Germany, Ukraine, and Habermas: An American Perspective

A decade ago, on one of his visits to the United States, I urged Jürgen Habermas to support the idea of a global democratic alliance that could replace the discredited United Nations Security Council and form a sufficient counterweight to rising threats from Russia and China. This idea, which is developed in my book, A League of Democracies, is based on the hopes of many reformers in the “Atlanticist” movement before the deep compromises of the UN Charter. But it also follows from the logic of Habermas’s own work on democratic theory, together with the central findings of game theory, which imply the need for reliable solidarity and cost-sharing among able nations for paramount goals such as securing the most basic human rights from the manifold threats of absolute tyranny.

But Habermas was unmoved. He remained too attached to the illusion that a decentralized “network” approach to global governance could be effective. And, despite his remarkable courage in defending humanitarian intervention in Kosovo, his thinking is too deeply marked by the mistaken ideology that somehow a diplomatic solution to war launched by a regime bent on mass murder must always be available. The refusal of European leaders to take any military action against the Russian-aided genocide in Syria revealed just how morally bankrupt that self-deceptive dogma can be. Insistence on this false dogma by so many in European left has become a major obstacle to the stronger unity among democratic nations that is now so indispensable against the existential threats coming from Moscow and Beijing. 

This makes Habermas’s recent arguments concerning the best response to Putin’s total war on Ukraine especially disappointing. He does not take the side of naïve pacifism, but he also rejects calls for a stronger military response from Germany – the most powerful nation in Europe. To date, despite renewed pledges on June 1, Olaf Scholz’s government has not delivered to Ukraine the promised heavy weapons that the incredibly brave and determined Ukrainian resistance so desperately needs, given NATO’s decision to let them fight on their own. The debates have clearly led Germany and France to be more afraid of sending heavy artillery that the US is. Without more support now, Ukraine may lose much of its vital Black Sea coast, well southwest of the Donbas region. Millions of refugees may be stuck in Poland and other European nations for years. Yet Habermas’s statements arrogantly dismiss the authentic, direct emotional response of young people to the manifest nobility of Ukraine’s President Zelensky and his forces as if such admiration were mere immaturity.

Let me respond here just as frankly. Because this attitude rules too much of the old guard in European center-left parties, the United States is once again (as in Bosnia and Kosovo) taking the lead to win a war for fundamental rights and self-determination within Europe. A war against a maniacally evil regime with all the hallmarks of fascism, including racial supremacism and a propaganda machine that would have impressed even Goebbels. A war of desperate self-defense by a people who already suffered millions of deaths in World War II, and millions earlier at the hands of a Soviet tyrant – while Europe stood by and did nothing to help them during the terror-famine of 1932-1933, in particular. Zelensky has just cause to be angry at the absence of more decisive German assistance. 

Nobody could accuse Habermas of being insensitive to this dark history. Nor is he a pacifist, as Adam Toose notes in a partial defense of Habermas. But its enormous historical debt alone ought to be decisive in motivating Germany to offer more serious military aid today – including long-range missiles and fighter aircraft. Appeasement, as we saw with Chancellor Merkel’s gambit at Minsk in 2014, will gain nothing with Putin. If the ideal of a rules-based international order is to survive in the 21st century, it must now be defended with hard power, and that means holding Russia to the promises it made in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum promising to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial boundaries. 

By contrast, Habermas’s recommendation that Germany be held hostage by outrageous nuclear threats will only encourage Putin or his successor to assume (so dangerously) that Germany (and maybe France) would not be willing to directly engage Russian forces even if Russia invaded a NATO nation such as Estonia or Latvia in the near future. Some critics on the left, such as Noam Chomsky, accuse the US of using Ukraine to fight a proxy war. But that criticism could be more fairly leveled at European nations for refusing to impose a no-fly zone and send military aircraft to Ukraine, especially to stop its use of bombers and artillery against Ukrainian housing. The nuclear fallacy is the excuse for refusing this highest level of military hardware. 

Experts at the Atlantic Council are now urging that tanks, F-16 fighter jets, and missile-armed helicopters be sent to Kiev. These burdens should not fall mostly on the US: German and French tanks could be transported to the southeastern front more swiftly.

Looking farther back, Germany ought to have supported, rather than opposed, Ukraine’s bid to enter NATO – especially after Putin annexed Crimea by force in 2014. If Ukraine had been admitted, Putin would have calculated that invading Ukraine again would risk world war. With such a hard deterrent, Ukraine would probably have been spared the total destruction and mass murder it is now suffering. 

Of course, it is easy for Americans who are much less dependent on Russian energy supplies and other trade with Russia to be judgmental. But such a weak-kneed response from Germany bolsters the destructive position new-right isolationists around Donald Trump who accuse European NATO partners, and Germany in particular, of free riding on American power. Joe Biden’s repeated declarations of a unified NATO response to Putin cannot hide the “German problem” from American audiences forever. 

But the past cannot be undone. The best option now is for Habermas and those who support his principles to support creating a new alliance with democratic nations across the globe that could be even stronger than NATO, more effective through supermajority votes rather than unanimous consent, and more legitimate through direct democratic representation of peoples in its member states. As Alex Görlach argued in 2019, both the EU’s coordination problems and cosmopolitan moral principles point towards the need for such a new global institution. Further appeasement now is unforgiveable, given what all of eastern Europe suffered at Soviet hands after the opportunity furnished to them by World War II.

As host of the upcoming G7 meeting, Germany has a historical opportunity to help right these past wrongs, not only with stronger military support for Ukraine, but by supporting the initiative backed by the British government to replace the G7 with a “Democratic 10” (D10), perhaps plus 2-4 further associate member nations. This is now seen by analysts at the Atlantic Council as an essential first step towards a broader global alliance of democracies that can secure a rules-based international order against the kind of naked aggression that is now destroying Ukraine and threatening Taiwan and the south Pacific region. Democracy will decline across the world unless leading democracies act decisively now in the small window of opportunity we have. Yet Germany is not working to admit South Korea into the G7, which is key to pushing the D10 initiative forward (India and Indonesia are invited, but not South Korea).

So I invite Habermas again to embrace the implications of his own theories. And I ask Chancellor Scholz and all his supporters to embrace the alternative of global democratic alliance that reaches well beyond NATO nations to all continents. This would be the best possible response to Putin’s mayhem: a global democratic alliance that can prevent further invasions, annexations, and mass atrocities, and thereby secure a future based on human rights and democracy in the 21st century.

7 thoughts on “Germany, Ukraine, and Habermas: An American Perspective

  1. John,

    As I mentioned to you earlier, I’m an outlier on my own blog on the subject of Ukraine. I may be the only person on this blog utterly opposed to involvement in Ukraine (or else the only one who’s vocalized that opposition). So this is one of the few times in my life where I find myself in agreement with Habermas. In fact, I’d probably go well beyond what he says in the article you link above.

    It seems to me that defenders of involvement in Ukraine have not dealt with some basic objections. Not an exhaustive list:

    (1) First, what is the basic principle that justifies intervention? I would insist that any principle that licenses military involvement make some essential reference to the military security of the countries engaged in the intervention. If the US is to intervene somewhere, there ought to be some clear sense in which the intervention is justified by a threat to us. It’s not sufficient that an egregious injustice or harm is being done somewhere, or that humanitarian values are threatened or at stake. The national security apparatus of the United States is not a self-appointed global police force, and should not be deployed that way. Deploying it that way explains why , despite its vaunted power, it hasn’t actually won a war since 1945. (The preceding applies whether we’re fighting an active war or engaged in a proxy war.)

    I not only see no national security threat to the US from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but see no serious attempts to demonstrate the existence of such a threat. Russia is off-handedly compared with the Third Reich, but is the invasion of Ukraine really comparable to the annexation of Austria, the occupation of Czechoslovakia, or the invasion of Poland? Even if it was, is that really tantamount to an invasion of Long Island? Nazi Germany and fascist Italy invaded Spain without any apparent ill effects on our national security. Was it evil? Yes. Was it relevant to our national security? No. The same could be said here.

    I’ve used the example of American corporate support for the Franco regime as an example of something that justifies “cancellation,” so it’s not as though I have any sympathy for Spanish fascism. But it doesn’t follow that we should have sent military aid to the Spanish republic, much less sent troops there.

    Anti-Fascist Questions for Anti-Woke Warriors

    For decades now, we’ve heard “national security experts” give us one or another form of domino theory argument premised on one or another analogy to Munich: if we don’t defend X, we’ll see the fall of Y; once we see the fall of Y, it will be too late to defend ourselves. The vast majority of these arguments have been nonsense. Accepting them has done far more harm to us than would have been done by plugging our ears and ignoring them. That’s what I would say about the threat posed to us by the Russian invasion. It’s about as much of a threat to us as was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

    (2) Second, despite all of the insistence on sending arms to Ukraine for allegedly humanitarian purposes, it’s amazing how little has been done of a genuinely humanitarian nature to help the Ukrainians right here in the US. Millions of Ukrainians have been made refugees as a result of the war. How many of them are being permitted into the US? 100,000. There are probably more homes flying Ukrainian flags in this country than there are homes housing Ukrainian refugees.

    The 100,000 figure is a perfect indication of the disingenuousness of “aid” sent to Ukraine for “humanitarian” reasons. The United States could, in principle, accommodate all of the Ukrainian refugees, but isn’t coming anywhere close to that, and has no intention of ever doing so. Meanwhile, it’s underwriting a war for the Donbas where the probabilities of victory are low if not zero. You could argue that we could do both things–accommodate refugees and fight a proxy war for the Donbas–but realistically, we have to choose. At a minimum, we have to choose priorities. Why should the higher priority be on the less viable goal, and the lower priority be on the more obviously achievable and more obviously ameliorative goal?

    (3) Third, there is the question of prior claims on our resources. If invasion and occupation are bad things, we should be ratcheting back the invasions and occupations for which we’re responsible before we start un-doing the invasions and occupations for which we have much less responsibility.

    One of them is Afghanistan, whose refugee crisis is partly our doing, and which we’ve left unresolved as though it had nothing to do with us. Our attitude toward Afghanistan seems like something out of The Great Gatsby: we invaded; occupied the country for twenty years; predictably failed at “building a nation” there; then washed our hands of the place just as blithely as the British washed their hands of India, and with roughly the same consequences. The Russian invasion of Ukraine gives us the perfect opportunity to “move on” without having to notice that it was our proxy war in Afghanistan in the 1980s that created the problem there that we sought to “resolve” in the 2000s. “Moving on” from its own failures appears to be the single forte of the US defense establishment. Losing wars and not counting the costs are the two things they do best.

    The other example, in a way the more egregious one, is Palestine. The Israeli occupation of Palestine is now in its 55th year–bankrolled, armed, even staffed, and given bipartisan moral support by the US for the duration. Israel’s siege of Gaza has been fully as depraved and bloody as anything that the Russians have done in Ukraine, except they’ve done it for far, far longer than the Russians have, and with our explicit support. If our concern is with undoing an invasion and occupation, how about starting with the occupation that we ourselves have supported to the tune of billions of dollars for the last five+ decades? Why does liberating the Donbas and the Crimea take precedence over liberating the West Bank and Gaza? Again, it’s not plausible to think that we can “multitask” our way to victory in Ukraine and a roll-back of the Israeli occupation. We have to set priorities and choose. I would say that the higher priority goes to the task for which we have greater prior responsibility.

    (4) Finally, it’s not clear what the end-game in Ukraine is supposed to be, and what cost is acceptable for achieving it. One goal is the full liberation of Ukrainian territory acquired by Russia since February. Another is the full liberation of Ukrainian territory acquired by Russia in the last decade. A third goal is “weakening” Russia so as to render it incapable of repeating another aggression. Set aside the fact that these are hardly the same aim. Even the most minimal of the three seems a low probability event. Or if that seems overly pessimistic, even the most minimal of the three would exact a colossal cost over an indeterminate time horizon. One danger is that the costs are such as to produce a Pyrrhic victory. Defenders of the Ukraine war seem reluctant to discuss that possibility, but it seems the most likely of all of the alternatives involving victory (which is not to say that victory itself is the most likely alternative).

    At a bare minimum, we need an explicit discussion of costs and limits. How much would be too much? Is it really worth spending the next ten years fueling a proxy war, only to find ourselves just about where we were in June 2022? That seems to be where the defenders of war are leading us.

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    • Very quick replies (nothing like an organized, systematic response). Numbers correspond to your numbering, Irfan.

      (1a) Why does there need to be a threat to us? If I see someone beating up an innocent stranger, my reason to intervene is obvious: because this would put a stop to this human being wronged, in a pretty horrible way, by this other human. In the right circumstances (being able to do something to help, doing so coming at only a small cost to myself), I’m probably morally required to intervene (in some specified way, not in just any way). Maybe there are good reasons why this kind of basic moral logic does not apply when the agents are states (or, more likely, applies in a different way), but we should specify what these reasons are.

      (1b) Whether or not to take on a public policing function is a separate issue from that of whether or not to render aid to thwart aggression (wronging, injustice). Policing authorities are necessary, including in the international realm. When these cannot be constituted by way of something like democratic consensus, one might well be in a position such that one has most reason (or even is ethically obligated) to be this power oneself (“this town has a sheriff now, boys!”). Why doesn’t the U.S. have more reason to do this (in a certain way, with as many and as many good allies as possible) than not? From the general, public international standpoint, that’s not ideal. And it may well be that we take advantage of our position (but so would whatever authorities that would be in charge of a more legitimate, public international organization, right?). Are there better options available? I take it that “not having any global policing authority” and “letting Russia and China set the terms for the international order” are terrible options (that might meld into the same option).

      (2) Perhaps correcting or fighting the wrongful aggression is more important than rendering aid to victims of the aggression? This seems right to me. Stalemate in the Donbas seems achievable (and the quickest path to peace; righting the wrong here or having apology/amends made is off the table except maybe in the very long term). Also, though it is not the main reason for standing up to a bully (objecting to and doing something about wrongdoing is), doing this is usually important for deterring the bullies. I find this “more contingent” moral logic pretty compelling, too. Of course, what is done along these lines needs to be calibrated to the risk of catastrophic escalation (in this case, the use of nuclear weapons, perhaps a lot of them). (I did not agree with Habermas’ way of doing this calibration — it was not clear to me how it was not just capitulating to nuclear blackmail. But I did not see any such calibration at all in John’s post. On further reflection, that is my biggest problem with it.)

      (3) Competing demands on resources aside, not all invasions (or violent, aggressive actions) are created equal. Suppose self-appointed Sheriff Michael shoots some of the cattle thieves, puts some in his basement (converted into a jail). He even, on reasonable evidence, preemptively breaks up a cattle theft ring. One of the plotters is killed, the rest jailed in Michael’s basement, and their range home gets burned to the ground. One of the plotters’ innocent kids gets seriously hurt, his leg is broken. Another kid is an orphan now. My newly-deputized deputy, Irfan, is shot in the arm. Well, I’m not (and you’re not) an invader, occupier, usurper. Even if I’m culpable regarding the house getting burned down, the one kid getting his leg broken, the other kid being orphaned, you getting shot in the arm. That just makes me a less competent policing power than I should be. Regarding competing demands on resources in such a context, it might well be that making sure my jail is secure (or going after another bad guy) properly takes priority over tending to the kid’s broken leg and your bleeding bullet-holed arm. How similar (or not similar) for nations and relations between nations?

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  2. Welcome, John! I’m sympathetic to most of what you say here. To keep myself honest, I need to think about what the most plausible counterpoints are (or perhaps someone here can provide them [oh, there is Irfan — ed.]). Here is something that I’m curious about. Like Tyler Cowen, you seem to take Germany to effectively not be part of the Atlantic alliance (or something close to this). But you seem to take this to be a remediable thing (and I’m not sure he does). This is probably a matter of degrees, a matter of how likely it is to bring Germany back into the fold (and a different, better fold — a new, different formal organization and alliance to oppose autocratic regimes setting the tone and rules of the international order and threatening democracy and human rights). Nonetheless, you seem to come down on the ‘remediable’ side. I don’t know enough to say whether that is right or wrong, but I’d be interested in you expressing your view here in more detail and defending it.

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      • I found Herman to be sort of all over the place. Some of his points are good. The corporate media is pushing an overly simplistic, moralized narrative (and this heightens the danger of our just not thinking realistically about risks, about what measure of justice it is realistic to achieve, etc.). Habermas is also pretty keen on this important point. Simplistic moralism makes you stupid and dangerous.

        I took at least one of Herman’s main points to be that (a) NATO expansion (and some other stuff concerning the Maidan revolution) triggered Russian aggression and (b) we are, to some extent, on all fours with Russia as an imperial power.

        I mostly disagree with these points. I tend to think of NATO expansion (and pro-democracy influence, including plenty of dicey politics) as analogous to the process of decriminalizing a population (and taking power away from the criminals sufficiently) such that a regime of impartial law and policing powers can be put in place and stick. It is just that, on the international scene, we are at some stage in the “self-appointed sheriff trying to gain allies and popular/democratic legitimacy” stage of things. Maybe useful as well to compare to the Mexican government dealing with its powerful bad actors (the drug lords). It matters that the Mexican government are not only the good guys generically, but good guys who are trying to achieve a vital public good and trying to do so while maintaining public legitimacy. So: both “realist” and left-wing moral-equivalence strategic frames get the normative landscape wrong in an important way. They are useful only to the extent that, abstracting from who is and is not fundamentally a wrongdoer (or criminal), we can usefully ask about what a generic threatened nation (who has the power to wreak havoc) might do if another nation does this or that.

        I fully realize that having this position without slipping into the kind of simplistic (and corporate-media-driven) moralism that Herman and Habermas are decrying here is hard. Start with this: we are pretty biased and not always so competent anti-autocracy world-police leaders and the agents (nations) that we are taking it upon ourselves to police do not always neatly fall into wrongdoer and not-wrongdoer categories. Also, if muddying conditions like these are strong enough, my analogy gets weaker. But the devil here is in the details and I don’t have a theory of what those details are and how they are relevant — so my position (and my reliance on my law-enforcement analogy) is inevitably driven, at crucial points, by my intuitive take on things.

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  3. Thanks all, and sorry I take a while to respond — many balls in the air at once. I agree with the argument that “both “realist” and left-wing moral-equivalence strategic frames get the normative landscape wrong in an important way.” While NATO nations are hardly perfect, relatively speaking we are the good guys and there is nothing imperialist in affirming that reality against the kind of crony kleptocracy we see in so many military dictatorships around the world now.

    Re just a couple of Irfan’s many interesting points, I generally follow just war theory in a partly cosmopolitan conception of its famous norms. Any decent government has moral permission to help another decent regime defend its population against unjust aggression, especially invasion by another nation without just cause. Whether US policy should limit involvement based on a narrowly defined set of national interests depends partly on a prediction of the dangers that Russia’s regime (and China’s) pose to democratic nations. The details are not exactly a domino theory, but one might see Georgia, Syria, Crimea, and the Donbas as a series of dominoes. I think that danger is huge and growing annually, but this is largely an empirical matter.

    The harder moral question is whether there is some kind of duty to intervene. Here collective action enters the picture. My book argues for something like a duty to create a world policeman when there is none, and emphasizes that the US cannot play this role (so I agree with Irfan and others on this). The D10 idea, with a larger alliance of democracies to follow, is a pathway towards that end. This would allow the US to pull back from many places where we have forward-positioned troops and bases (so I agree that we have too much military presence in too many spots). I also agree that the occupation of the West Bank is wholly unjust and that we should stop supporting it.

    But Germany is now starting to play the role of spoiler by not doing its share of the work in building such an alliance. I’m also arguing in the original post that Germany has special historical duties to Ukraine. I think both Germany and France, but especially Germany, have a much stronger obligation to intervene more directly to save Ukraine than the US does, and I’m angry that the US is again, in another European war, providing most of the military assistance. To use the helpful fire brigade analogy, imagine that families A and B did nothing some 90 years ago when family C’s house was torched by family D (the terror-famine). 12 years after that, family B torched C’s partly rebuild house (the Nazis in Ukraine). Now C’s house, rebuilt with great labor over two generations, has again been set on fire by D. In response, B has refused to establish a fire brigade — it refers fires to a committee on which D the arsonist has a veto. And B refuses to help fight the new fire despite its direct debt to C. It might send C a few short hoses, but not any long ones. What should we think of family D in light of all this?

    That said, Irfan is right that we have done almost nothing for the refugees. Poland and Germany have done a lot, and that is important.

    Agreed that Afghanistan was a disaster. The government we established there was never multiethnic enough in leadership to last. The safe haven that the Taliban had in parts of Pakistan was still a big factor in the defeat. As for the endgame in Ukraine, I think the Donbas could be sacrificed but nothing more. The media is not focusing enough on the Russian occupation of Mariupol and much of the coast west of it. This southern coast cannot be ceded to Russia at all in my view. I do think direct military action by NATO to repel Russian forces from these areas would be warranted. But then we get into the nuclear issue, which I will not try to address here.

    Thanks. It is an emotional issue unfortunately. Hard for it not to be.

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