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.