As more than 3 million refugees flee Russian terror in Ukraine, mostly within the continent, Europe has thrown open its doors, giving housing and support in an unprecedented time frame of mere weeks. Save for the United Kingdom, European countries have admitted large numbers of Ukrainians into their own countries with enthusiasm while supplying those fighting in Ukraine with an equally unprecedented amount of arms. Berlin, in particular, has seemingly reversed its cautious approach to Russia, and the European Union as an entity has not only publicly committed to considering Ukrainian membership but has taken the unprecedented step of directly supporting Ukraine’s military efforts.
These swift actions stand in marked contrast with other recent conflicts and refugee crises, such as those produced by the conflicts in Syria and Libya. Journalists have spoken breathlessly about the exceptional horror of war in Europe and even the exceptional blondness of its victims. In some cases, this commentary is explicit: This war and its refugees matter more because they are like “us” either racially or culturally.
A reasonable response to this commentary might be that the Ukraine crisis showcases the hypocritical selectivity of Western hospitality. The warmer attitudes of the West toward Ukraine’s refugees may be due to their whiteness or international society’s propensity to humanize the West and dehumanize its adversaries—or simply those from elsewhere. Ostensibly rooted in humanitarian and legal paradigms of impartiality, Western hospitality turns out to be anything but, according to this criticism.
The double standard’s apparent racial dimension shows how subjective perceptions of distance and proximity establish geopolitical boundaries of empathy, animosity, and solidarity. This distance is not only physical but social—where the boundaries of “like us” and “unlike us” are changeable even though they are sensitive to the pressures and challenges of geography. The term “psychological distance” captures these subjective perceptions of distance—encompassing social, racial, temporal, and physical distance all at once. The main finding of psychological distance research is the more distant one perceives a sufferer to be, the less likely one feels and will do something for them. Empathy and cultural commonality are thus created together.
How distant one perceives something or someone is not set in stone, however. Because it is subjective, psychological distance is amenable to change and manipulation through education, narration, and media representation, especially in pop culture, schools, and workplaces. Displays of geographically distant suffering, often abstract from context and complexity, can reduce psychological distance and spur spectators to action. But as others have argued, our experience of what we see in these cases is mediated by technology, and we can act in response to it only through intermediaries.
Global humanitarianism has long been identified as a paradigmatic case of this problem of distance. Sufferers are often geographically and culturally remote—psychologically distant—from those in the West. Rather than rely on statistics or abstract accounts of humanitarian catastrophes, for example, humanitarian organizations show target audiences images and individual narratives of suffering, broadcasted into their homes and phones, to generate affective responses—and donations. Climate change activists also face the problem of distance: For many in the West, global warming’s effects are indirect, temporally and physically distant—out of mind and out of sight.
A distance dynamic is at play in the Ukraine conflict, where two elements have facilitated its effects as proximate to the West. First, Ukraine is aided in its struggle against Russia from the availability of an unambiguous narrative, where the Russian state is transparently aggressive and Ukrainians are victims of it. The moral clarity of this relationship helps Ukrainian refugees and defenders appear unthreatening and deeply sympathetic. Put differently, it shrinks distance. Minority media narratives focusing on the activities of the neo-Nazi Azov Battalion participating in Ukraine’s defense have not generated broader fears that Ukrainian refugee flows harbor potential terrorist elements or that weapons sent to Ukraine will eventually be turned against European communities—fears that stoked suspicion of Syrian refugees fleeing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the Islamic State, and indeed Russia.
Alongside this, existing fears in Central Europe of Russian bellicosity and interpersonal networks in the region mean Ukraine is familiar territory. It is familiar in the sense that it is full of friends and colleagues but also familiar in its fate; Ukraine is currently suffering an invasion that other national communities in the region worry they too will suffer—especially those in the Baltics and Poland. Ukraine’s war mirrors Central European fears and perhaps also activates cultural memories of World War II bombardment and displacement
This facilitates recognition, care, and solidarity in absorbing refugees and offering diplomatic or material support to Ukraine’s government (and troops). It goes beyond a compelling story and incorporates the concrete relationships and interests that define Central European economic and political life. Large historic populations of Ukrainian immigrants and their descendants in the United States and Canada furthermore tie the experiences (and fates) of Ukrainians in the “old country” to the cultural “ether”. And, notably, almost all Ukrainian refugees are women and children, who cannot easily be portrayed as threatening terrorist or sexual violence in the way young Arab and African men have been—the latter comprising a much higher proportion of Middle Eastern and African asylum-seekers.
Ukraine’s public diplomacy has promoted this narrative interpretation and skillfully activated those aforementioned relationships. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has (digitally) toured the parliaments of the Western world to consistently argue that Ukraine belongs in Europe’s civilizational and cultural community, is already part of the West, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine is an attack on the other members of that community by extension. Indeed, this may be the fundamental issue underlying the war itself—contestation by Russia over Ukraine’s social and political bid to exit the post-Soviet space, institutionally and culturally, and join that of Central and Western Europe. Ukraine’s efforts in this respect are international, such as in its application to join the European Union, but also domestic, in terms of how its institutions and culture are structured.
Combined, these elements have an overwhelming geopolitical effect: They locate the Ukraine war within the West, arousing the passions and actions of Westerners associated with psychological proximity to a greater degree than with any other recent conflict. Through vivid social media technologies, audiences can feel both real-time proximity and participation in Ukraine’s defense. The saturation of videos of Ukrainian injury and heroic struggle becomes a means through which audiences can witness the war—and witnessing is a form of moral participation. At the macrolevel, they contribute to the construction of distance and proximity.
The outpouring of support for Ukraine thus stems from practices of distancing: ours and theirs. The ways Ukraine positions itself as part of the West—and the ways those in the West respond to their physical proximity, cultural familiarity, and yes, even their physical appearance and its racial associations—contribute to the experienced closeness of their fight. This is not inevitable; it is part of the construction of civilizations and their geopolitical relationships. The West, Europe, and certainly racial categories or projects such as “whiteness” and its signifiers are all part of this process. As digital journalism lecturer Muhammad Idrees Ahmad puts it in Foreign Policy, “identity is not a fixed thing, and Christianity and whiteness have not always been a guarantor of hospitality”.
There are two implications for policy. First and foremost, Western support for refugees and victims of war is neither essential nor deterministic. Hospitality (or military support) shown to one group of people can be shown to another. At the same time though, the cultural and psychological work that goes into mobilizing solidarity depends on factors like physical distance or long-standing institutional relationships, and these things circumscribe periods of geopolitical emergency. Advocates of cosmopolitanism and global humanitarianism should bear this in mind when directing resources and forming expectations for aid.
Second, socially conscious commenters—or indeed all citizens of Western countries—should look for ways to push back against double standards that are empathetic and patient. This does not mean forgiving racism or xenophobia. It means showing some grace in what we expect from both individuals and populations. Commentators known for their level heads when it comes to foreign conflicts might suddenly lose their cool when it comes to those that feel much closer; populations may significantly vary their willingness to welcome refugees. These should be treated as emotional responses rather than calculated expressions of moral judgment. The problem of distance is that suffering must be felt to assign value to its victims. The harder it is to feel that suffering, the longer it takes for that value to be given.
Simon Frankel Pratt is a lecturer in political science at the School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Melbourne. Christopher David LaRoche is an assistant professor of international relations at Central European University.