The Moral Reality of Ukraine – The Dispatch

The Moral Reality of the Ukraine

Dear reader (including those of you who finally got your hands on a Dune: Part 2 popcorn bucket),

I am in favor of supporting Ukraine in its resistance to Russian imperial aggression.

There is a large portion of idealism and moralism in my position. I don't deny that. I don't think this is a very significant concession either. Morality is part of American foreign policy and always has been.

Historically, isolationism has as much moralism and idealism as interventionism. Traditional American isolationism grew out of a dispute over American exceptionalism; We are a shining city on a hill and we should not allow foreign entanglements to bring the filth of the Old World to our shores.

Today's isolationism (or, if you prefer, “non-interventionism”) is qualitatively different in important ways from the isolationism of, for example, John Adams or Robert Taft. Donald Trump believes that America is run by stupid and weak people and that we should adopt, or at least admire, the self-serving approach of undemocratic countries with strong, smart leaders. This is not American exceptionalism. And it's worth noting that defenders of Trump's approach – or, to be fairer to Trump, what defenders believe Trump's approach is (he is far more ambiguous on Ukraine than his friends and enemies seem to think) – There is no lack of morale when they argue against aid to Ukraine. Many routinely accuse their supporters of being warmongers and seek, often with obvious desperation and dishonesty, to portray Ukraine and Zelensky as the “real” villains.

But I also readily admit that morality, while necessary, is insufficient. I would love to liberate Tibet, liberate Hong Kong and end the persecution of the Uyghurs. I would also like to overthrow the repressive government of China. The same goes for regime change in North Korea, Russia, Cuba and elsewhere.

The morality of my desires is, at least in my opinion, unassailable. But desire and ability are different things. First of all, it's stupid to want something you can't have. I would like to play in the NBA, but that's not possible. So there really is no point in making any effort toward such a goal. More specifically, there are many things I want to achieve, but the cost is prohibitive. I could be in much better shape or much wealthier, but many of the things I would have to do to fulfill those desires just aren't worth it to me right now.

In other words, a sober, reality-based cost-benefit analysis is essential for foreign policy (and domestic policy). If you could convincingly demonstrate to me that we could overthrow the Chinese Communist Party without loss of life, without the risk of nuclear war, and at very little cost to taxpayers, I think it would be a no-brainer to put this plan into action. But there is no such plan (remember I said “convincing”).

As I have long argued, in foreign policy idealism about ends is fully justified, but so is realism about means. One of my biggest problems with many forms of so-called realists is that they see foreign policy in exactly the opposite way: idealism about means and realism about ends. But that's an argument for another time.

One of the most vexing aspects of the debate over support for Ukraine is the widespread desire to include straw men or imaginary disaster scenarios in the debate. To be sure, Emmanuel Macron recently indicated that France is not ruling out the possibility of sending French troops. But two points are worth mentioning in this regard. First, the rest of NATO responded with, in effect, “Put the crack pipe away.” Second, even if France had sent troops to Ukraine, the French troops would not be American.

However, no American politician or foreign policy expert that I know advocates sending American troops to fight in Ukraine. Nobody thinks we should go to war over Ukraine, let alone a nuclear war.

The more defensible objection now is that supporting Ukraine could lead to war. In fact, the possibility of nuclear war is often presented as a bogeyman to discourage people from supporting Ukraine. Vladimir Putin will lead this choir.

Still, it's worth noting that people on both sides of this argument agree that we should avoid war with Russia. Joe Biden argues that we should help Ukraine so we don't have to fight Russia later. The same argument is being made by leaders in Poland, the Baltics, Scandinavia, the Czech Republic and other NATO allies. Putin is targeting NATO countries, and if we don't stop him at the Ukrainian border, we will be forced to stop him at the Polish border. You may disagree with this assessment, but that is the assessment. In other words, the disagreement is not between warmongers and peace advocates, but between two camps that disagree about how best to prevent war and ensure peace.

My friend Michael Brendan Dougherty has long argued that Ukraine is not a major strategic problem for us, but it is for Russia. Therefore, our cost-benefit analysis is different from Putin's and we should actually rely on Russia's ambitions. He also argues that we – that is, America and the West – have essentially provoked Russia by invading its sphere of influence or “near abroad” by trying to pull Ukraine into the European sphere of influence. He spends a lot of time arguing against Ukraine's admission to NATO for understandable and defensible reasons given his priorities, but I think this is largely an irrelevant issue to the current debate. With one caveat: Talk of admitting Ukraine into NATO is a provocation for Putin.

My first problem with this calculation is that the moral argument for helping Ukraine is left aside, while Russia's (im)moral argument for turning it into a vassal state remains intact. The desire to help Ukraine becomes a kind of whimsical idealism divorced from realistic concerns, while Putin's desire to effectively eliminate Ukraine as a sovereign nation-state, along with Ukraine's desire to be a democracy and Western ally, is folded into a reasonable realism. Contrary to many of his critics' claims, this does not make Michael pro-Putin. But I do believe that he is wrong.

Michael often points out many of Ukraine's shortcomings – both real and perceived. He is worried about the “Nazi question” of Ukrainian nationalism. He doesn't like that it has banned 11 parties with close ties to Russia or that it has taken action against the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine for similar reasons. Well, I think his concerns are overblown in many ways, but that doesn't mean some of the complaints aren't true. None of them represent a moral or strategic reason not to support Ukraine.

But what I find interesting is how such things, usually spouted by people like Vivek Ramaswamy, Candace Owens and Tucker Carlson with little or none of the precision or fidelity to the facts that Michael offers, undermine realistic premises. If it is in America's cold-eyed, amoral interest to erode the Russian war machine and bring Ukraine into the West's sphere of influence, then what Ukraine does domestically is beside the point. Again, I believe that Ukraine's cause is moral and just and that its desire to be an independent, democratic nation should be supported. But when it comes to realism, even the caricatures of Ukraine as a bogeyman are irrelevant if we believe that strengthening Ukraine weakens Russia.

(Also, as I noted last week, embracing Putin's imperialism is an undeniable betrayal of the nationalist idealism so popular these days. Ukraine wants to be a sovereign nation-state, not a cavalry vassal of a foreign power. If they Believing that nationalism is the morally superior thing that nationalists claim they should be cheering for Ukraine and not pandering to their oppressor.)

The people who parrot many of Trump's talking points – note that I'm not thinking of MBD here – insist on how wise and good it would be to be friends with Russia. Well, there is no consistent moral framework that, on the one hand, says that it would be great to be friends with a far more undemocratic and despotic regime like Russia's, and on the other hand condemns the idea of ​​being friends with Ukraine. In every moral sense, Putin's regime is reprehensibly evil, and yet clowns like Ramaswamy heap contempt on Ukraine for not being a “model of democracy” and insinuate that Zelensky – a Jew – is a Nazi.

Which is it? Should immoral regimes offend us or not? If not, then you are arguing that supporting Ukraine is not in our national interest. If the moral nature of regimes matters, then stop making things up about Ukraine while denying or dismissing the moral accusations against Russia. Unlike Israel in Gaza, Russia is actually behaving genocidally in Ukraine, seeking to wipe out a culture and a people. Thousands of children are stolen for this purpose. She uses rape and torture as a means of war. Meanwhile, Ukraine is postponing an election as required by the Ukrainian constitution and practical considerations. But that's what we're supposed to be offended by?

I think the moral arguments for supporting Ukraine are undeniable. Ukrainians want to fight for their country. We don't force them to do it. In fact, they beg for the ability to do so. This alone is important. Many opponents of aid to Ukraine give the impression that we have the situation under control and are somehow creating this conflict. And that we are responsible for the death toll in Ukraine. In this vision, Russia is a force of nature with no agency, and we are prolonging Ukraine's suffering by enabling Ukrainian resistance. I care deeply about the death toll – on both sides – but we are not morally responsible for it. There is a certain imperial arrogance in the idea that we know Ukrainian self-interests better than Ukrainians do.

I could go through the well-known realist arguments for why we should help Ukraine, or rebut many of the pseudo-realist arguments for why we shouldn't. But many others have already done that.

What matters most, however, is where the moral and realist arguments currently converge. Opponents of supporting Ukraine insist that arming Ukraine is a provocation, but ignore the fact that our project to disarm Ukraine was one of the reasons for Russian aggression. In 1994, we facilitated the Budapest Memorandum, which stripped Ukraine of its share of the Soviet nuclear arsenal. In 2005, we pressured Ukraine to destroy huge stockpiles of conventional weapons. There were good and bad arguments for these decisions. What is ignored, however, is the fact that in both cases we gave assurances that we would protect Ukraine's sovereignty and security. And we did it again in 2009. This may seem like ancient history to many today, but rest assured that this does not apply to countries that rely on similar assurances – and not to countries that are constrained by such assurances.

But forget the “old” story. President Biden said a little over two years ago that we would support Ukraine “for as long as it takes.” For the “not my president” crowd on the right, Biden’s promises not only don’t count, but should be rejected because the real threat is the “Biden regime,” not the Putin regime. But like it or not, Biden spoke for America and the world listened.

There are many serious and defensible realist arguments against pledging support or alliances (and Michael has made such arguments time and time again). But promises were made. And I don't know of any seriously realistic argument that doesn't take the credibility of a superpower seriously. Here the moral and realistic arguments are almost synonymous.

In the run-up to the Second World War, many principled isolationists rejected the US entry into the war. I think they were obviously wrong. But I don't think their arguments at the time were as bad as they later turned out to be. (If you think the memory of the Iraq War hangs over today's debates, realize that the memory of World War I was far sharper.) But when the war began, people like Charles supported Lindbergh and Taft the war. Again, no one is asking to support a war with Russia. All that is required of them is to help America keep its word.

Opponents of supporting Ukraine are right that Putin cares more about Russia than we do. But this asymmetrical desire comes with an asymmetrical cost-benefit analysis. The cost to Russia is far higher than the cost to America. Every day, Russians are “demanded” (i.e. forced) to die as cannon fodder to demonstrate the strength of Russian willpower. They are “required” to transform their entire economy and endure ever-increasing domestic repression for the war effort. All that is required of Americans is to demonstrate the willpower of America and NATO by spending a tiny fraction of the defense budget on U.S.-made weapons to a country heroically willing to use them in self-defense – morally just cause.

Miscellaneous and miscellaneous

Dog update: The beautiful Jessica has returned and sanity has been restored at Chez Goldberg. Thumb Man no longer eats or shares most of his meals while standing over the sink. Many people have asked for more updates on Monty the intruder spaniel (see last week's dog update). Unfortunately, we didn't see him again, and if it weren't for the photos I took and the recording of my phone conversation, I would be tempted to believe it was all a dream. I would like to see him again. There isn't much more to report. Unfortunately, Zoë's (inoperable and benign) lump continues to grow, but there are still no signs of discomfort. The girls continue to pose for various Bark Rangers and Three Dog Knight album covers. And as long as mean dogs aren't discovered, Pippa continues to do the important work. The treatment regimen is Be Faithfully watched, Zoë continues to rule her Ottoman Empire and protect it from the feared Hand. Meanwhile, Gracie has the sublime feline confidence to know who really rules.


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