Russia is waging a “war against freedom, equality and fraternity,” said the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy said the French parliament on Wednesday. This is a “battle between democracy and autocracy,” said the US President Joe Biden has said. “Ireland’s humanitarian aid will not be neglected,” Taoiseach said Michael Martin explained. Meanwhile, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is necessary to stop “genocide” and “denazify” Ukraine, Vladimir Putin said.
The Russian President’s claim is demonstrably false (although we don’t know if this was intentional or delusional). This does not mean that the claims to the contrary by his enemies and critics are necessarily the whole truth.
Ireland’s endorsement of its “humanitarian” response to crises misses the point that it is a free rider on Western defenses militarily. Our humanitarian empathy for Ukraine is limited to letting Ukraine decide how to spend our donated money; no wonder Zelenskyi found our response to be lacking in his address to the European Council on Thursday.
Biden’s pro-democracy espousal leaves out a long history of reckless self-interest and unsavory realpolitik in US foreign policy. “Russia is trying to conquer the freedom of all people in Europe,” Zelenskyy said in an English-language video last week. If that seems excessive, it should be understood as part of a communications strategy aimed at persuading the West to either defend or arm Ukraine.
All present the war as a moral tale – just because this may be strategic doesn’t mean it isn’t authentic. The more authentic it seems, the more effective a strategy is. This appeals to what psychologist Jonathan Haidt has called “the righteous spirit” – the human impulse to shape our actions in terms of morality. As Shane Timmons of the ESRI Behavioral Research Unit explains, people tend to base their arguments on morality because they feel it is less acceptable when others bring it up to them.
But there are different kinds of moral reasoning, says Timmons. The most popular is the “black-and-white” reasoning (also known in philosophical jargon as “deontological ethics”), which judges actions as right or wrong, regardless of their outcome: people prefer this intuitively, and Zelenskyy invokes it in his calls to intervene.
But there is also a type of moral thinking known as “utilitarian” or “consequentialist,” in which actions are judged by their outcome. People tend to dislike this and distrust leaders who demonstrate it, says Timmons. For this reason, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s claim that a no-fly zone could lead to a larger conflict is repugnant. It’s obviously not morally wrong: after all, Stoltenberg argues that helping Ukraine now could cause more deaths later. But such a calculation given the imminent threat to Ukraine feels not correct.
I wrote last week about the historical precedents for Russia’s war against Ukraine, with World War II being the most cited. But in this respect – the agonizing debate in the West about the ethics of intervention – the war recalls the litany of conflicts of the 1990s: Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo. As today, there was no uncertainty as to who the aggressor was, but there was great uncertainty as to the will or ability of the West (US-led) to intervene. That period was further commemorated last week by the death of Madeleine Albright, one of the key architects of US foreign policy during this period.
Albright was a Czech refugee whose family fled the Nazis and then Stalin. She built a breakthrough career in US foreign policy, serving as Ambassador to the United Nations and then Secretary of State during Bill Clinton’s presidency. As ambassador to the UN, she was part of a government that failed miserably to step in to stop the Rwandan genocide. Albright, who lost his family in the Holocaust, downplayed the genocide as it took place.
“During the entire three months of the genocide, Clinton never assembled his top political advisers to discuss the killings,” Samantha Power noted in A problem from hell. Why was there such inaction or indifference? “The phones aren’t ringing,” said Clinton national security adviser Tony Lake, a human rights attorney who lobbied for him during the genocide, Power reported. There was no greater pressure to intervene. I saw Albright speak in New York in 2008; Confident and morally persuasive on all other issues, when asked a question about Rwanda she hesitated and her repeated apologies were hopelessly inadequate.
A year after the Rwandan genocide, the US stood by while Bosnian Serbs massacred the men of Srebrenica in Bosnia. As Power wrote, it was only when the Bosnian war began to have domestic implications for Clinton—”It can’t go on like this,” he protested privately. “I’m going to be creamed!” – that the US intervened, with NATO airstrikes leading to a peace settlement. “We have fought for peace and freedom because it is in our best interest and because it is the right thing to do,” Clinton said.
Albright and Clinton came of age amid the dirty realpolitik of the Cold War. Power, who first went to Yugoslavia as a fledgling war correspondent, came of age in an era of unprecedented faith in liberal democracy. As America projected its values around the world, Power saw firsthand what happened when America did not violently support those values and became a leading proponent of morally based foreign intervention. Then, as UN ambassador under Barack Obama, she was part of an administration that didn’t intervene when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons — although Obama said it was a “red line.”
There are two schools of thought that offer a clear analysis of such inconsistency and hypocrisy. The “realists” believe that states act to project their power and protect their interests; Trying to do otherwise is doomed to fail, and thus any attempt to frame foreign policy by “values” is delusional. The anti-imperialist left believes that talk of such values is simply wrong to obfuscate the point that the US (and the West) only ever acts to protect its interests. Both insights are valuable, albeit undermined by the certainty with which their followers try to apply them in every case.
The reason it is so necessary to think about Syria, about Bosnia, about Rwanda, is not because they reward these studies with clear insight, but precisely because the dilemmas one faces persist. How do you risk the lives of your troops when there is no public call for action? How to mobilize complex bureaucracies and international coalitions in response to complex crises? How do you balance the risks of non-intervention with the risks of escalation? How do you deal with belligerents who see their own interests as irrational or unpredictable? What is the lesser evil?
The point isn’t that morale is absent or unattainable, it’s that it’s muddy. Identifying evil is easier than calculating how to stop it. All political actors react to their public and are restricted by it. States are constrained by their international relationships. Selfishness is never lacking. Even when the moral intent is clear, the action can have unintended consequences: sanctions, for example, can result in Putin being strengthened rather than weakened.
Political leaders will find themselves using the language of “black-and-white morality” — whether strategically or intuitively — in responding to the war in Ukraine, but their actions tend to reflect the kind of calculation associated with utilitarian thinking connected is. Such a calculation, as Shane Timmons observed, is unpopular at the best of times; even more so when the public is immersed in the moral certainty of so much social media today. That the moral history of international politics too often ends in tragedy is a lesson we must keep learning.
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/wests-moral-dilemma-how-doing-the-right-thing-is-wrong-41491035.html West’s moral dilemma: how wrong it is to do the right thing