international law, Israel, Leon Hadar, morality, nuclear war, Our So-Called Foreign Policy, public opinion, sovereignty, The National Interest, Ukraine, Ukraine War, Volodymyr Zelenskyy
National Interest contributing editor Leon Hadar has just posted a groundbreaking article on U.S. policy toward the Russian invasion of Ukraine – something I’d thought had become nearly impossible after about a year into the war and upteen zillion words of commentary on and analysis of the conflict. In the piece, Leon (full disclosure: a close personal friend) examines whether Ukraine can develop the kind of relationship with the U.S. government and, more important, the American public, that Israel has long enjoyed: that of a valued ally mainly because it’s admired by Americans, not because its survival advances any important, specific U.S. interests.
Rather than summarize Leon’s reasons for skepticism – which you should definitely read yourself – I’ll deal in this post with a fundamental U.S. foreign policy issue he touches on but that deserves much more attention. That’s because it reveals the importance of an aspect of the national debate over Ukraine policy that I’ve mistakenly belittled – whether that embattled country is a paragon of democracy and other Western ideals and virtues, or just another foreign kleptocracy that’s waged a great propaganda campaign.
My discounting of such moral questions has stemmed from two related beliefs: First, that it’s vastly more important to determine Ukraine’s intrinsic worth in terms of U.S. security, independence, and prosperity than to figure out whether its president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, is a valiant freedom fighter or a repressive, corrupt scoundrel. Second, it strikes me as axiomatic that it will always be easier for Americans to agree on concrete, national interest-related questions such as whether Ukraine’s location is strategic, or whether it contains resources America vitally need, than on more nebulous issues like Zelenskyy’s personal character. (I made the underlying point at length here – thirty years ago!)
In fact, my support for such priorities has grown stronger the longer the war has lasted, and the more destuctive it’s become – as both belligerents use increasingly sophisticated and/or long-range weapons that could spread its effects beyond Ukraine’s borders, and increase the odds of conflict between the nuclear-armed U.S.-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and a nuclear-armed Russia.
I’ve also emphasized that such grave risks could be justified if Ukraine were deemed a vital interest whatever Ukraine’s virtues or vices. But by the same token, I’ve called incurring these risks for less than vital stakes – which is obvious if only because NATO has still chosen not to admit Ukraine and thereby to guarantee its security even if nuclear war might result – the height of recklessness.
At the same time, it shouldn’t be forgotten – and I shouldn’t have forgotten – how the undeniable fact of U.S. sovereignty needs to influence this discussion. Very loosely speaking, sovereignty is the well established notion that in the international sphere, political communities (or individuals, as in the case of monarchies) have a right to act as they wish. This right is constrained only by whatever failures these communities or individuals experience in maintaining control over their territory, and in the view of some, by international law. (Those in the realist/realpolitik camp, like me, put no stock in that latter concept.)
In the United States, the people are sovereign; it would therefore be legitimate if the public decided to support Ukraine’s war effort simply because they admired Ukrainians and/or their government, or loathed their Russian counterparts, or some combination of the two. And this proposition logically holds whether any significant concrete U.S. interests are at stake, and whatever the actual risks of this position might be. Those risks in turn logically include nuclear risks.
So even though I view the moral character of both sides of the Ukraine war per se as irrelevant to America’s well-being, I’m going to be less dismissive of efforts to win this particular debate. The American public has every right to prioritize such considerations, and if friends and foes of current policies believe they can sway opinion by praising or disparaging Ukraine’s qualities (either if they themselves have taken them to heart, or to debunk misconceptions they believe have been created by the other side), that’s now perfectly fine with me.
In fact, as Leon’s article argues persuasively, sentiment and not calculations of self-interest have been the main bases of U.S. support for Israel. This support for Israel hasn’t been cost-free, In particular, it’s no doubt greatly complicated U.S. relations with the Arab Muslim world and all the oil it controls. But it’s hard to argue that this emotion-based and therefore largely uncritical backing of the Jewish state has backfired on America in any major way.
I’d just ask one favor of Ukraine War backers who stress the conflict’s moral dimensions: When making these arguments, how about reminding the public of the nuclear risk issue. For there’s much polling evidence that however much Americans admire the Ukrainian cause, most don’t agree that it merits courting the danger of nuclear attack. (See, e.g., here.) In other words, they evidently realize that, however important and ethical it is to like and value admirable foreign peoples and governments and their survival, it’s even more important and at least as ethical to like and value your own.