Netherlands: On discussing, negotiating and arms, a response to Kees Stad

Kees Stad published a response to my earlier piece ’Why I don’t sign the call of ’Stop Arms Trade’’ under the title ’Chess with your life’ on Konfrontation. Below is my response as it appeared on Konfrontation.

Konfrontation was founded at the time (1991) by people from different social movements, with different histories and different (leftist) views, with the aim of revitalising the radical left. An important objective of Konfrontatie was and is to stimulate discussion within the radical left. In my opinion, discussion is conducted by presenting relevant facts, arguments, analogies and examples, with the aim of testing your opinion against that of others, clarifying differences of opinion and similarities and, if possible, convincing people of your point of view.

Unfortunately, Kees Stad seems to think otherwise. His response to my piece ’Why I don’t sign the call of ’Stop Arms Trade’’ is laced with personalised qualifications. He talks about an ’arrogant retort’, ’a kind of Trump tactic’, ’the pro-war party of Bos and his Trotskyists, who have no answer to this crisis except to suggest pumping in as many weapons as possible’, ’ranting’, and about co-responsibility ’if things have escalated further into a nuclear confrontation between superpowers’.

Anyone who plays on the man like this carries the suspicion of having little sight of the ball. And indeed substantive argumentation is rather lacking in Kees’s piece. And that is a pity, because the question of how the left should take a stance on war in Ukraine is of great importance and worthy of serious discussion.

Therefore, anyway, I will attempt a substantive rebuttal. In which I hope the reader will forgive me for quoting rather extensively from both Kees’s piece, the Stop Arms Trade statement, and my response to it. This is unfortunately necessary in a response to someone who takes such a free and creative approach to representing the views of others.


What did my criticism of the call focus on? Kees writes about this that he came across: “a tirade by Willem Bos against people who had called for a look at whether the war (in Ukraine yes, there are still a few or so ongoing but we never talk about that, and certainly not Willem Bos) can’t be ended instead of endlessly screwing up with more weapons.”

But is that so? Was my argument directed “against people who had called for a look at whether the war cannot be ended instead of endlessly screwing up with more weapons.”? Apart from the fact that (unlike) Kees, I am not addressing people but an appeal, that appeal was not about “take a look at whether the war can’t be ended instead of...”, but a very concrete appeal to the Dutch government. “We call on the Dutch government to make efforts in the EU context to bring the warring parties to the negotiating table.”

I argued against that. Does that mean I am against ending the war? No of course not. Does that mean I am against negotiating? No of course not. If the parties involved are willing to negotiate to end the war that would of course be a blessing. What I am opposed to is the call for the Dutch government to make an EU effort to bring the warring parties to the negotiating table, because I think that sends the wrong signal.

Admittedly, the text speaks of an appeal to the warring parties. But on Putin, who sees the EU as the enemy and has not been changed by the sanctions either, such an appeal will obviously have no effect whatsoever. For Ukraine, the situation is different. That country is now heavily dependent for its survival not only militarily but also financially on Western support. So an appeal by the EU to ’the warring parties’, in the current circumstances, would mainly be an appeal to Ukraine to negotiate. And what should Ukraine be negotiating about at the moment, with the Russian army and Wagner’s mercenaries occupying and terrorising part of the country and bombing the rest of it on a daily basis.

I wrote: "The real intention of the call is therefore a different one. ’Stop Arms Trade’ is against supplying weapons to Ukraine and now puts forward ’negotiations’ as an alternative to it.’ It is mainly that sentence that makes Kees Stad go into a rage which makes him start talking about conspiracy theory and wappies.

But it is the appeal itself that (like Kees, incidentally) contrasts a call for negotiations with supporting Ukraine with arms. The call ends with three points: ’* We call on the Dutch government to make efforts in the EU context to bring the warring parties to the negotiating table. * Solidarity with Ukraine and Ukrainians does not mean sending ever heavier weapons. * Solidarity with Ukraine and Ukrainians means seeking a way out of violence.’ So what is incorrect, conspiratorial or wonky about my observation that ’negotiation’ is put forward as an alternative to supplying weapons?

Kees, like the authors of the appeal, is against supplying weapons to Ukraine. Fine, so we differ in that. But I think anyone who takes such a stand should also face the consequences. And those consequences, in my view, are that all of Ukraine will be occupied by the Russians and the same horrible practices (purges, murders, kidnappings and rapes) will take place there that we now know from the areas temporarily occupied by the Russians. The message to Ukrainians then is: you are unlucky that your country is being invaded and you will have to continue to live (or die) under Russian terror, we have our principles, we are against arms supplies.

This attitude is the opposite of the attitude the (radical) left has taken in recent decades towards other countries threatened by imperialist powers. Was the left against arms supplies to the Algerian resistance when it fought against French colonialism? Against arms supplies to the Vietcong in its fight against the US, even if they came from the not very fresh regimes in Moscow and Beijing? Against arms for Nicaragua or the resistance in El Salvador? No, at least not that left I identify with and always thought Kees belonged to. Anyone who, now that Ukraine and Russia are involved, suddenly takes the opposite position has something to explain, in my view.

For Kees, there are only two options. Either you belong to the camp that advocates negotiations or you are in favour of ’continuing to wage war, to support NATO ruthlessly, and to stand squarely behind Rutte and the armaments industry.’ and then you are ultimately partly responsible for an escalation to a nuclear confrontation between superpowers.

Like many others who call for negotiations, Kees also seems to believe that negotiations are in themselves a method to stop wars and that wars are generally brought to an end through negotiations. This seems to me to be a fallacy. One or more parties engage in acts of war if they believe that, despite the enormous cost of armed conflict, they can serve their interests better that way than without military combat. ’Going to war is a continuation of politics by other means,’ as Carl von Clausewitz put it. And they stop waging war when they are no longer able to continue it, have achieved their goals or consider that the military, political and economic costs of war no longer outweigh the result they can achieve.

Ending a war often (but certainly not always) involves negotiations. But that does not mean that negotiations are the cause of ending the war. Kees refers to the end of the war in Vietnam. Indeed, there were negotiations by the warring parties in Paris at the time, and even an agreement. But the end of the war was there when the Vietnamese fighters advanced to Saigon and the Americans left in haste and panic. A defeat that led to the so-called Vietnam trauma that kept the US from intervening elsewhere in the world for a long time.

Again: if the warring parties decide to negotiate, that is fine, and if they reach a peace settlement in the process, it is great, but it is not for us to pressure Ukraine, which is the victim of the Russian attack, to negotiate. And they (and especially the Russians) will only start negotiating if they believe that there is no further gain for them militarily.

Stop the war

One of the things Kees accuses me of doing with my piece is that I hit out ’at people who - unlike those Trotskyists - organise a protest rally every Monday evening in front of the Russian consulate in Amsterdam’. He is referring to the ’Stop the War!’ alliance in which 13 Amsterdam organisations, including SAP-Grenzeloos, and a number of individuals work together. Some of the Trotskyists of SAP-Grenzeloos, so detested by Kees, are very active in organising the weekly actions on Museumplein. Contrary to what Kees apparently believes, ’Stop the War’ has not signed the call of ’Stop Arms Trade’ on negotiations. Some participants support that call, others do not.

’Stop the War’, works on the basis of the three slogans: Stop the War / Russian troops out of Ukraine / Nuclear-free Europe. There is agreement on that. On other issues: calls for negotiations, arms supplies and whatnot, there are different opinions in this alliance, discussions and different views are presented on those points on their website. That seems to me a very normal and healthy way of working together. And I don’t see why I should hack at that.

I can also reassure Kees on another point. After he put me in the shoes of ’supporting NATO rücksichtslos, and standing squarely behind Rutte and the armaments industry.’ And the exclamation: ’What kind of backward position is that for the ’left’? ’ He continued with: ’Don’t you at least have a discussion about that that you would like to share with us?’ Yes Kees, we certainly do. On our site Grenzeloos, we have published dozens of articles over the past year about the war in Ukraine and everything related to it. And since on Grenzeloos readers can also post a comment, there has been extensive discussion, for example in response to my earlier piece.

Different times new dilemmas

The background to these discussions is, of course, the change in the world situation. For a very long time, we on the left mainly had to deal with the dominant US imperialism. The struggle of the solidarity movement with Vietnam, Latin and Central America, against apartheid in South Africa as well as the struggle against cruise missiles and the like were mainly a struggle against US imperialism, NATO and the Dutch government that supported it.

That situation has changed in recent years. US imperialism is less dominant than before and, in addition, other powers (especially China) have emerged. On top of that, especially under Trump, the US has adopted a more isolationist policy, leading to a crisis of NATO, for instance. In that context, Putin chose to invade Ukraine. That did not lead to the quick victory he had hoped for, with which he thought he could boost his declining domestic popularity and secure his re-election.

What he did achieve was to put the NATO crisis behind him in one fell swoop, spending on armaments and with it arms manufacturers’ profits skyrocketed, and the US and the EU got right behind Ukraine.

This led to an entirely new situation for the left. Those who stood in solidarity with Ukraine in its fight against imperialist attack were not, as in the past, against the US, NATO and the Dutch government, but on the same side. Some within the left responded by presenting the war in Ukraine as legitimate self-defence by Russia against the fascist regime in Kyiv and Navo’s encirclement of the Russian Federation. Others see the war as a proxy war between two superpowers with the Ukrainians merely acting as cannon fodder.

Both these views are, in my view, completely wrong and reprehensible and ignore the fact that the Russian attack cannot be qualified otherwise than as an imperialist attack on a sovereign country. And in such a case, the left cannot but support the victim and support Ukraine’s right to defend itself against Russian aggression. And that leads to a number of dilemmas for the left that I identified in my previous piece. ’How to prevent this war from escalating into an even greater conflict and the deployment of nuclear weapons? How to counterbalance the huge increase in armaments, the expansion of NATO, the impact on the climate crisis, the food crisis, the refugee crisis and so on and so forth. Nobody has ready-made answers to these, but the search for answers starts with a correct and honest analysis.’

That is what I think the discussion should be about, also on Konfrontatie but on the basis of arguments please.