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I’ve been so concerned about the Russian invasion of Ukraine (and the preceding expansion of the west’s North Atlantic Treaty Organization deep into Eastern Europe) boosting the risks of nuclear war that I haven’t had time to write about some important details that should be considered as Americans weigh a response, and that have influenced my own thinking. In one of my very first RealityChek posts, I actually presented many of these ideas, which concern the role of morality in U.S. foreign policy. But they’re worth reviewing to show how they relate to the momentous – and morally horrific – events of the last week.

Most important:  As a sovereign country, the United States has an inalienable right to respond to this or any other foreign challenge or opportunity however its political system wishes. It doesn’t need to answer to its NATO treaty allies. It doesn’t need to answer to the European Union, the United Nations, or any foreign government or group of governments. It certainly doesn’t need to answer to gauzier supposed realities like “the intenational community” or “global public opinion.” And it certainly does mean that the American political system has an equally inalienable and absolute right to define moral behavior.   

In other words, sovereignty means that the government in question gets the last word (assuming it can enforce its will), and the high degree of security and economic well-being enjoyed by the United States – by virtue of geography, rich resource endowments, economic strength, technological prowess and a host of other advantages – means that the U.S. government has tremendous latitude in choosing what that last word is.

As I’ve argued (e.g., here) joining the fighting would be a choice that’s not only foolish (because Ukraine’s fate has never been seen as vital by American leaders o the public even during the Cold War decades when it was under the Soviet thumb) but possibly suicidal (because it could result in a direct conflict with an enemy possessing a big nuclear arsenal, including weapons that can reach the entire U.S. homeland).

At the same time, if the American people – the ultimate decision-makers in the national political system – want to go to war over Ukraine, despite the risks, and if they make their decision clear through mass protests or any other means, their sovereignty would make that choice entirely legitimate – though IMO borderline insane given the completely marginal self-interest involved.

Thankfully, the public appears to recognize this whoppingly lopsided risk-reward ratio.  And we know this not just becaue  polls have consistently shown opposition to “boots on the ground.” (See, e.g., here and here, although the level of support reported in both were alarmingly high.) We also know it because U.S. leaders seem to understand this public opinion – as President Biden has emphatically ruled out this course, his administration has nixed a similar proposal of enforcing no-fly zones against Russian aircraft over Ukraine, and nearly all Members of Congress have shied away from these options, too.

But a host of lesser responses have also either begun or are being actively discussed as well.  They include providing more economic and military assistance to the Ukrainians both as they’re still putting up a fight, or after a Russian victory – when Moscow could well face a large-scale guerilla war – tightening the economic screws further on Vladimir Putin, his cronies, his entire regime, and his economy; and deploying more U.S. forces to the Eastern European members of NATO to reduce the odds that Putin will move against them.

I’m personally fine with any or all of them in principle – although I do wonder from a logistics standpoint how military supplies will be able to reach the Ukrainians once the Russians are guarding all the borders, and about what dangers could develop from convoys with such supplies approaching territory Moscow controls now or probably will in the coming days and weeks. I’ve also expressed reservations about greatly expanding the U.S. military presence on the territory of the easternmost American allies. 

For the purposes of this post, however, my own views on these matters aren’t what matter. What I’m especially concerned with are three emerging, related, and disturbingly neglected ways in which policy and morality intersect in the Uktaine crisis.

The first I mentioned briefly yesterday – the disconnect between, on the one hand, the ringing calls heard throughout the country (including from President) to “stand with Ukraine” because it’s demanded by simple decency and morality, and on the other hand, and the strong determination of U.S. leaders to shield the domestic economy from the consequences of economic sanctions, above all in the energy sector – much less to avoid actual combat. To me, the morality of such positions is dubious at best. They sound like the classically hypocritical exhortation, “Let’s you and him fight.” And they strongly suggest that expressions of support like this are more about feeling good about oneself than about decisively helping the Ukrainians.

The second involves resource allocation decisions. Some of the Ukraine support steps that will be taken by Washington, like increased military and economic assistance, will require more spending, and more of American leaders’ time and energy.

But the spending proposals so far haven’t been accompanied by any proposals to raise taxes to finance them in the here and now. As a result, these expenditures will add to an already mammoth national debt. If you believe that school of thinking holding that such debts and the deficits that balloon them are No Big Deal economically, there’s no moral problem. If you don’t buy this Modern Monetary Theory, then more deficit spending adds to a national debt that already shapes up as a major burden on future generations (who of course can’t vote). To me that seems as morally problemmatic as the “Let’s you and him fight”-type policies.

The third moral difficulty – which is still more potential than emerging – is also a product of devoting more energy and resources to Ukraine without raising taxes or taking on more debt: This policy could mean less energy and fewer resources devoted to pressing domestic needs with their own big moral dimension. What’s the moral rationale for those taking a back seat, to whatever degree, especially when you consider that solving domestic problems – and doing meaningful, lasting good – is almost always easier than solving overseas problems? That’s because, however challenging those domestic problems, Americans have much more control over them.

All these moral quandaries are further and vastly complicated by another consideration widely ignored in morality-based calls to Do Something or Do More on the Ukraine crisis: No one is more of an expert on morality than anyone else – whether they’re rich or poor, highly educated or barely literate, profoundly eloquent or utterly inarticulate, famous or obscure, or whether they pound tables more vigorously than others or choke up more in official debates or on the air, or whether they’re clerics or laypeople.

If I thought Russia’s invasion of Ukraine threatened genuinely vital American interests – that is, that it endangers national physical survival or political independence, or major, long-term impoverishment – I’d urge sweeping aside these moral questions for reasons that should be obvious except to committed pacifists. I suspect most other Americans would, too.

But to an important extent, in the name of morality, backing is being voiced for U.S. Ukraine policy measures that could gravely and even fatally jeopardize American security or well-being in meaningful ways even though that embattled country isn’t vital.  So for both practical and moral reasons, it’s urgent to examine these moral dilemmas much more searchingly than has been the case, and for the public not to be intimidated or stampeded by the loudest or the most passionate or the most seemingly authoritative or the most widely promoted or covered voices they hear.