affairs. The tragic daily loss of human life in Ethiopia, the DRC, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Colombia (to name a few) deserves our undivided attention. Yet none of these tragic events fundamentally shake the normative foundations of the liberal world order we (especially those of us in the 'West') have become accustomed to. The Russian invasion of Ukraine raises crucial questions about issues many of us have taken for granted for many years, such as the inconceivability of full-scale conventional (or possible nuclear!) warfare on the European continent. This war is also incrementally changing our fundamental perception of attaining world peace and the inefficient role of international institutions such as the United Nations. Not since the Second World War have so many lives been placed at risk because of the actions and grand delusions of one single man. In short, this war lays bare the fragility of our global social contract. These details matter.

But this war has changed me too. For the past ten years, I have taught university students to analyse international politics and security issues in an abstract, objective, and dispassionate manner. During lectures, my throwaway slogan is often the following: “Don’t count the stones on the floor. Focus on the wider theoretical picture”. Perhaps I said this because I fell into the Eurocentric trap where wars 'over there' are easier to analyse 'rationally'. As my colleague in Mozambique often reminds me, “if it happens in Africa, no one cares. The only people who care are those who are directly affected”. He has a point. There appears to be indifference to suffering out of sight. We only seem to care more when we are directly affected. And it is then when the details matter. The bottom line is that we are all affected by the war in Ukraine, in one way or another. These details matter and they are changing everything.


Wayne Stephen Coetzee is a senior lecturer in political science and Director of the International Programme in Politics and Economics at University West. He teaches postgraduate and undergraduate courses in the areas of Global Political Economy, Security Studies, Development Studies, and Work-Integrated Political Studies. He has, among other things, done research within the fields of the conventional arms trade, foreign policy analysis, and the forces that shape the interrelations between public and private security.


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