After all, an end to the human suffering in Ukraine may be approaching. Moreover, as I’ve written, the longer the fighting continues, the higher the odds that it spills over Ukraine’s borders, drags in the United States, and escalates to the nuclear level.
Also important, though, but less well appreciated, a non-disastrous (at least for the United States) conclusion to the conflict would give America’s current globalist leaders a chance to rethink two truly bizarre ideas about the way the world either does or should work that (1) have needlessly magnified those nuclear-war-with-Russia dangers, and (2) therefore expose the country to less risk if trouble in this region breaks out again, or similar crises erupt elsewhere. And both stem from thoroughgoing misunderstandings about the nature of sovereignty.
The first arose because of Poland’s idea work with Washington to supply MIG-29 fighter jets from its own air force to Ukraine. Though President Biden ultimately nixed the idea (after Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken seemed to approve it), his administation muddied the waters considerably, and left himself wider open to charges of weakness, by insisting that “This is Poland’s sovereign decision to make.”
The second has emerged because of the peace talks, and holds that the United States won’t be pressuring Ukraine to accept peace terms Kyiv doesn’t itself support because Ukraine, too, is a sovereign country with an untrammeled right to pursue or defend its interests however it sees fit. Somewhat embarrassingly, I can’t find any supporting links, but I’ve been following the Ukraine War policy debate closely, and the notion definitely is in the air – especially in the ranks of the hawks.
From a purely operational standpoint, both propositions should be rejected outright by Americans. Poland, after all, doesn’t exist geopolitically in isolation. It’s a member of an alliance that includes the United States. No reasonable person would object to any steps it took to defend its own territory if attacked. But when it comes to situations in which it’s not victimized by aggression, and in which its actions could affect the security of its fellow members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Americans and others in NATO should by all means object to any freelancing. And the more so since Poland wanted to join NATO specifically because it (rightly) doubted its ability to fend off Russia by itself.
Neither the United States nor any other NATO member should ever accept the argument that one of their ranks should enjoy complete freedom of action regardless of its larger consequences, but has the right to demand their help if it comes under attack (including because of its unilateral acts). In other words, receiving alliance benefits means accepting alliance responsibilities.
Similar considerations should govern U.S. policy toward Ukraine-Russia negotiations. Ukraine isn’t a treaty ally of the United States, but it’s sure receiving lots of military aid and humanitarian from America (and other NATO members) – and wants much more. If its bargaining tactics prolong the fighting, the United States’ own security could suffer. So Washington should never hesitate to take whatever steps are needed to ensure that – in America’s judgement – Kyiv’s aims (however understandable from Ukraine’s vantage point) don’t needlessly threaten U.S. interests.
For any thinking adult, the views here shouldn’t be the slightest bit controversial. So why are they so difficult to accept even for so many American leaders with lots of knowledge of and experience in foreign policymaking – and whose very success makes clear that they’re hardly babes in the woods in dealing with their careers and other areas of their lives? As indicated above, it’s because they hold views about sovereignty stemming from assumptions about world affairs that can only be accurately described as fanciful.
That is, sovereignty is evidently seen as a status that either actually commands universal respect, or should command such respect, at least from individuals and governments with any regard for (equally universal) standards of acceptable behavior. As with most long and deeply embedded assumptions, the bases for this status and its legitimacy are rarely spelled out anymore. When they have been specified, the argument seems to resemble that made for human rights – that it springs either from a Creator, or from some feature of existence that is so innate, and even defining, as to be inalienable (as the American political tradition terms it).
Without wading too deep into discussions philosophers have had since philosophizing began, and whose resolution seems nowhere in sight, I’ll just put forward the proposition that it’s one thing to articulate and propagate common standards of acceptable behavior for individuals. Without them, it’s difficult to imagine creating any community or society worth living in.
But sovereignty as an idea with autonomous power over the relations among different communities and societies – which in the case of world affairs means relations among states? Much less an idea that actually does command such respect? Where, specifically, are the commonly accepted standards of behavior that must underlie this construct? Yes, enshrined in heaven only knows how many international treaties and agreements. But when inconvenient, honored in the breach at best is the only answer that passes the all-important eyeball test.
The reason, moreover, could not be more obvious, at least to an empiricst: Since there are no commonly accepted standards of behavior in a de facto sense, states haven’t been able to agree on a system to enforce those standards. And yet this situation seems anything but obvious to America’s globalists, at least judging by how the idea of sovereignty shapes their policies and stated opinions.
One explanation for these illusions that my own work has pointed to is that globalists don’t see, or don’t want to acknowledge, any intrinsic and inevitable distinction between the communities (specifically, those they rightly admire) into which the world has long been divided, and a global community that they either suppose exists in meaningful ways right now, or is steadily forming. As a result, they also seem to believe that because of America’s immense weight, if their government acts as if that community exists now, its foreign policies will be able to bring it to completion that much faster.
To which I can only reply with the standard but still insightful warning about not permitting hope to triumph over (millennia of) experience.
Not that there’s no such thing as sovereignty in world politics today, and not that such sovereignty is anything new. But although it’s recognized in any number of international legal documents, it’s not a creation of these documents or any body of law. It’s a creation of capability. If states are able through their own devices (and these can include skillful diplomacy, not only the exercise of power) to preserve themselves in the forms they desire, they’re sovereign, and are treated as such by others as long as these capabilities last. If they can’t so defend themselves, ultimately they receive no such treatment.
Nor is the United States well advised to trample over others’ sovereignty at the drop of a hat – but mainly because there’s so seldom an urgent need for such an existentially secure and prosperous country as America. The Ukraine War, however, has created the kinds of potential threats to the nation’s safety that haven’t been on the horizon since possibly the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. There are any number of strong arguments for various types of responses. But major concern about the so far chimerical idea of sovereignty, even of friends and allies, isn’t one of them.