Moral and Real Credibility of America

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The US is in the process, 2/3/24, of losing significant moral and practical credibility, providing a significant threat to global stability. The US promised a security agreement to Ukraine, and has kept it partially by providing some arms to Ukraine, but not in sufficient quantities to satisfy its security agreement.

This begs the question - what did the US promised? What did it deliver? Then we can make more specific requests to the USA for fulfilling its promise. Can we make a more rigorous assessment of the promise right now, and contribute more to its fulfillment? If the US government fails to respond, one solution would be a citizens' effort to raise the necessary billions. The monetary value is high, but is low if the global stakes are accounted more rigorously.

As a global, US, and Polish citizen, I find this deeply offensive and am working on reversing this condition towards global collaboration. On one side, by the doctrine of Mutually Assured Abundance, by direct dual-use production on the other.

Read article, from The Dispatch.

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G-File Ukraine’s Moral Reality Wanting to help the country fend off Russian aggression isn’t pie-eyed idealism.

Jonah Goldberg

Mar 1, 2024

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

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

My position has a heavy dose of idealism and moralism to it. I don’t deny that. Nor do I think this is a very meaningful concession. Morality is part of American foreign policy and always has been.

Historically, isolationism has as much moralism and idealism to it as interventionism. Traditional American isolationism stemmed from an argument about American exceptionalism; we are a shining city on a hill and we should not let foreign entanglements lead to the muck of the Old World spilling onto our shores.

Today’s isolationism (or, if you prefer, “non-interventionism”) is qualitatively different from the isolationism of, say, John Adams or Robert Taft in important respects. Donald Trump thinks America is run by stupid and weak people, and that we should adopt or at least admire the self-interested approach of undemocratic countries with strong, smart, leaders. That’s not American exceptionalism. And it’s worth noting that defenders of Trump’s approach—or, to be more fair to Trump, what defenders think is Trump’s approach (he’s far more ambiguous on Ukraine than his friends and foes seem to think)—do not lack for moralizing when they argue against helping Ukraine. Many routinely accuse supporters of being warmongers and try, often with obvious desperation and dishonesty, to paint Ukraine and Zelensky as the “real” villains.

But I will also readily concede that morality, while necessary, is insufficient. I very much would like to free Tibet, liberate Hong Kong, and end the persecution of the Uyghurs. I’d also love to topple the repressive government of China. Ditto for regime change in North Korea, Russia, Cuba, and elsewhere.

The morality of my desires is, by my lights at least, unassailable. But desire and ability are different things. For starters, wanting something you can’t have is foolishness. I’d love to play in the NBA, but I cannot. So, there’s really no point in putting any effort toward such a goal. But more to the point, there are plenty of things I want that I could achieve, but the costs are prohibitive. I could be in much better shape or much richer, but many of the things I’d have to do to fulfill these desires just aren’t worth it to me at the moment.

In other words, cold-eyed, reality-based, cost-benefit analysis is essential to foreign policy (and domestic policy). If you could persuasively demonstrate to me that we could topple the Chinese Communist Party with no loss of life, no risk of nuclear war, and at a very low cost to taxpayers, I think it’d be a no-brainer to put that plan into action. But no such plan exists (remember, I said “persuasively”).

As I’ve long argued, when it comes to foreign policy, idealism about ends is entirely 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 the other way around: idealism about means and realism about ends. But that’s an argument for another time.

One of the most annoying aspects of the debate over supporting Ukraine is the widespread desire to insert straw men or imagined catastrophic scenarios into the argument. Sure, Emmanuel Macron recently suggested that France doesn’t rule out the possibility of sending French troops. But two points are worth making about that. First, the rest of NATO responded, in effect, “put down the crack pipe.” Second, even if France did send troops to Ukraine, French troops are not Americans.

Meanwhile, no American politician or foreign policy expert I’m aware of is arguing for sending American troops to fight in Ukraine, though. No one thinks we should go to war, never mind nuclear war, over Ukraine.

Now, the more defensible objection is that supporting Ukraine could lead to war. Indeed, the possibility of nuclear war is often raised as a specter to scare people out of supporting Ukraine. Leading this chorus: Vladimir Putin.

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 down the road. The same argument is offered by leaders in Poland, the Baltics, Scandinavia, the Czech Republic, and other NATO allies. Putin has designs on NATO countries, and if we don’t stop him at the Ukrainian border, we’ll be forced to stop him at the Polish border. You can disagree with that assessment, but that is the assessment. In other words, the disagreement isn’t between warmongers and peace-lovers, but between two camps that differ on the best way to avoid war and ensure peace.

My friend Michael Brendan Dougherty has long made the case that Ukraine isn’t a major strategic concern for us, but it is for Russia. Therefore our cost-benefit analysis is different from Putin’s and we should, in effect, defer to Russia’s ambitions. He also argues that we—i.e., America and the West—essentially provoked Russia by encroaching on its sphere of influence or “near abroad” by trying to peel Ukraine away into the European orbit. He spends a lot of time arguing against bringing Ukraine into NATO, for understandable and defensible reasons given his priors, but I think this is largely an irrelevant issue for the current debate. With one caveat: Talk of bringing Ukraine into NATO is provocative to Putin.

My first problem with this calculation is that the moral argument for helping Ukraine is waved away, while Russia’s (im)moral argument for turning it into a vassal state is left intact. Wanting to help Ukraine is rendered a kind of pie-eyed idealism disconnected from realist concerns, while Putin’s desire to in effect erase it as a sovereign nation-state along with Ukraine’s desire to be a democracy and Western ally is folded into a defensible realism. Contrary to a lot of his detractor’s claims, this does not make Michael pro-Putin. But I do think it makes him wrong.

Michael often points out many of the flaws of Ukraine—both real and alleged. He’s troubled by Ukrainian nationalism’s “Nazi issue.” He doesn’t like that it banned 11 parties with close ties to Russia or that it clamped down on the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine for similar reasons. Now, I think his concerns are exaggerated in many regards, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t truth to some of the complaints. None of them amount to reasons, morally or strategically, not to support Ukraine.

But what I find interesting is how this sort of stuff, usually flung about by people like Vivek Ramaswamy, Candace Owens, and Tucker Carlson with little or none of the precision or fidelity to facts that Michael offers, undermines realist premises. If it’s in America’s cold-eyed amoral interest to see the Russian war machine eroded and to see Ukraine brought into the Western ambit, then what Ukraine does domestically is a side issue. Again, I think Ukraine’s cause is moral and just, and that its desire to be an independent, democratic nation should be supported. But if we’re talking realism, even the caricatures of Ukraine as a bogeyman are irrelevant if we think bolstering Ukraine weakens Russia.

(Also, as I noted last week, siding with Putin’s imperialism is an indisputable betrayal of the nationalist idealism so popular these days. Ukraine wants to be a sovereign nation-state, not a gelded vassal to a foreign power. If they believe that nationalism is the morally superior cause the nationalists claim it be, they should be cheering for Ukraine, not toadying up to its oppressor.)

The folks who parrot many of Trump’s talking points—note, I don’t have MBD in mind here—insist how smart and good it would be to be friendly with Russia. Well, there’s no consistent moral framework that can hold on one hand that it would be great to be friends with a far more undemocratic and despotic regime like Russia’s while condemning the idea of being friends with Ukraine on the other. On any moral scorecard Putin’s regime is a reprehensibly evil one, and yet clowns like Ramaswamy heap scorn on Ukraine for not being a “paragon of democracy” and insinuate that Zelensky—a Jew—is a Nazi.

Which is it? Are we supposed to be offended by immoral regimes or not? If not, then make the case that helping Ukraine is not in our national interest. If moral nature of regimes does matter, then stop making up stuff about Ukraine while denying or dismissing the moral indictments of Russia. Russia, unlike Israel in Gaza, is actually behaving genocidally in Ukraine, trying to erase a culture and a people. It is stealing thousands of children to this end. It is using rape and torture as tools of war. Meanwhile, as the Ukrainian constitution and practical considerations require, Ukraine is postponing an election. But that’s the thing we’re supposed to be offended by?

I think the moral case for supporting Ukraine is indisputable. The Ukrainians want to fight for their country. We are not making them do it. Indeed, they are begging for the ability to do it. This alone is important. Lots of opponents of aiding Ukraine make it seem as though we are in control of the situation and are somehow forcing this conflict into existence. And that we’re responsible for the Ukrainian death toll. In this vision, Russia is some force of nature without agency and we are prolonging Ukrainian suffering by enabling Ukrainian resistance. I care a great deal about the death toll—on both sides—but we are not morally responsible for it. There’s a certain imperial arrogance to the idea that we know Ukrainian self-interest better than the Ukrainians do.

I could run through the familiar realist arguments for why we should help Ukraine or rebut many of the faux realist arguments for why we shouldn’t. But that’s been done by many others already.

But what matters most is where the moral and realist arguments converge right now. Opponents of supporting Ukraine insist that arming it is provocative, but they leave out the fact that one of the things that invited Russian aggression in the first place was our project to disarm Ukraine. In 1994, we facilitated the Budapest Memorandum, which stripped Ukraine of its slice of the Soviet nuclear arsenal. In 2005 we pressured Ukraine to destroy massive stockpiles of conventional weapons. There were good arguments and bad for these decisions. But what gets left out is the fact that we provided assurances to protect Ukrainian sovereignty and security in both instances. And we did it again in 2009. That may seem like ancient history to many today, but you can be sure it’s not to countries that depend on similar assurances—and to countries that are restrained by such assurances.

But forget the “ancient” history. President Biden said just over two years ago that we will support Ukraine “for as long as it takes.” For the “not my president” crowd of the right, Biden’s promises not only don’t count but should be opposed simply because the real threat is the “Biden regime” not the Putin regime. But like it or not, Biden was speaking for America and the world listened.

There are many serious and defensible realist arguments against promiscuously promising support or alliances (and Michael has consistently made such arguments). But promises have been made. And I am not aware of any serious realist argument that doesn’t take the credibility of a superpower seriously. This is where the moral and realist arguments are nigh-upon synonymous.

In the lead-up to World War II, a lot of principled isolationists opposed U.S. entry into the war. I think they were wrong, obviously. But I don’t think their arguments were as bad at the time as they were revealed to be in hindsight. (If you think the memory of the Iraq War hangs over today’s debates, you should appreciate that the memory of World War I was far more searing.) But once the war started, people like Charles Lindbergh and Taft supported the war. Again, no one is asking anyone to support going to war with Russia. All that is being asked of them is to support America keeping its word.

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