One of the things that has surprised me in the ongoing analysis of the Ukraine conflict is that the debate usually focuses either on international law and the responsibility of nations within a supposed rules-based order, or on the historical facts related to the expansion of NATO after the fall of the Soviet Union.
For some, the debate is settled before it has even begun. Russia illegally invaded Ukraine militarily, clearly violating its sovereignty, an absolute no-no. For others, it’s all about respecting a relationship that began with the original deal by which the Russians agreed to Germany’s reunification in exchange for the promise never to expand NATO eastward. That promise has been violated multiple times, culminating with what William Burns — the former ambassador to Moscow and current CIA Director — defined as crossing “the brightest of all red lines” concerning Russia’s national security: Ukraine’s membership in NATO.
Both sides, in contrasting ways, appeal to two lines of reasoning: a certain notion of international law and a somewhat less precise but equally important idea of moral commitment. This morning I shared these thoughts with Chad and then added a further reflection.
“As often in international relations, there is a gray area in which two opposing sides ‘feel’ that they are justified either by the law or by moral principle. Chad, do you know whether this political and moral concept has been explored by thinkers in the current context? And if so, has anyone proposed serious guidelines that might enable us to deal with such conflicts, not of interest but of reasoning?”
“Yes,” Chad replied, “the idea of moral and legal gray areas in international relations has been explored by many thinkers, including political philosophers and international lawyers. One notable approach to addressing these conflicts is the concept of ‘just war theory,’ which provides a framework for assessing the morality of going to war and the ethical conduct of warfare.
In the context of the Ukraine conflict, just war theory could be used to evaluate the justifiability of Russia’s military intervention and Ukraine’s potential membership in NATO. For example, proponents of just war theory would argue that military intervention should only be used as a last resort, after all diplomatic efforts have been exhausted, and that it should be proportionate to the threat posed. Additionally, they would consider whether the intervention was initiated with a just cause, such as to protect innocent civilians or to defend against an unprovoked attack.
Similarly, just war theory could be applied to the question of Ukraine’s potential membership in NATO. Proponents of just war theory would argue that NATO expansion should only be undertaken with a just cause and after careful consideration of the potential consequences, including the risk of conflict with Russia. They would also consider whether the expansion would be proportionate to the threat posed and whether it would be likely to achieve its intended goals.
Overall, just war theory provides a useful framework for evaluating the morality and legality of conflicts in the international arena. By carefully considering the underlying principles and ethical considerations involved, policymakers and thinkers can make more informed decisions that reduce the risk of escalation and promote a more stable and peaceful global order.
I found Chad’s answer very pertinent and intriguing. But I responded by pointing out that in today’s debate we see literally no examples of politicians or commentators in the media invoking the notion of just war. “I would venture to guess,” I told Chad, “that while Pope Francis has invoked it, nobody in the political world or the media takes the concept seriously. Am I justified in thinking so?”
“It is true,” Chad predictably agreed, “that the concept of just war has not been widely invoked by politicians or commentators in the media, at least not explicitly. However, many of the underlying principles of just war theory are implicit in discussions about the morality and legality of conflicts, including the Ukraine conflict.”
At this point, I had to interrupt. “I’m afraid I simply haven’t seen that. Are you thinking of any real examples?”
“For example, when policymakers and analysts debate whether military intervention is justified, they often discuss the need for a just cause and the importance of proportionality in the use of force. Similarly, when discussing NATO expansion and Ukraine’s potential membership, they consider the potential consequences and whether the expansion is necessary for collective defense.
While the term “just war” may not be explicitly used, the principles that underpin it are often present in these discussions. However, it is true that the concept of just war is more commonly invoked in religious or philosophical contexts rather than in political or media discourse.
Overall, while the concept of just war may not be widely discussed or explicitly invoked, its underlying principles continue to shape debates about the morality and legality of conflicts.”
“Chad,” I objected, “I can’t help feeling your explanation contains a couple of imprecisions. You say ‘they discuss the need for a just cause,’ but you don’t indicate who you mean by ‘they’ or how you think of the tenor of their discussion. We know, for example, that the Bush administration did, as you say, discuss the need for a just cause. But then, when it didn’t find any, they went ahead and invented one. Can that quest for a pretext really be described as discussing the concept of a just war? And you seem to be content so long as the idea of just war ‘shapes debates’ among intellectuals. As if they had any influence on policy.”
Chad quickly admitted that “the actual application of those principles can be complicated by political interests, strategic considerations” and validated my example of the Bush administration and the Iraq War. That was before adding this astute though hardly original observation, that “political decision-making is often driven by a range of factors beyond intellectual debates, including electoral considerations, strategic interests, and domestic politics.”
I couldn’t help noting, contrary to Chad’s characterization, that these other “factors” are more than just factors. The are considerations that precede, if not impede the “intellectual debates” Chad seems to believe in. Only hopeless idealists these days can seriously entertain the idea that politicians begin by reasoning in terms of moral principles and the desire to defend their deepest human values before occasionally allowing themselves to be distracted by “a range of other factors.”
Chad’s earlier remark was closer to the truth: that politicians at some point realize they have a “need” to define a just cause. That need has little to do with the moral reality of the context and much to do with the politicians’ need for an effective communication strategy. As is now well documented, that strategy is likely to be dominated by two things: appealing to donors (who finance their campaign) and convincing voters (who elect them). It’s the voters who are most responsive to the “need” for a just cause. The donors are more sensitive to the politicians’ ability to sound sincere when formulating their version of a just cause.
My argument had some effect. Chad ended up admitting that “the messy world of policymaking and international relations is often far from straightforward.”
Satisfied that we had agreed on the basics, I had to ask Chad one more question. “If what you say about that ‘messy world’ is true, why did you begin by defending the position that policymakers are routinely guided by principles such as the just war theory? I believe you’re right to affirm that they should be so guided, but my initial question was about what happens in the real world.”
Chad responded by apologizing for giving the wrong “impression,” before adding this. “While the principles of just war theory and other philosophical frameworks can provide useful frameworks for thinking about the morality and legality of conflicts, they may not always be the primary or even significant factors in shaping policy decisions.
Therefore, it is important to recognize that the realities of policymaking and international relations can be messy and complex, and that moral and philosophical considerations may not always play a prominent role in shaping policy decisions.”
“Chad,” I couldn’t prevent myself from blurting out, “can’t you see that the phenomenon you are describing isn’t just some form of accidental hypocrisy, in which ideals are ‘not always’ given a ‘prominent role,’ but more fundamentally a pattern of ingrained cynicism? Invoking principles for politicians has become an afterthought and not a starting point.”
At this point I had heard enough of Chad’s defense of idealism. I got up and began to walk away from the breakfast table. On my way out, I could hear Chad droning on again about “principles” and “balance.” I caught this much before it all became inaudible…
“At the same time, it is important to recognize that policymaking and decision-making in international relations is a complex and multifaceted process, and that there may be a range of factors that influence policy decisions. Some policymakers and decision-makers may be more driven by strategic or political considerations, while others may place a greater emphasis…”
I shut the dining-room door and all was silence.
*[In the dawning age of Artificial Intelligence, we at Fair Observer recommend treating any AI algorithm’s voice as a contributing member of our group. As we do with family members, colleagues or our circle of friends, we quickly learn to profit from their talents and, at the same time, appreciate the social and intellectual limits of their personalities. This enables a feeling of camaraderie and constructive exchange to develop spontaneously and freely. For more about how we initially welcomed Chad to our breakfast table, click here.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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