Precisely What Is At Stake in Ukraine?

Support for Ukraine in beginning to become a question in America.  How far do we go in supporting them?  What’s right, what can we afford, and do we risk pushing Putin to launch a nuclear strike?

No answer makes sense unless we first agree and declare how our national interest is at stake.  Whether we oppose Russia reviving its empire, Russian expansionism generally, Putin’s dictatorial regime, or support Ukraine as a freer nation than Putin’s, that concern must connect to something vital to the U.S., and we need to say why.

A daunting concern, which has tempered western support for Ukraine, is the fear that we could push Putin into a corner so that he launches a nuclear attack.  Even detonation of a single low-yield tactical device in a remote area opens a door to all-out nuclear Armageddon.  The risk of opposing Putin “too much” is real.  And Putin knows it looms over the whole question.

Against this risk, many other policy considerations are, arguably but reasonably, small potatoes.  Of course any drive for U.S. dominance would be reckless if pursued in an aggressive manner.  Support for our allies, particularly our NATO allies, is right but does tie us up in appeasing the Erdogans and Orbans of the world.  Sympathy for Ukraine – or Georgia or the Baltics or Moldova or other former Soviet republics – would likely not stand up against a real fear of nuclear war.  Democracy is not directly under threat: Ukraine, while freer than Russia, is not a full democracy.  

One interest the U.S. does have is elusive but actually vital.  If a nation founded on the core premise of personal rights and government by consent of the governed is to last in the world, that nation needs to stand up for those tenets, and to maintain conditions that support that concept.  The current liberal order, while its institutions often arrogate more authority than liberal principle would imply, is meant to enforce rules and mutual recognition of nations as they jockey for their interests.  Perhaps the deepest underlying concept is that a nation cannot use or threaten force simply to have its way.  Russia has done exactly this in Ukraine.  The only other significant violation of this principle since 1945 was Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait.  Any other war or combat has involved internal politics, disputed borders, failed states or other morally confusing stakes, so that the combatants’ objectives amounted to less than naked self interest demanded at the point of a gun.

Practically speaking, if such naked aggression is successful, then aggressors anywhere have reason to believe it can work for them, and less fear of launching wars.  The norms of today’s rules-based international order lose any force they may have had in deterring such behavior.  Their demise would subject all international relations to the rule that might makes right.

There are those who accuse the U.S. or the west of this practice, but close attention to western interventions shows a constraint of principle – and observation of other countries’ calculations shows them couching any claims in moral terms, even if their interest is self serving.  If Putin is not stopped and somehow penalized in Ukraine, this norm will be severely weakened.

In a world that returns to such a state of nature, America may be strong enough to retain our autonomy and our founding ethos.  But we will have failed to stand up for one of the pillars that supports this ethos, which in turn casts doubt on our commitment to our values.  It is foolish to “go abroad seeking monsters to destroy,” as John Quincy Adams once put it, but also, as he said in the same speech, “wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been … unfurled, there will [America’s] heart … benedictions … and prayers be.”  We were a weak country when he spoke; as a superpower, money and weapons are a reasonable form of benedictions and prayers for the independence of an invaded country like Ukraine.

So the question for Americans boils down to: how much would we risk invalidating our own commitment to a world that is safe for rights, and how much, against that, would we risk triggering the aggressor to launch Armageddon?  Needless to say, the question will always be hedged by calculations, all colored by every critic’s appetite for either risk.  And the extreme hypothetical cases only reveal the bias of whoever poses the question.  “Would you blow up the world for an incomplete democracy?” and “Would you surrender a free country out of cowardice?” do not do justice to the question.

In the end, multiple rounds of analysis, calculation, and action can be expected and represent the only way to avoid either catastrophe.  The key point is that those two concerns, unclouded by spurious fears for democracy, claims of U.S. imperialism, or irrational projections of Putin’s ultimate ambitions, are the points to be balanced.  We cannot give up on either the apple of non-aggression or the orange of avoiding nuclear war.  Above all, our own discourse cannot dissolve into the normal partisan blame game.  We need unity, which rests on a clear recognition of our interests.  Only with that steadiness in our discourse will we get steadiness in our management of this crisis.


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