Photo by PavelDorogoy from DepositPhotos' collection
Before I lay out my arguments, I’ll state why I’m writing this, even though I’m not an expert in Ukrainian history. In a democracy, each of us must take responsibility for the future of our nation. If you are not interested in politics, you are not obligated to study; however, you’ll still have to take responsibility for the consequences of our government’s actions anyway. It’s not possible for us to be an expert in every nation, yet, towards the rest of the world, we are still accountable. It is in our interest to be politically aware, at least to some degree.
With the current war in Ukraine, whether you voice your opinions publicly or not, your country is representing your opinions to Ukraine and Russia. So, the idea that only experts should speak in public, I find, is undemocratic. Participating in a street protest is a public expression of an opinion. Everyone seems fine with that, yet, an articulation of the thought process that led to that political position is often greeted with cynicism unless you are an expert.
I support the exact opposite; regardless of how little you know, you should share your opinions publicly. As they say, teaching is the best way to learn. I’d say debating is just as good. Reading a book, no matter how thick it is, doesn’t cut it because everyone walks away with different interpretations. We need to test our interpretations by engaging others.
I’d also argue that sharing your thought process, as half-baked as it might be, is more important than publicly signaling your conclusion in a protest because the latter doesn’t require any thinking at all.
So I’ll share below why I disagree with the considerable minority in the West, such as John Mearsheimer, who blames the West for the war in Ukraine.
I would agree with Mearsheimer’s camp, the so-called “realists,” if I were to assume that authoritarianism, like Russia and China, is just an alternative form of government that a nation can choose from, like the choice between parliamentary and presidential systems. We then should respect everyone’s choice. And, just as Mearsheimer does, if a dictator like Putin finds something to be unfair, we should respect his view and listen to his complaint.
But, I disagree with this assumption. Since his arguments are built on this assumption, everything he says becomes irrelevant to me regardless of how much more he knows about Ukraine than I do.
A dictator does not represent his people, yet he acts in the name of his country; it’s a fraud. Since I believe in the agency of people, I see no reason to honor his arguments. Regardless of how logically consistent his arguments are, they are only his personal opinions, not those of his people. Logic, therefore, becomes irrelevant. Just as it is unwise to negotiate with terrorists (because it legitimizes them), it is unwise to reason with someone’s personal opinion masquerading as the voice of the people. Putin is particularly insidious in that he pretends as though he was democratically elected. I would have more respect for a dictator who makes no pretense.
Democracy is certainly not perfect. In fact, it’s a system to cope with human imperfection. Authoritarianism is not an alternative form of government; it is inferior to democracy. The correlation between economic prosperity and democracy is no coincidence. The fact that there are millions of people wanting to migrate from authoritarian nations to democratic nations (but not the other way around) is not a coincidence either.
Authoritarianism is an inherently unstable form of government. In his 2015 lecture, Mearsheimer said Putin would never invade Ukraine because he is too smart for that. Well, his assessment of Putin turned out to be wrong, and that is precisely the problem with authoritarianism. We cannot predict how a dictator changes over time or how the next one will behave, even if he appears to be fine now (like China’s Xi Jinping).
The concept of term limit contradicts the very motivation behind authoritarianism, so a dictator will inevitably rule for life. Predictably, Xi Jinping removed the term limit several years ago. The longer a dictator rules, the more he cares about his own ego and the less he cares about his people. There is no incentive for him to admit his own mistakes since he will never be removed from power. The longer he rules in this way, the more out of touch he becomes with ordinary people’s needs and wishes. It’s a predictable recipe for disaster. The instability of authoritarianism coupled with nuclear weapons is not a risk we should take lightly.
But this does not mean that I endorse the neocons. A successful democratic government is an effect of the democratic values the people hold, not the other way around. As such, it is not possible to install a democratic government and expect the people to embrace democratic values overnight, as the US tried to do in Iraq. Forcing democracy on people is as absurd as forcing someone to be generous; it’s an oxymoron. The best we can do is promote the idea to anyone who would listen.
It has worked for Ukraine. Many consider it Western interference, but trying to influence others is human nature. It’s impossible to live without it. If there were no need to influence others, we wouldn’t even have a language. The West did not coerce Ukrainians to adopt democracy. It promoted it, and Ukrainians embraced it. To say that it was an interference would imply that Ukrainians are incapable of deciding what they want for themselves.
This is also where I disagree with Mearsheimer. He believes Ukraine should be a safety buffer between the West and Russia as if Ukrainians have no desires and aspirations of their own, as if they should be treated like children. This is also reflected in the analogy he used in his lecture, where he argued that Putin demanding Ukraine never to join NATO is fair since the US would not allow China to install nuclear weapons in Canada and Mexico either.
If China were to force Canada and Mexico to install Chinese nuclear missiles, we indeed should do everything we can to stop them, but if that is what the Canadian and Mexican people wish, we have a more fundamental problem than nuclear weapons. We should seriously ask ourselves what we have done to make them want to align with an authoritarian state. It would be unethical and unwise to simply force them to disarm.
But, of course, Mearsheimer doesn’t consider the agency of the Canadian and Mexican people as if they are only useful as buffers between the US and China.
The realists might argue here that my view is too idealistic, but I would argue the opposite. Their view that we should treat all national leaders with respect, even dictators, is too idealistic. Dictators do not deserve to be reasoned with. There should be no such argument as: “It’s only fair that Putin would want...” We should not be concerned with fairness when dealing with dictators.
Let me now go through all the arguments the critics use to blame the West for the current war.
If anything, NATO has been reluctant to allow Ukraine, and for a good and obvious reason. Ukraine has been in an active military conflict with Russia for decades. If Ukraine joins NATO, it would be obligated to immediately go to war with Russia. Why would they want that? In contrast, Finland and Sweden now want to join NATO, and there would be little to no questions asked. As it has become clear since the beginning of the war, it’s Ukraine who is pushing NATO and the EU to accept them, not the other way around. Many critics of the West seem to ignore the agency of the Ukrainian people. If they want to join NATO or the EU, somehow, it is interpreted as the consequence of the West pushing them to. The Ukrainian people are not children watching cigarette commercials on TV.
Furthermore, NATO had been slowly dying before this war. The military budgets in the EU had been on a steady decline. The West’s primary concern is money. Many European nations wanted to trust Putin so that they could buy cheap oil. The West had made a massive investment in Russia too. Either Putin simply imagined the threat, or the NATO expansion argument is just an excuse. Now that he scared the West, we can see what the real expansionist policy looks like. I see no reason to entertain the idea that Putin’s fear was legitimate.
Democratic nations cannot keep tiptoeing around dictators who will inevitably become more paranoid over time. This type of argument legitimizes even a psychopath or psychotic as someone we need to treat with respect as our equals. It’s like saying, “Look! I told you! It’s our fault that we triggered this psychotic person.” We cannot keep doing this in our nuclear era. As Putin becomes even more errant, unhinged, and unpredictable like Kim Jong-un, we’ll see how absurd it is to think like that. All authoritarian dictators are highly likely to go down this path. We need a sustainable strategy to deal with them, not keep pretending as if they will listen to reason. Just as we thought we averted one crisis, there will be another. Even if they are not clinically psychotic, they are in effect because they will lose touch with reality over time.
This is true with the Iraq War. During George W. Bush’s presidency, the neoconservatives have damaged America’s reputation in the global community. They believed in the use of force to achieve “peace,” and it was based on Leo Strauss’ idea of “natural right.” It is, in essence, a supremacist (but not based on race) and authoritarian ideology. As I said above, in my view, the Iraq war was a huge mistake and diminished the American credibility to criticize humanitarian violations.
But, with respect to the invasion of Ukraine, the Western response or interference has not been authoritarian. I think it would be useful to define what constitutes authoritarianism. The recent incident at the Oscars is a convenient example to illustrate where the line is crossed. The reason most Americans were outraged by Will Smith’s behavior is that it is, in effect, authoritarian. The use of violence in a conflict is authoritarian because it relies on innate superiority. Smith is much bigger than Chris Rock. If the comedian was Dave Chappelle, I don’t think Smith would have done it. This is also the reason we find violence against women appalling. We see self-defense as the only legitimate use of violence. Will Smith can verbally attack Chris Rock, and it wouldn’t be considered authoritarianism or bullying because his physical strength would be irrelevant.
Many commentators have used the analogy of David and Goliath to describe the power imbalance between Ukraine and Russia. The situation is a clear example of authoritarianism, especially because Ukraine would rather not fight. Perhaps a more appropriate term would be “tyranny” or “terrorism.” The West has done nothing of the sort to Ukraine or Russia in this conflict.
When we discuss Nazism, we should focus on what makes Nazism problematic, not the literal connection to the original Nazi brand in Germany. What matters is the ideology, not the brand. A lack of direct connection does not make an organization less problematic.
Nazism is primarily defined by the notion that one’s own group is innately superior to others, and this notion naturally leads to the conclusion that the superior group should rule over others. That is, they believe in a natural hierarchy. This ideology manifested as Nazism in Germany, but we should not be preoccupied with one specific manifestation of it.
One of the most problematic aspects of Nazism is authoritarianism, the natural right of the superior person or group to rule over the others. This Nazi ideology is an essential part of Russia’s official ideology, so it is surreal to see Putin criticizing Ukraine for harboring Nazi ideologies.
Today, there are Nazi elements in practically every country. Again, by “Nazi elements,” I do not mean people with direct connections to the original brand in Germany. I mean the people who hold the same ideology of natural supremacy. In the US, too, we have an ex-president who tacitly endorses supremacist organizations. Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene is explicit about it.
During uncertain times, fear drives people to ideas like natural supremacy and authoritarianism. Unfortunately, they are gaining momentum even among democratic nations, but a democracy can mitigate the negative risks of it better than an authoritarian government can, especially in the long run. Given that authoritarianism itself is one such negative consequence, Ukraine is far ahead of Russia in fighting the underlying ideology of Nazism. Putin should be the last person to save other nations from Nazism.
Firstly, with this argument, no country can criticize any other country for any crimes since practically all nations have committed crimes in the past. Germany should then look the other way even if a neighboring country is killing millions of innocent people. In other words, all nations are free to commit atrocities because nobody is innocent. That would be the conclusion of this argument.
Secondly, the opinions we voice as individuals should be separated from those of our nations. We often see a disclaimer at the bottom of a corporate email: “Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not express the views or opinions of my employer.” Likewise, we should be free to express our personal opinions independent of the organizations to which we belong. However, this does not mean we are absolved of the accountability as members.
We as Americans should be accountable to the rest of the world for the crime that was the Iraq war. We can even apologize individually to Iraqis and others who were adversely affected by it. We do not have to wait for an official apology from our government. But, again, this does not mean that when we see other countries commit atrocities, we should remain silent.
What the West is doing for Ukraine is not “intervention.” This is not just a matter of semantics. The West is simply responding to Ukrainians’ requests. In fact, from the Ukrainian point of view, the West has been dragging its feet in helping them. We see almost every day since the war started, president Zelensky begging and, at times, nagging the West to send more weapons.
The key point here is, again, the agency of the Ukrainian people. The agency of the Russian people is irrelevant in this conflict because the conflict is entirely one-sided. In fact, this can hardly be called a “war” because Ukraine is not attacking Russian territory. They are only defending their own. If Ukraine wants help, it is not “intervention.” It’s nothing more than “assistance” or “support” for self-defense.
Firstly, again, Ukrainians are not children. If they say they want weapons to fight Russians, that is their own decision. At the start of the invasion, the West didn’t know if Ukrainians were willing to fight the Russians. Most people in the West were surprised to see such fierce resistance and president Zelensky’s determination to stay in Kyiv. It wasn’t because the West pushed them to. If someone wants to declare, “Give me liberty, or give me death!” who are we to tell him that it’s not a good idea?
Secondly, it is not certain that not fighting this war would result in fewer deaths. Just as negotiating with terrorists can lead to more terrorism in the future, giving into Putin’s demand can also lead to more invasions. Unless you are an oracle, it’s not possible for you to claim that your path will lead to fewer deaths. So, this is not even an argument but only speculation.
I may add more to this as I come across more arguments, but for now, I’m going to conclude by saying that, in my view, there is no moral ambiguity in this war. I’m sure Russia will eventually be held accountable for its atrocities and become a gigantic North Korea. Contrarian opinions I came across on social media have been useful in articulating my views and deciding where I should stand, which underscores my belief that debating, regardless of how little you know or how wrong you are, is valuable.
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