Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine has revitalized NATO and re-energized Liberals. But the coalition against Putin is actually limited. China supports Russia; India and Saudi Arabia and even Israel remain neutral. Turkey and Hungary, NATO members, are playing the middle. In a UN vote to remove Russia from the Human Rights Council after revelations of atrocities in Ukraine, 58 nations abstained. Russia’s opponents could be mistaken for a club of rich nations. Putin casts our rules-based order as merely an order based on our rules, and sanctions as hostility, not justice. The narrative is affording him a certain cover.
America cannot let his narrative stand. This nation conceived itself on a creed that sees personal rights as unalienable and equally endowed in all, and governments as existing to secure them. Our national legitimacy resides in our commitment to those principles. Putin’s war challenges more even than life, rights, and the idea of government for the people. In his brazen unilateral resort to military invasion, he subordinates principle itself to the rule of force. If principle does not matter, then no creed amounts to more than a rallying cry or debating tactic. We must support Ukraine’s fight against Putin to the fullest, in great degree to vindicate principle. To do this we must ensure that no one can mistake our motives, toward Putin and around the world.
Putin might be called an extreme Realist. If a Realist and a principled person argue, and the Realist repeatedly punches the principled person, the latter eventually faces a choice between conceding the dispute, dying, or punching back – arguably validating Realism. In his aggressions in Chechnya, Georgia and Donbas, Putin enjoyed a combination of remoteness from the West and diffident acquiescence to his rationales. Now, in his unprovoked war, he punches the principled world in the face.
Or is he only punching the world that shares Western principles? Does the rest of the world see “the rules” as theirs? Do they at least see rules worth enforcing against an unprincipled aggressor? It appears not. Why not? In logic, any answer reflects some combination of three doubts: whether we hold our principles sincerely, whether the ones we cite are right, or whether principles are meaningful at all. If any of these doubts are somehow proven, America’s founding creed is either illusory, erroneous, or sham. “Proof” also means that any world order probably does rest on the rule of force.
Does anything but force matter? Putin’s war is manifestly unjust by any standard. His attack should be defeated, in a way that vindicates moral norms. We owe Ukraine a particular debt (among many others) for proving the nakedness of Putin’s aggression and exacting a price for it. But a just victory may not be possible in the face of Putin’s nuclear threats. Negotiations may be necessary to pause the murders – and may not work. If “peace” is immorally imposed, justice looks like a meaningless principle. Even if he loses militarily, Putin might claim to have stopped Western encroachments made in the name of Liberal morals. In this view, force will have defanged moral posturing. Even if Putin foregoes such a claim, his defiance of moral tenets still raises doubt that principles matter. That would be a win for the rule of force.
The world must at least see an alternative to the rule of force. If America acts as a principled nation, opposing Putin with resolve and hewing to our creed, people will know an alternative exists. Humanity will have a living example at least to corroborate our faith in the truth of rights. America must refute Putin’s narrative even if we cannot prevent tragedies. We must assert principle’s worth, and vindicate our creed. For this vindication we need to focus our policy and actions, in rigorous honesty, on this core national interest.
We must act with true resolve. The West has been opposing murder with sanctions. They may prove ineffective, and we know it. As the murder continues, we could run out of sanctions to impose. More are available if we are willing to apply those that incur costs for us. Full cut-off of Russian gas and oil exports would make Europe choose between de-funding Putin and “keeping the aircon on.” If we want them to absorb this pain, Americans should assume burdens of our own, in energy prices and other disruptions. Acceptance of burdens would open more sanction for consideration, to exert greater pressure on Russia. More to the point, sacrifices would clarify our motives, and the moral sanction on Putin.
Americans should also start to contemplate bigger risks. Western actions have carefully avoided direct hostilities with Russia. But are sanctions only hurting the Russian people without affecting Putin’s war effort? Do they still validate Realism, by weaponizing economic well-being? As for arming Ukraine, as their foreign minister described the idea, “you give us weapons, we sacrifice our lives, and the war is contained in Ukraine.” Are we only supporting freedom down to the last Ukrainian? Do these questions in themselves indicate a certain victory for Putin?
Commitment of NATO forces could defeat his invasion militarily, at the risk of triggering the “unpredictable consequences” he threatened in a formal demarche. America would have to face down a much scarier version of the Cuban missile crisis. Of course any such step would require a hard judgment call, and must not be taken lightly. And any risk must be assumed very deliberately; stumbling into it without moral preparation amounts to incompetence, not resolve. U.S. leadership should lay that groundwork clearly. Ukrainians are dying, and Putin has already threatened us. Calling him on it, if we are willing to run the risk, might be the only way to stop the war. Doing it purposefully would debunk any idea that we use moral principles to cover some “true” pursuit of craven Realist interests.
Whatever course we take, as a rule America must avoid “weaponizing” our values. If we mobilize opposition to Putin as “democracy versus autocracy,” democracy shrinks to a slogan. Principle, and rights, are our existential conditions that Putin desecrates, not tools to beat him. He sees any principles as those tools, and using ours as a rallying call corroborates him. Besides, if we treat democracy as “our” value against Putin, we may find ourselves outnumbered. America’s core interest calls us to protect free society and encourage others to grow in freedom. Opposition to dictators and aggressors is only a necessary means to that end. American must focus our resolve on freedom, not dominance as Putin would paint it.
Fidelity to America’s creed calls the U.S. to carry this focus across the board, and China dominates the foreign policy board. U.S. discourse today lumps China and Russia together as “great power” competitors. Lumping countries together as adversaries gives them common cause which they may not have had otherwise, against us. But the real reason not to lump them together is that, in the light of our creed, they are distinct. Autocracy of a self-interested faction differs in kind from one-party rule of an ideological party. Communist ideology, even in its suppression of personal rights, ties party leaders to a principle of citizens’ welfare, while Putin recruits church and other voices to serve his politics. Only force or its threat, in any channel or form, can counter a foe with no principles. With a rival that follows disagreeable principles, we can establish precisely where we differ and to what depth. To note the difference bespeaks focus on our true purposes. If treating China differently from Russia damps Chinese affinity for Putin it may even bring geopolitical benefit, but for the right reasons.
U.S. policy toward China needs to specify where our principles call us to oppose their conduct definitively, and where some paths they have taken allow us, in good faith, to grow common economic interests.
One possible sketch for a policy stance revolves around two points. First, Taiwan fits the full picture of a free country, and America must protect it unequivocally. The PRC sees this as transgression of their sovereignty. But we agree on the principle. Under the “One China” policy, we have opposed Taiwanese independence – while the PRC has agreed that unification must be peaceful. This framework enshrines a compromise, in a balance, not a dictate, of force. If Taiwan were still a Kuomintang dictatorship committed to ruling all of China, protecting them would violate our principles. If China opposes the framework because they are stronger now, our acquiescence would concede the rule of force. We already acknowledge the PRC’s principles; our principles as well as our interests happen to differ. And Taiwan, a full-fledged democracy, does not consent to PRC rule.
The second idea for a potential China policy would extend a Brookings-voiced concept, of monitoring China for its compatibility with our principles and calibrating our stances accordingly. The CCP differs from Putin; it has principles however wrong we find them. Those principles have not ruled out some kind of commonality. As recently as the 2000s, Chinese would say they were as free as ever in their history. The PRC under Xi Jinping has been moving into a hostile posture, but our response needs to stay in a principled context. We must respect that the PRC will choose their own course but we can only work with them to the extent we see common ground. Our creed, which we should clarify in action and expression, marks a path toward common ground if they choose to walk it.
This conditional stance leaves China to its own choices while keeping America’s commitment to our founding tenets clear. It also implies our belief that freedom can develop, to some extent, even where it doesn’t yet prevail. Other nations that may not be “in the club” of deeply free societies need not be adversaries. If a “democracy versus autocracy” doctrine might leave us outnumbered, this stance shows that such polarization is not necessary for U.S. policy to fit America’s tenets. We should be happy to work with less-free societies to nurture freedom’s spread. U.S. policy can in fact carry the Declaration’s creed into any arena.
Putin has us reacting to his belligerence, and we need to assert our values pro-actively, in good faith to them . His reminder of primal darkness’ persistence highlights a need to re-infuse our creed in our conduct. America should also re-commit our domestic life to our creed, for our own sake. On all fronts, we will have to revamp many practices and positions at a deep level, very rapidly. But we must debunk Putin’s narrative, not only to defeat him but to validate our very founding. If we know our purpose we will do better against Putin, and good for all.