For a moment the general did not reply; he was smiling his curious red-lipped smile. Then he said slowly, “No. You are wrong, sir. The Cape buffalo is not the most dangerous big game.” He sipped his wine. “Here in my preserve on this island,” he said in the same slow tone, “I hunt more dangerous game.”
–Richard Connell, “The Most Dangerous Game“
Anyone who favors intervention in the war in Ukraine owes it to themselves to read about the emerging consensus on nuclear war over Ukraine. A year ago, anyone who brought the subject up was dismissed as a pacifist, a scare-monger, a defeatist, or a crank. Now, a little over a year later, the idea of nuclear war is being normalized in military circles in both the United States and in Russia. Sober, respectable, mainstream strategists are now beginning to speak and write as though nuclear war was just another one of those things that’s headed our way, and will just take a bit of getting used to.
The place to start is Dmitry Adamsky’s “Russia’s New Nuclear Normal,” in Foreign Affairs (May 19, 2023). In general, Foreign Affairs is all in favor of the war in the usual, “cautious” centrist way: a prudent, judicious application of force, they seem to think, will gradually but inevitably lead to a morally justified victory in Ukraine. Well, here is how Adamsky’s piece ends:
The current relatively relaxed state of mind among Western analysts about the prospects of Russian nuclear brandishing makes it more difficult for them to decipher the genuineness of the escalatory and eschatological intents of Russia’s leadership and of the country’s nuclear operators. But the new nuclear normal in Russia is likely to increase the obedience of operators in response to escalatory nuclear orders from Russia’s leadership. And if Russia experiences civilian-military instability, the chances of unsanctioned use could go up.
Translation: we don’t realize how close to nuclear war we really are, but we’re getting there. How nuclear war will, by prudent centrist-approved steps, lead us to a morally justified victory, is anyone’s guess. But guesswork seems to be the best anyone can do. It’s not as though we have much prior experience to rely on.
The next place to go is former Brigadier General Kevin Ryan’s piece in Russia Matters (May 17, 2023), bluntly titled “Why Putin Will Use Nuclear Weapons in Ukraine.” Here is the first paragraph (you’ll have to read it in the original for the embedded hyperlinks):
Recent developments in Ukraine suggest Russian military commanders have exhausted their ability to effectively respond to a Ukrainian escalation in fighting, which is expected any day. An influx of 300,000 new soldiers over the winter has done little to improve the fighting of Russian units, and the reported appearance of 1950s Russian tanks near the battlefield confirms Russian materiel is running out. President Vladimir Putin’s bombing campaigns have not broken Ukraine. It is becoming clear, in my view, that the only way he can meet escalation with escalation is by introducing nuclear weapons.
I don’t think that needs further translation.
Ryan is himself undeterred by the prospect of nuclear war. Apparently, the war must go on, even if civilization is brought to an end. Elsewhere, Ryan has the nerve to advise us–particularly those of us in health care–to start our preparations for the inevitable. From an interview in the online journal Responsible Statecraft:
RS: You argue in the piece that “[n]one of this is to say that we in the West should pressure Ukraine to forgo its goal to liberate all seized territory. But it does mean that we should anticipate a nuclear weapon will be used and develop our possible responses accordingly.” How should the West approach such a possibility?
[Ryan:] It’s been many, many years since the American military has practiced operating on a battlefield that has nuclear weapons being used. So that’s number one: We should be practicing more for a nuclear battlefield.
Number two is that we should be thinking ahead about what are the things you need both for the military people and more broadly for the civilian people who are impacted or affected by a nuclear blast. We do not have sufficient medical facilities and a backfill of bandages and medicines that are particular and special to nuclear injuries. We don’t have the right kinds of materials stored up and ready to use. Just like we’ve already seen, the intensity of this war has demanded levels of ammunition and material and manpower that were totally unexpected by the Russians or the Ukrainians. So the same would go for what we would find a day after a nuclear weapon exploded.
As a former front-line hospital worker, I would give the reverse advice: I think health care workers, including health care practitioners within the military itself, should make clear to General Ryan et al that they have no intention whatsoever of preparing for nuclear war. It might clear these strategists’ heads a bit to realize that they face the prospect of a general strike by the people they’re so blithely impressing into service. Then again, it might not. It’s hard to know how to deal with someone ignorant enough to think that a “backfill of bandages” is going to help front-line medical workers in the event of nuclear war. In most contexts, a “Band Aid” solution is self-evidently meant as a joke. Only among military thinkers are “bandages” considered a viable response to apocalypse.
In any case, a year or so into the war, competent, thoughtful writers have gotten past mere polemics and name-calling to offer well-argued, historically-informed arguments against involvement in Ukraine. To that end, I would recommend two pieces, both titled “Why Are We in Ukraine?” One comes from roughly left of center: Benjamin Schwarz and Christopher Layne’s piece in the June 2023 issue of Harper’s. Another comes from right of center: Christopher Caldwell’s piece in the Summer 2022 issue of the Claremont Review of Books. I much prefer Schwarz and Layne’s emphasis on American hubris to Caldwell’s emphasis on the “woke” quality of pro-war sentiment, but Caldwell’s piece shows a certain prescience that Schwarz and Layne, in the nature of the case, cannot. Anyway, I don’t much care: pick your anti-war flavor, Right or Left; beggars can’t be choosers.
Schwarz and Layne make many valuable points, but in a way, this paragraph captures the crux of their argument:
The point here is not to make arguments of moral equivalency. Rather, given that, historically, Washington has responded aggressively to situations similar to those in which it has placed Russia today, the motive for Russian aggression in Ukraine is likely not expansionist megalomania but exactly what Moscow declares it to be—defensive alarm over an expansive rival’s military influence in a bordering and strategically essential neighbor. To acknowledge this is merely the first step U.S. officials must take if they wish to back away from the precipice of nuclear annihilation and move instead toward a negotiated settlement grounded in foreign policy realism.
Morality is a wonderful thing, but moralism about Ukraine has rendered the war’s defenders blind to alternative explanations for Putin’s aggression than the one implicit in their reflexive resort to Hitler analogies. Putin, they keep telling us, is Hitler. Hitler was unappeasable. Hitler couldn’t be negotiated with. Hitler had to be stopped. Ukraine 2022 was Poland 1939. Poland deserved our support; hence Ukraine deserves our support. If we don’t stop Putin in Ukraine, he’ll just barrel through Europe, just like Hitler. Who in this day and age could permit Hitler to ride again?
The whole argument turns on the threadbare assertion that Putin is Hitler–and no one but Hitler. He’s not Lenin, or Stalin, or Khruschev or Brezhnev. He’s not Hirohito, or Franco, or Mussolini. No: he’s Hitler. That means that Ukraine is Poland, that NATO is the Western Alliance, and that involvement in Ukraine requires no further argument than that. In other words, Putin is the main protagonist in our favorite morality play, a play that we in the West intend to re-enact over and over, even if it kills us all.
It might profit us to ask why it’s so obvious that Putin can be equated with Hitler, and what evidence we have of his unappeasibility, or of the futility of negotiating with him, or of our “having” to stop him. But we can’t even ask these questions in a climate of opinion which equates the act of asking them with sympathy for Hitler–or Putler or Hitlin, or whatever.
Nor can we achieve clarity about the relevant questions without challenging the amnesia, self-delusion, and narcissism that dominates American thinking about key events in our own recent history–from the Cuban Missile Crisis, to Vietnam, to Bosnia, to Afghanistan, to the Gulf Wars, to Libya, to the Bucharest Summit.
Schwarz and Layne focus on the Cuban Missile Crisis, but consider just one unheralded example from a different context: A recent report suggests that “the West,” led by the United States, managed to kill 4.5 million people in its quest to avenge 9/11. That’s not a small number. Nor does it seem rationally tailored to the task of self-defense against Al Qaeda. It seems like the kind of thing you would expect if you let a bunch of unhinged psychopaths out into the world with modern weapons; gave them a blank moral check to kill, maim, and torture as many people as they pleased; permitted them to forget the fact that all that killing eventuated in a series of humiliating fuck-ups and defeats; and then gave them free rein somewhere else, with the same blank check, and the same encouragement to do it all over again. Can people of that caliber really claim the moral high ground on anything?
A silver lining in the (mushroom?) cloud: no one can claim at this point that the critique of involvement in the war is the exclusive province of “anti-Semites” like John Mearsheimer, or “hate America first” lunatics like Noam Chomsky. Neither claim is true, of course, but it’s a good thing that the case against involvement in Ukraine can no longer plausibly be associated with–or dismissed by invoking–the (alleged) character flaws or personal oddities of this or that dissident. Even defenders of the war are now starting to admit that the war is bringing us closer to the nuclear brink, and it doesn’t seem too far-out or crazy to ask if we have a good reason for heading there. Nuclear peril aside, I have yet to see a convincing rebuttal of the case against involvement in Ukraine, or a convincing instance of the case for. If the preceding considerations don’t furrow some pro-war brows, I wonder what will.
“The Most Dangerous Game”
Is it Dodgeball?
I don’t think it’s Dodgeball.
The first of those trailers looks the best.
It’s odd, I hadn’t read or even thought about “The Most Dangerous Game” since high school, where I first read it. I read it for English class in maybe 1983 or 84. It suddenly occurred to me out of the blue when I wrote this post, so I re-read it, and enjoyed it as thoroughly as I did when I first read it.
I just looked up my English teacher, Mrs Moffat, and found this.
Her husband George was my other favorite English teacher.
Time flies, as they say.
Your reply inspired me to look up my favourite English teacher from high school. Turns out she died in 1999. This game is no fun.
I see she was the same age I am now when she died. This is even less fun.
It isn’t. I regret not looking her up before. She was a very powerful formative influence–a very sensitive person, very affectionate, and caring–in some ways more attached to me than I was capable of being attached to anyone. By some weird irony, she was the person who first introduced me to Ayn Rand, or maybe anti-introduced me to Rand. She gave me a copy of The Fountainhead to read, telling me how much I would love it, but daunted by its length, I put it off, and didn’t end up reading it for another five years (in college). In June 1984 (the last time I saw her; I think she was leaving our school) she gifted me a copy of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio which I still have, along with the very sweet inscription she wrote in front.
It was thoughtless of me not to have looked her up. Amazing testimony to the power of education, however. I mentioned her in this interview-ish thing I did for the alumni magazine back in 2018 (p. 19).
I don’t see why Putin is compared so much to Hitler. Why wouldn’t he be better compared to Kaiser Wilhelm launching an aggression in WWI and getting stuck? Or for that matter, compared to G W Bush launching an aggression in Iraq and getting stuck (and broke)?
I doubt the aggressor in Ukraine is going to come to the bargaining table until after the US Presidential election of 2024. He can hope for a Republican win of the White House and Congress and withdrawal of some US military support in defense of Ukraine. If only he can hold some lines in Ukraine and hold onto his seat in Russia until then.
Today I read of a wide police raid in Germany and Vienna in search of information on a network of violent environmentalists. Apparently they have been blocking traffic, damaging treasured paintings in museums, and gluing themselves to public things such as an ancient statue in the Vatican. What strikes me about these behaviors and the rhetoric in America too about impact of changes in the environment is their desperation. Many seem to think the world or anyway what is precious in the world is about to end on account of environmental change. These last few years of that desperation is so striking to me because it seems plain enough in the land of common sense that the world will be ending, but not by environmental changes, which are sufficiently gradual for, say, the rich people in the world to shift their seaside real estate holdings to higher ground; rather, the world is going to end my all-out nuclear war. Ever since they were developed that has been case. Even a mutual disarmament will not change the eventual annihilation of the higher species of animals by this route; the nuclear knowledge remains. Dreams of some human escape via colonizations in outer space are foolishness in reality. It is going to happen, and the rising to nuclear crisis that Irfan wrote about is the sort of situation in which the layers of safeties can be unlatched, and eventually in the crisis, the bombs let fly, including from effective American submarines. I have long accepted that human nature will not be changing, and that includes human nature in collective actions. I have long accepted the eventual nuclear demise of the human species. I’ve gotten some interesting psychological responses to my outlook. Some see my outlook as some sort of disloyalty to human existence, which response I can’t help but seeing as subjectivist. That the human race will end and all trace of its existence eventually disappear is no erasure of the fact that it had existed, that value had come into and gone out of the inanimate universe. And, for that matter, that the human line had been its own self-worth. Like the life of any individual human.
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“Like THE life of any individual human.”
I don’t know enough about environmental issues to comment intelligently about them one way or the other, but it’s obvious enough that nuclear war is a faster route to destruction than virtually any environmental problem we face. It just seems that there’s a widespread, unjustified sense that, like the Cold War, nuclear war is passe. No need to worry about it now, since the danger is in the past.
I must be perennially naive or credulous, but I’ve been amazed at the speed with which all the lessons of the Cold War have been forgotten. Maybe they were never really learned. Democrats and Republicans alike have now taken to talking about Russia in just the way that the most belligerent Reagan Republicans talked about “rolling back” the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Neither party has any sense of limits, of unintended consequences, or of the dangers of entanglement in foreign wars. The Harper’s article I mentioned describes the myopia of some of the higher-level members of the military officer corps. It’s astonishing. How can such people be in charge of our military policy? The question itself is probably naive. It’s doubtful anyone can be in charge of such a thing.
I think the “War on Terror” has functioned as a means of de-sensitizing us to wartime casualties and atrocities. Our leaders no longer have to make explicit arguments about the threats we face, or why their responses to them are defensive, proportional, appropriate, etc. They just invoke infantile phrases like “Bad Guy,” engage in a bit of ahistorical demonology, fabricate some analogy to Hitler, engage in loose talk about “genocide,” and look for dirt on anyone who disagrees. That seems to be all anyone needs to get involved in a war nowadays. We seem to be juggling two actual and two potential wars all at once: against Terror, against Russia, against Iran, and against China. It strikes me as surreal, but few people seem all that worried.
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An article on those protests (and the police response) that Stephen mentioned:
I don’t think Putin will use nuclear weapons. Russia would be obliterated. It’d be beyond stupid. But let’s say he would, and so to avoid that outcome Ukraine gives up its territory in a negotiated peace. What’s the lesson here for Putin? Brandish one’s willingness to go nuclear and everyone rolls over. So why stop at Ukraine? Why not reclaim the Baltic states or eastern Europe? And the arguments to do with the crimes and hypocrisy of western governments and in particular the USA are in some sense irrelevant to what’s happening now, a form of whataboutism. Yeah the USA has done terrible things but that doesn’t justify Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Nobody should be invading anybody.
I disagree with all of that. Let me take it point by point.
“I don’t think Putin will use nuclear weapons. Russia would be obliterated. It’d be beyond stupid.”
I don’t think Russia would be obliterated. You are hugely overestimating the consistency of American military strategists. You’re assuming that they will follow out the decades of doctrine they’ve fed the world, that a Russian nuclear strike of Ukraine would be met by full scale nuclear retaliation by the mighty American arsenal. It might, in which case we’re all dead. But there is another, much more likely scenario.
Putin, backed into a corner, decides to use a small set of tactical nuclear weapons. At first, there would be no clear way to establish what kind of weapon he had used: a very big conventional weapon or tactical nuclear weapons?
Even if the latter were established with certainty, US military strategists would then finally come face to face with the idiocy of their doctrine: are they really going to initiate a full scale nuclear strike for that? Doing so would mean Russia’s annihilation as well as our own.
At that point, it would suddenly dawn on these people what should be obvious right now: Ukraine serves no important national security interest of the United States. It literally does not matter to our security whether Ukraine is Russian or free, whether the Ukrainians all live or all die. We survived Stalin’s Holodomor, didn’t we? Did the Ukrainian famine touch us? Not in the least. So why would we risk the destruction of our country by initiating a nuclear strike over Ukraine? I can assure you: we would not. And because Putin knows that, it is very risky, but not “stupid” for him to use tactical nuclear weapons. He knows how full of shit we are. The problem is, we don’t.
This is why Biden, when questioned about how he would respond to a Russian use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine, suddenly backpedaled on that famous doctrine of theirs, the one I learned when I was training to be a diplomat–“mutually assured destruction.” The doctrine says: it is imperative that Russian nuclear first strike meet full scale American nuclear counter-strike.
What did Biden actually say? Let me quote him:
“It would be irresponsible for me to talk about what we would or wouldn’t do.”
Really? After 75 years of telling the world what we absolutely, positively, can and would and must do, it’s now suddenly become “irresponsible” to repeat what we’ve always told them?
This is Biden’s way of saying that he has no intention of annihilating Russia over Ukraine, lest Russia annihilate us over Ukraine. If I know that, so does Putin. As General Ryan says in the article I linked, the United States is now signaling that it will not use nuclear weapons in retaliation for a Russian first use. That isn’t very consistent of us, but it’s a mistake to expect consistency from the United States.
This is the very cynical view of America that Putin and I wholeheartedly share. Once you adopt it, you can see why Putin does not regard the prospect of Russian annihilation with as much certainty as you do. He sees that the Americans are only willing to pursue warfare in Ukraine at zero risk to themselves. Once any real risk or cost presents itself, the Americans will desert and betray the Ukrainians–as we have deserted and betrayed absolutely everyone else under similar conditions. My point is: since that is true, we should never have gotten involved at all.
On the next point:
There are many different responses I could give here, but simplest one is to ask back: so what if he does? So what if Putin–the guy who has depleted his army taking the eastern quarter of Ukraine–decides to invade the Baltics and Eastern Europe?
Here is a hard fact: it doesn’t matter to our national security whether the Baltics and Eastern Europe are under Russian control or not. Once upon a time, they were under Soviet hegemony. We lived. Then they became free. We were not appreciably benefited, except as tourists.
Suppose those countries are once again occupied by Russia. So what? It would certainly be tragic–I have good friends in Slovakia, and have a sentimental attachment to Hungary and Poland–but how would it affect the national security of either the United States or Australia? We now have decades’ worth of experiments to show that it wouldn’t. Whether those countries are under Russian hegemony or free of it, our security has always remained what it was.
Imagine that tomorrow, Algeria conquered Libya. Or Egypt conquered Sudan. Or Congo invaded Uganda. Would anyone in the US or Australia work themselves up into a lather about the horror of these events, and insist on defending the invaded country? Would the sheer immorality of the acts turn the defense of these countries into a national security imperative for us? I don’t see how. And I don’t see how in the European cases, either.
Both the United States and Australia are blessed by their geographic distance from these quarrels. The United States, at least, is cursed by geographic proximity to other quarrels. My suggestion: be grateful for that, and focus on the actual threats you face. Neither country faces a threat over Ukraine, or the Baltics, or Romania, or whatever. The whole thing is a distraction.
If Putin conquered these places, he’d soon discover that it’s one thing to conquer, and another to occupy. If he wants to drain Russia’s resources on that endeavor, we should simply watch, and try to avoid doing it ourselves.
I’m a fervent, unapologetic “whataboutist.” “Whataboutism” is just an anti-euphemism for inquiry, consistency, and prudence. A “whataboutist” is just someone who refuses to adopt this week’s party line, but asks about the connections between this week’s party line and last week’s, or last month’s–and then asks how they affect the future.
What “whataboutism” reveals in this case is that the United States (and the Western Alliance generally) is congenitally incapable of learning from past mistakes. We (but especially the US) have previously made the mistake of blundering into wars, not because we had any actual national security interest at stake, but because we thought we could wage a war that was damaging to our enemies at minimal cost or risk to ourselves. The method is, as far as possible, to outsource the fighting to someone else, just as we outsource unpleasant labor to other people. When the costs exceed a certain threshold, or the risks become real, we betray our “allies” and move on to the next set of “allies,” which we treat with as much feigned concern and unfeigned contempt as the last. If you want a vivid picture of that, think of the Afghan and Ukrainian refugees trying to enter the United States from Mexico, and not getting in.
If we really cared about Ukrainians, we would be acting on the reverse of the priorities on which we’re currently acting. Instead of prolonging the war, we would have done our best to shorten it. Instead of rendering Ukrainian refugees “inadmissible,” we would have let them in. Instead of lecturing the Russians about their false view of World War II, we might remember that they were the ones who liberated the death camps, not us. Instead of ridiculing the Russian fear of encirclement, we might remember our own fear during the Cuban Missile Crisis–a fear of “encirclement” borne of a handful of missiles in Cuba mirroring our own missiles in Europe. If we forget all this, what remains is simply war propaganda.
Whataboutism is the only defense against the lures of propaganda, the only way to become immune to it. Whataboutism is the only way to grasp the connections that reveal our “foreign policy” to be a psychopathic game, not the moral crusade it presents itself as being. The foreign policy of the Western allies is a contemptible charade, the brazen lies of people who talk about “freedom” and “dignity” but have no compunction about driving refugees from their shores, the better to let them drown in the Mediterranean or the Rio Grande.
Whataboutism isn’t empty moralism. It’s the only way to learn from history. The lesson it teaches: There is no reason to believe the lies of our leaders, and no reason to participate in their game. The least we can do is insist that if they want to play, they do it without our help.
You make some good points. In response. Every great power and most small ones bullshit about their high moral standards while failing to meet them. But I would still far rather be bullied by the US than China or Russia. Our values, tarnished as they are, are simply better in my view. You’re welcome to disagree though. Mutual deterrents. I think Biden was being coy in refusing to be drawn. But I do think the US would respond in kind. We’ll see I guess. Or hopefully not. Re the irrelevance of eastern Europe to Australia and the US, I think that’s naive. Europe is a major trading partner, political bloc and ally against China. Australia may not give a stuff about Poland as an individual country but it needs Europe.
Europe (including Ukraine) is still trading with Russia despite the war. So even if we imagine a total Russian takeover of all of Europe (which is itself more fantasy than anything else), it’s a non-sequitur to imagine that we lose Europe as a trading partner. In that case, we continue to trade with a Europe under Russian hegemony, just as we trade with China despite its being a communist state, or traded with Russia itself before the sanctions.
These same arguments–if we don’t invade, we will suffer dire economic consequences–were made when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. What if he invades Saudi Arabia?, it was asked. Yes, what if? “Then he would have control of the oil.” Right, and what would he do with it? Drink it? If he doesn’t sell it, the oil is of no use to him. If he sells it, we buy it. If he jacks up the price, we pay more or seek other sources. None of it was worth war.
But let’s indulge one more fantasy. Suppose that Russia invades all of Europe, and trade with Europe comes to a total halt. Ridiculous, but let’s imagine it. Is it really true that trade would come to a halt? Would Australia starve to death simply for lack of trade with Europe? Can Australia not find other trading partners?
Likewise the United States. Is Europe so crucial to us that deprived of trade with Europe, we would die for lack of necessities? Or couldn’t we find a way to adapt to that situation?
The answer is very obvious. Even if we adopt the most fantastical assumptions, we are still not led, under the worst case scenario, to outright catastrophe. We are not even led to the mere probability of catastrophe. We are led at worst to a depressing sort of austerity. Meanwhile, military escalation really leads us to the brink of disaster. I am suggesting that Biden was backpedaling the US willingness to use nuclear force. You are suggesting he was being coy. But on either scenario, nuclear war is a distinct possibility.
What your argument amounts to is: “Let’s indulge in some wild speculations, and use that as a basis for bringing ourselves to total destruction, so as to stave off the fanciful possibility of austerity.” That’s not a rational trade-off.
Now bring this back to reality. What is the most likely outcome of the Russian invasion of Ukraine? It’s the exertion of Russian hegemony over Ukraine. Full stop. Or if you like, the exertion of Russian hegemony over the Baltics. Full stop.
That’s bad, but we’ve been there before (for centuries), and we survived it without having to escalate to the point of nuclear war, and without having to escalate to the point of proxy war in Europe, either. We can easily repeat the achievement with little effect on our security, and probably little effect on trade.
The only problem we would need to resolve is the problem of Ukrainian refugees wanting to leave Russian occupied Ukraine for elsewhere. And that is the one problem that all of the “morally superior” nations of “the West” seem totally unwilling even to think about solving. They’re happy to let their beloved Ukrainians end up in Russia, Poland, or Germany.
But evidently, Australia and the US are too cramped to let very many in. Australia, after letting in 10,000:
“Please note: The offer of a Temporary Humanitarian Stay has now expired.”
I can’t even get reliable statistics for the US. One figure is 2,402.
Another is 271,000:
In other words, somewhere between 0 and 3% of the total number of refugees. Clearly, our forte lies in prolonging the misery, not alleviating it.
Whether our values are superior to Russian ones or not strikes me as irrelevant to the question: what should we do about a Russian invasion of Ukraine? It’s perfectly consistent with saying that ours are superior to say that we should do nothing. Our values were superior to Kaiser Wilhelm’s, as well. That doesn’t mean we should have gotten involved in World War I. They were superior to Ho Chi Minh and Le Duan’s, too, but that’s not an argument for having gotten involved in Vietnam.
One of the highest values is prudence. The best way of expressing it would be to keep our distance from Ukraine.
I would compare Putin to one of the great Russian imperialists, since that’s clearly where he sees himself. It’s a delusion to think he’ll stop at Ukraine.
When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, people said it was a certainty that they’d invade Pakistan. How else to get to the warm water ports on the Indian Ocean? But they didn’t.
The war propaganda for the Vietnam War told us that if we didn’t defend Vietnam, that “domino would fall,” and we would face Communist insurgencies right across the Pacific, and presumably into Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco. All nonsense.
Same thing with Latin America. If we didn’t overthrow the Sandinistas, the Soviets would establish a “beachhead” in Latin America, and would threaten us right at our border. Did we ever face such a threat? No.
The lesson here is: it takes more than a supposition to establish that we face a threat that requires military action. The Soviets were as imperialistic as Putin. He was one of them. But “being an imperialist” does not prove that we face an imminent series of conquests that demands a military response from us.
True in those cases but Russia has considerable form. Tell the Estonians who got shipped off to Siberia when Russia invaded that this time they mean no harm. Or Czechoslovakia, where Prague was confronted with a line of tanks virtually overnight. Or Finland, which fought the nine day…was it? war. The thing with history is, you have to assess on a case by case basis.
The case we confront is one in which Russia has so far not been able to advance past eastern Ukraine, and also one in which the Ukrainian defense of eastern Ukraine has been spearheaded, in part, by neo-Nazis.
So Russia’s capacity to take over all of Europe seems a low probability event. Meanwhile, the values of our Ukrainian “allies” are more ambiguous than we’ve been led to believe. A year ago, we were being told that talk of nuclear war was preposterous, and that the neo-Nazi presence within the Ukrainian resistance was a fabrication. A year later, we are being prepared for the inevitability of nuclear conflict, and we’re getting the admission that well, maybe there are a few neo-Nazis at the vanguard of the Ukrainian counter-offensive.
The discovery that an entire corps of neo-Nazis within the US military had taken over, say, a swatch of Afghanistan, would have produced panic in liberal quarters. Not so if it’s in Ukraine, where they remain our “allies,” while we minimize their importance. What’s a few armed neo-Nazis between allies?
The relevant history here is the number of times we pointlessly made alliances with right-wing forces to fight the Soviets, got dragged into their internecine politics, and half-drowned in it. That’s what happened in Afghanistan in the 1980s, our last grand-scale proxy war. That history threatens to repeat itself here.
Certainly, people need to be — and are not enough — alive to the danger of significant use of nuclear weapons (and of course all-out nuclear war). The most likely scenario of major-power conflict in the nuclear era has always been the limited use of nuclear weapons when a nuclear power is backed into a corner (everybody firing off all their nuclear missiles was never very realistic — that was a useful scare tactic, a noble lie of sorts).
I take that to be pretty likely in the present situation. Despite the existential symbolism, this is not catastrophic. Reasonably likely scenario: the coming Ukrainian offensive is successful enough to threaten rolling-back Russian territorial gains, Putin finally realizes that he cannot win but really really needs not to lose (or sell what has happened as not losing). So he stops the successful Ukrainian offensive with battlefield nukes — instantly, he knows, becoming the equivalent of North Korea internationally. Big international crisis, big existential moment for humanity (hopefully, for us to stop and think). Putin keeps a bunch of land and tells his people that Mother Russia was basically up against all of NATO and stood her ground. Everything more or less settles back down. In a sense, things are better than they were before with respect to nuclear weapons: we have been reminded of the horror and are newly motivated to solve the problem. Super-unlikely scenario: things escalate and Russia and the U.S. fire off all their nuclear missiles at one another, civilization is wiped out.
I guess my question is: why are we playing this game at all? Why are we in the position of wondering whether our actions are merely probabilizing a “limited” use of tactical nuclear weapons, or bringing about all-out global annihilation?
Bear in mind that an essential variable here is Putin’s belief that everything is at stake for him, and nothing is at stake for us. He is rattling the nuclear saber. We’ve gone awfully quiet on the subject of retaliation. That tells him that it is possible-to-likely that he can use tactical nuclear weapons with impunity. It tells us that he is willing to up the ante because he thinks the risks are worth taking. It also tells us that because literally zero is at stake for us in Ukraine–we aren’t even willing to risk troops–we will, if confronted with actual costs we have to bear, back down.
It would have been bad enough if Putin had simply thought this all on his own. But he is now thinking this way in response to us. We could have left this whole thing alone. Precisely because we didn’t, we are now involved in an insane, pointless, needless game of nuclear brinkmanship of the kind that was supposed to have gone out of style thirty years ago. How is our security enhanced by playing this game? In other words, how is our security enhanced by provoking Putin over a place where we have no security interests, where his perceived interests are sky high, and where everything we do raises the specter of nuclear war? Our entanglement in this war has made us far less secure than we would have been if we had sat it out.
The history that Schwarz and Layne recount shows that it’s a mistake to think that nuclear brinksmanship necessarily “works itself out” so as to avoid the worst case scenario. There is no reason whatsoever to think that. Military personnel are indoctrinated to believe the damndest things. There are enough true believers on either side to lead to all-out nuclear war. In the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy came close to triggering all-out nuclear war over a situation that he knew was not a matter of national security. But he did it anyway (and did it after the failure of the Bay of Pigs). People that irrational can’t be trusted to make rational decisions about anything. No one should rest easy in the thought that a “limited” nuclear exchange would spare us all-out annihilation. Noble lie or not, both sides are set up for the reverse outcome.
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Suppose that, if you fill in the relevant parameters properly, it is worth standing against grave injustice even at serious risk to one’s own life or well-being (call this principle Risk Death for Justice or RDJ). Suppose that RDJ extends, with some caveats and complications, to groups of people (including nations) helping other groups of people (including nations) overcome grave injustice. Wrinkle #1: the situation is such that acting on RDJ will put people beyond the agent at similar risk of life, limb, etc. Now things are less clear because one is imposing serious risk on others in “standing up for justice.” Arguably, one is no longer permitted to “stand up for justice” in this way if one, in doing so, is imposing grave risks on innocent bystanders (call the false principle here Impose Risk for Justice or IRJ).
But now consider Wrinkle #2: one is acting on behalf of everyone (fighting for everyone, for everyone’s interest that justice be served, that injustice be punished). Now the imposition of risk on everyone (or bystanders) looks a bit different (or is not an imposition at all). In particular, the following sort of justification opens up: though others might well not consent, they should. They should care about grave injustice being opposed even at risk of their life or limb and should put it into action in some RDJ-like way (maybe themselves, maybe through some surrogate). However, in order for this to work, standing up for justice at such a steep price has to be more than a good option for everyone. It has to be what would be best for each of us (such that we should consent to being part of an RDJ-like action). And that — at least — makes for a higher hurdle: the injustice has to be that much more grave and the risks more managable than they would be if the agent were just exercising her option to throw herself into battle. To have a label for this sort of principle, call it the “universal surrogacy” version of RDJ or RDJ(US).
Consider this case: the sheriff in a wild-west town enforces justice even though he might be outgunned and the ensuing bloody showdown will put everyone in the town in extreme physical danger. Plenty of people might be content to be ruled by bandits, but they should not be. They should want the sheriff to impose justice — for themselves, for those they care about, for the sake of there being a public regime that is just). Something like RDJ(US) explains why the sheriff is justified in enforcing justice, despite the imposition of grave risk on those not party to the dispute.
Maybe or maybe not is the U.S. or NATO, in supporting Ukraine as it has been, justified in the way that this sheriff seems to be. And maybe full-on nuclear war is such a terrible risk that it is not included in this kind of principle? In any case, this way of thinking about what is important in this (and other relevantly similar cases) seems like the right way to go.
Among the parameters I’d want filled in:
It’s only worth standing against grave injustice at risk to yourself if you benefit from doing so.
Among the highly weighted benefits is rectifying injustice that you yourself have authored.
There are determinate limits to what is being asked of you in the way of risk and cost.
None of that is true of the foreign policy of the United States.
Wrinkle #1 I can hardly argue with.
As for Wrinkle #2,
Put this way, there’s a tension between the parameters I’d want to put in at the outset and Wrinkle #2. I don’t really see how it’s anyone’s interest to “punish” wrongdoing (in the retributive sense) at high risk to oneself. There’s no clear benefit there at all. And I also don’t see what’s meant by “acting on behalf of everyone.” If it means literally everyone in the world (including future generations?), it’s impossible. But if it means something more delimited, we’re back to my parameters (1) and (3): if we’re delimiting the scope of “everyone”–so that we really mean “some people but not others”–we need to delimit the risks and costs demanded of anyone of whom they’re demanded. Why should I risk my life for others, if those others are non-me and not obviously related to what benefits me?
Suppose that X is aggressing against Y. Now consider two bystanders, A and B. A wants to assist Y, B does not. Let’s stipulate that A’s assistance is the just thing to do (vis-a-vis X and Y). It still doesn’t follow that any risks imposed on B have evaporated simply because assisting Y was the just thing to do. It could be just vis-a-vis Y but unjust vis-a-vis B.
Nor does it follow that B is benefited by A’s actions. A’s assistance may benefit Y but not B.
Nor does it follow that B incurs an obligation to act simply because A has acted. A and B are ex hypothesi separate agents. A’s just action doesn’t tells us what B is obliged to do.
Bottom line: human beings are not inherently “roped together” in a way that licenses inferences from “It’s just for A to do it” to “B must do it as well.”
In any case, I don’t think there’s any remotely plausible history of American foreign policy that satisfies the condition stated by Wrinkle #2. The United States has never fought for “everyone” and never imposed risks in such a way as to benefit “everyone.”
I don’t think your inference is an obvious one (“They should want the sheriff to impose justice”), but let me grant it for argument’s sake. There is still a big difference between this case and American foreign policy. In this case, the sheriff accepts responsibility for fighting crime in a delimited area for specifiable beneficiaries. Everyone by definition benefits from his actions. We can imagine that he is constrained by certain procedures that protect the innocent against over-zealous methods, and a general conception of moral limits that tell him when to stop trying to fight the bandits. Etc.
None of that is true of American foreign policy. There is no attempt to accept responsibility for anything. It’s not confined to any delimited area (besides “the world”) and apart from vague propaganda phrases (“the Free World,” “the West”) has no specifiable beneficiaries. “Everyone” does not benefit. (Put it this way: I certainly don’t see how I benefit!) It’s not constrained by any discernible principles of justice. It hypocritically asserts moral norms that it violates the next day. Etc. So even if I accepted the sheriff example at face value (which I wouldn’t), I don’t think it generalizes to the case of American foreign policy, or the proxy war in Ukraine.
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That’s helpful. I agree that the sheriff case would need to be filled-in quite a bit. But it seems plausible enough that it can be filled-in such that that sheriff, because he is acting in everyone’s interests, is permitted to take on the bandits — despite this action imposing significant, perhaps life-and-limb risks to those whose interests he is acting in (or is a representative for). Of course, without filling-in this principle of moral permission or justification, it is hard to apply it to the U.S. or NATO (or Elon Musk?) helping or arming Ukraine at some risk of escalation with Russia, including escalation that involves the use of nuclear weapons. I think our intuitions differ as to whether the (as yet incompletely specified) principle plausibly applies to U.S. action here or not. In any case, my main point is only that this kind of principle seems like the right principled defense of helping Ukraine even at some risk of escalation, use of nuclear weapons, larger-scale nuclear conflict, etc.
I accepted the sheriff/bandit example without much argument because I was focusing on the gap between that case and the case of American foreign policy. But I think the example itself can be challenged. Partly this is a matter of specification, but partly I think the example does less work than you want it to.
Imagine that a place is overrun by bandits, and a self-appointed sheriff sets himself up to take these on. Your point is that the denizens ought to consent to this public good, bear the costs for paying it, accept the risks for having it.
At a minimum, we have to circumscribe how this sheriff goes about his business. He has to operate at a higher moral plane than the bandits. He has to take the bandits on at reasonable cost. He has to operate by acceptable norms and procedures. There has to be an acceptable ratio between costs and benefits. And there may be some “deontic” vetos on certain kinds of sheriff. A sheriff who gets things generally right in the above respects, but insists on a right of prima nocta, or one (1) personal slave, earns a 0 toward consent. A sheriff who keeps his own denizens safe by slaughtering the denizens of some adjacent place (or the minorities of his own) violates a similar norm.
A different kind of specification: we need to be clear how much self-help is permitted in your example, and how effective it is. Consider two extremes. Suppose that self-help against the bandits can be effective. In those cases, a person has less reason to consent to the sheriff. Suppose it isn’t. Then there is more reason. Those specs either have to be built into the example, or else you have to admit that it’s perfectly rational for some people not to consent to the sheriff.
Finally, how much banditry is there? This is related to the self-help question. If banditry is rife, but the probability of banditry in any given case is low, someone might decide to leave it at that, or leave it at self-help. It’s worth noting that when the problem of banditry becomes overwhelming, the sheriff can’t say, “Given the dimensions of this problem, you owe me consent to a huge amount of power!” One option here is just to flee. The sheriff can’t permissibly demand that everyone stay in place, consent to his authority, pay him, and support his anti-bandit crusade, because, by gum, that’s the moral thing to do. If people have the option of flight, and enough of them take it, the crusade lacks a rationale.
I think these questions all draw attention to the same fact: the question of what benefits people is more fine-grained than your formulation suggests. It’s not simply a matter of “sheriff takes on bandits; hence everyone is automatically benefited.” It has a lot to do with lots of different details.
I’m abstracting entirely from disputes about what counts as banditry, obviously. Introduce those, and you get a new set of issues.
Even in a case where we have bandits in a circumscribed territory policed by a benevolent sheriff, there is room to say that a certain person’s opting out–insisting on being treated as a neutral–may be permissible and even rational. But when we’re talking foreign policy, it’s far more obvious. There is no circumscribed territory, and there is no benevolent sheriff. In a world of that kind, there’s ample moral room for neutrality (in the sense of remaining neutral in quarrels between other belligerents).
US foreign policy is breathtakingly hypocritical on this point. It demands positive allegiance in its own quarrels, rejecting neutrality as immoral. So when it comes to Ukraine, Biden’s policy is no different from Bush’s: a country is either with the US or against it. But when it comes to other countries’ quarrels, the US assumes the guise of “neutral, honest broker.” This is its presumptive policy in both Israel/Palestine and India/Kashmir. Those occupations have been in existence far longer than the Russian occupation of Ukraine. Both of them are potentially connected to nuclear conflict. Yet Americans see no need for a sheriff to ride in and resolve these disputes. Somehow, the sheriff paradigm has unique resonance in the case of Ukraine.
It seems totally arbitrary to me. Occupations fester for decades, and invite total indifference for decades. Russia destroys Chechnya and people yawn their way through it. Then Russia attacks Ukraine, and suddenly, we need a sheriff.
It wouldn’t help things to achieve consistency by saying, “Actually, we need a sheriff for Palestine and Kashmir, too!” In that case, we need a global police state. We need a sheriff for Palestine, and Kashmir, and the Uyghurs, and Tibet, and Hong Kong, and…That’s just a recipe for perpetual warfare.
All of that suggests to me that the reverse way of achieving consistency is preferable: we are not Team America, World Police. The point of having national boundaries is to circumscribe our national obligations, to ensure that the imperatives of self-defense never become a maelstrom of costs, risks, and commitments. That’s the cycle that Ukraine puts us on–or puts us back on. We have to end it somewhere. We can’t continue forever with a “national security policy” that has literally nothing to do with keeping us secure.
I agree with most of those fill-ins and caveats for whatever principle of permission governs the self-appointed sheriff cases. That principle, whatever it is precisely, though it might justify the basic idea or motivation behind U.S. foreign policy, would not justify U.S. foreign policy (in all its proverbial self-appointed keystone-cop no knock raid, many innocents killed infamy). More immediately, such a principle has some of the right elements to justify a uniquely-able nation rendering aid to Ukraine at some risk of nuclear conflict: (i) the public-minded hero, the victim, the perp, third parties are all in some kind of society in a very broad sense, (ii) the hero is the only one who can put a stop to a grave injustice, (iii) each agent in the society has a keen interest in securing a public order that is, at a minimum, free from the grossest of injustices. Though there are complications when the parties in each of the roles are collectives, there would nonetheless seem to be a pretty clear path from whatever general principle is true here to it being permissible for a uniquely-able-to-help nation rescuing another nation from being obliterated by another nation (at some risk of nuclear conflict — though, probably, at some threshold of risk or cost, the justification vanishes). There might even be a correct principle requiring the would-be hero to rescue the victim and enforce justice on behalf of everyone. Of course, the devil is in the specifics and the details. I’ll just say for now that nothing you say seems to present any knock-down difficulties (maybe I’ll write another post trying to pin down just what such a principle should say; this would have to deal with all of your specific points).
(The principle that appropriately-situated agents are permitted (and perhaps sometimes required), in relevant circumstances, to take steps to enforce justice and secure general conditions of justice seems to be foundational to justifying something like a proto-state. I suspect that the situation of an agent taking this role generates the fundamental problems of justice in governance. Why or why not is there permission, or requirement, for the justice-enforcing agent to exclude others from similar self-appointed enforcement? If many specific standards of justice are potentially worth being publicly enforced, but what they are and their boundaries (and how they are enforced) is a matter of reasonable dispute, who decides — how do we, everyone in society, decide — just what counts as unjust and actionable in the right way? How does everyone have reasonable assurance that the enforcing agent (and the individual agents that compose it) is or remains public-spirited given that its role yields prestige, jobs, and other benefits? How does the justice-enforcing agent even keep itself (and the individual agents that compose it) on the right public-spirited track, given the temptation of parochial interest, opaque motivation, etc.? Specific transgressions aside, I’d say that the fundamental problem of the self-appointed policing role and power of the U.S. in the world today is that the above sorts of problems have not been addressed very well (and cannot be, given the dearth of prospects for just and strong consensus-based or broadly democratic international governance). Maybe if Switzerland or Estonia magically were in our position, the job would get done better and with less collateral damage? Maybe — but also maybe not — but in any case this exercise in imagination solves no problems. Maybe it is acceptable that no one preserves the minimally decent, minimally just rules-based international order? No. Returning to something like the pre-WWII order, but with lots of nuclear weapons, seems like a very bad idea. Perhaps, in this respect and at this level of granularity, we live in the best possible world even though it is quite shitty.)
No–a hundred times, no. You’re rejecting the application of a principle, but accepting the principle itself. But the principle has no warrant for it at all. You’re also ignoring the fact that the “principle” has been misapplied now for 120 solid years by the same “heroic” actor, and for hundreds of years before that by the “heroic actor’s” supposed heroic predecessor (Britain). Surely centuries of misapplications of the principle can’t be an accident? At the least we need to ask why this principle is so easily liable to misapplication that everyone who tries to apply it ends up misapplying it, century after century. The “principle,” if we’re to give it a name is benign imperialism, and it’s simply false and unworkable. It has a disastrous track record, but you’re discussing it as though it just sprang into existence yesterday, and we can ignore hundreds of years of history that shows us how it actually works.
Just to respond to the first paragraph:
“Uniquely-able”: We are uniquely wealthy and have an advanced military. That doesn’t make us “uniquely able” to police the world, or to dictate the outcome in Ukraine. You’re talking about a “uniquely able” country that hasn’t been able to resolve its own gun control problems, its own public health problems, its own border problems, or the problem of affordable housing. We’re not “uniquely able,” just uniquely deluded about believing in our superpowers.
“(i) the public-minded hero, the victim, the perp, third parties are all in some kind of society in a very broad sense,”
The United States is absolutely not a “public-minded hero,” and it’s very unlikely such a thing exists at all in international affairs. I would also flatly deny we are “all in some kind of society in a very broad sense.” We’re all in a Lockean State of Nature, as Locke himself observed three hundred years ago. The only “sense” in which we’re in “some kind of society” is that we all live on the same planet. But a planet is not a society.
“(ii) the hero is the only one who can put a stop to a grave injustice,”
The hero is not the one even attempting to “put a stop to a grave injustice.” It’s assisting the “victim,” and making all kinds of wild promises about how it will put a stop to the grave injustice. But even if we magically replaced the United States with some actually heroic country, short of invading Ukraine, it cannot “put a stop to a grave injustice.” Ukraine is harder to invade than Vietnam, and US intervention in Vietnam failed. So why assume that “the hero” will prevail in this case, or even has a chance of prevailing?
“(iii) each agent in the society has a keen interest in securing a public order that is, at a minimum, free from the grossest of injustices.”
Doesn’t that just turn the strongest of the “heroic” nations into a World Police? Put another way, it demands that the wealthiest nation embark on a quixotic quest of treating the whole planet as though it was a single municipal police jurisdiction. Isn’t it enough to respond that it isn’t?
It’s worth pointing out that there is no analogue for your proposal even within the United States. The State Police has highly delimited functions, mostly restricted to policing large highways. The county police or sheriff is likewise restricted to policing large parks, etc. Federal law enforcement enforces federal law on federal crimes that fall above a certain threshold of harm. The State Police does not randomly rove a given state, looking for “leftover crimes” that the local police hasn’t responded to. What you’re imagining is a kind of World Police that goes “wherever there’s trouble,” and resolves it out of a sense of planet-wide civic obligation. It’s appropriate that the quoted phrase is the slogan for GI Joe, the action figure, because the norm you’re describing is something out of a Marvel Comics film, not a realistic foreign policy. If we followed that norm, we would literally be at war all the time for the foreseeable future. Surely avoiding war has to have some normative weight on par with the desire to police the world?
Never mind that every war involves post bellum considerations. Once we “resolve” all these conflicts, are we then going to be dragged into every post bellum settlement? Our political life would just become a never-ending Versailles.
“I’ll just say for now that nothing you say seems to present any knock-down difficulties…”
Well, that’s because you’re not actually paying attention to the consequences of your proposals. You’re suggesting that we should court total destruction over a country that has zero national security implications for us, and that we should turn the foreign policy of our country into a World Police that will drag us into an indefinitely large number of foreign quarrels with no demonstrable benefit to us. And then you’re saying you don’t see any “knock-down difficulties”! That’s because you’ve defined “knock down difficulty” in such a way that you wouldn’t see one unless I showed you how your proposals would rain nuclear annihilation on our heads with 100% certainty within the next hour. I can’t meet the standard you have in mind, but that’s because it’s an inappropriate standard.
What you haven’t shown is what benefit we get out of following or even approximating your proposals. What incentive does any rational person have in fighting for a World Police State headed by the Heroic United States? Just to bring this back to reality, this is where we are on real-life military recruitment:
Clearly, young people are answering my question about incentives. What incentive does anyone have? “None.” And I don’t blame them.
There is no shortage of messes that we ourselves have created through our interventions and support for others’ interventions. Why not start by cleaning some of that up? We have an immigration policy that makes no sense, and millions of people struggling to get into our country, often at the cost of their lives. That’s been going on for decades. Why not pass immigration reform? Our departure from Afghanistan just led to a million-person refugee crisis. Why not do something to resolve that? We just lost a million people to a virus. Why not build a public health infrastructure capable of dealing with the next pandemic?
The whole World Police juggernaut is a distraction from this lower-hanging fruit–stuff that is much more obviously our responsibility than the task of policing the world. It’s not clear to me why we should be pursuing the quixotic at the expense of the feasible. But I can’t persuade someone who explicitly prefers the quixotic to the feasible.
I think we disagree on too many specifics to hash out how the general principle I’m trying to outline here applies to existing U.S. foreign policy (or even just to helping Ukraine as we are in present circumstances). We should want to identify the right deep explanatory normative principle. Most fundamentally, that is what I’m interested in doing. I’d be surprised if an agent well-positioned to correct the grossest of injustices — and in so doing go some way toward realizing general social conditions that do not allow for such injustices — were not morally permitted to take the relevant steps (even while imposing significant risk on others). And I think there are somewhat similar principles of requirement. What is behind this idea is the extreme importance of securing public norms against things like dominating violence (against this particularly important element of just basic social structure). I don’t think all going ethical or political theories recognize this kind of thing (in particular, many libertarian views fail to recognize any unique and important permission or requirement generating roles for the achievement of just basic social structure). This, I think, is the deep issue here, regardless of the particular shape of the relevant principles of permission and requirement (perhaps implicit or explicit differences in our framings on this count explains our differing intuitions at the general level). Of course, on any reasonable view, there would be some level of imposed risk that defeats the permission.