Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Putin's "Eurasian Empire" and Locke's "Appeal to Heaven" in the War in Ukraine: Can Might Make Right?



                                                                     Catherine the Great

                                                                      Vladimir Putin

                                                                   Niccolo Machiavelli

                      A Picture of "Mearchiavelli" Taken from John Mearsheimer's Website

    President Volodymyr Zelensky Addresses the U.S. Congress

On February 21, Vladimir Putin gave a long speech on how he saw the events in Ukraine.  Some of the material in this speech is drawn from Putin's article "On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians" that was published on July 12, 2021.  Only three days after that speech, the Russian invasion of Ukraine began.  This speech and the earlier article provide Putin's most elaborate explanation and justification for his launching the war in Ukraine.

Some of Putin's argument has been endorsed by the "realist" political scientists--like John Mearsheimer--who say that Putin is practicing Machiavellian great power politics that has been provoked by the United States and its NATO allies who have threatened the security of Russia.  But this fails to recognize that what we see here is not just the Machiavellian pursuit of power in Putin's invasion but also the Lockean pursuit of liberty in the Ukrainian resistance to his invasion.  To understand wars like this, we need a moral realism that sees that human beings are moved by both interest and justice, both force and freedom.  Even some of the modern realists of international relations--like Hans Morgenthau--have understood this.

In his speech, Putin makes two kinds of arguments.  In the first half of the speech, he argues that he will protect "the true cultural, economic, and social interests of the people" of Ukraine as part of "the population of historical Russia" established by Catherine the Great, who conquered Ukraine to make it part of her Russian Empire.  Here we see Putin's ultimate goal-the glory of a Russian-Eurasian Empire.  An independent Ukraine frustrates Putin's achievement of that imperial glory.

In the second half of his speech, he argues that to do this he will have to defend against the aggressive threat to the security of Russia coming from the eastward expansion of NATO.  

The Machiavellian realists like Mearsheimer concentrate on the second argument but ignore the first.  Consequently, they ignore Putin's dependence on popular consent and on the support of those few powerful people who might conspire to overthrow him to satisfy their own ambition to rule.


Let's start with Putin's second argument.  He says that "Ukraine's accession to NATO is a direct threat to Russia's security," and while the NATO countries have tried "to convince us that NATO is a peace-loving and purely defensive alliance," there is no reason to take them at their word because they have often broken their promises.  In 1990, Putin asserts, the Soviet leadership was promised that allowing the reunification of Germany would not threaten Russia, because NATO would never be expanded eastward.

But then, Putin points out, there were five waves of NATO expansion into Eastern Europe toward Russia's borders.  In 1999, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary were admitted to NATO.  In 2004, it was Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia.  This was followed in 2009 by Albania and Croatia, in 2017 Montenegro, and in 2020 Northern Macedonia.

This allowed for the expansion of the U.S. global missile defense project into Romania and Poland.  These supposedly defensive missiles have offensive capabilities, he insists, which creates the danger of a surprise missile attack on Russia.

Putin says that the trouble over Ukraine actually began in 2008.  At NATO's Bucharest summit in April, George W. Bush's administration pushed for an announcement that Ukraine and Georgia "will become members" of NATO.  There were reports that Putin was outraged by this and declared that he would go to war to prevent it.  Both Ukraine and Georgia had been part of Imperial Russia.  In his speech of February 21, Putin says that "Ukraine joining NATO is a direct threat to Russia's security," and that the Bucharest summit announcement was the beginning of "a clearly anti-Russia policy."

In Georgia, on the southern Caucasian border of Russia, there was a movement beginning in 2003 toward the West and away from Russia, which was led by President Mikheil Saakashvili.  In August of 2008, Putin launched the Russo-Georgian War and took the regions of Abkasia and South Ossetia from Georgia.

In Ukraine, in 2013 and 2014, there was a violent insurrection--the Maidan Revolution--against the government of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych, who was forced to leave Ukraine, because he wanted to move Ukraine away from the European Union and towards Russia.  The Parliament deposed him and called for new elections, in which Petro Poroshenko was elected president, with the promise to move Ukraine towards the West and away from Russia.

As Putin indicates in his speech, he regarded this as a coup d'etat, and it justified his military intervention in Ukraine in 2014, in which he annexed Crimea into Russia and supported the separatist states of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine in the Donbas War, which has continued to the present.

John Mearsheimer has written an essay for The Economist agreeing with Putin's arguments as showing that "the West, and especially America, is principally responsible for the crisis which began in February 2014," and which now has led to Putin's war in Ukraine.  (In America, the Trumpian "Putin wing" of the Republican Party agrees with this.)  Mearsheimer does not, however, identify the weaknesses in Putin's arguments.

First of all, there is no evidence that Western leaders promised Soviet leaders in 1990 that NATO would never admit Eastern European countries into NATO.  In 2014, during the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev said that there had been no such promise, and there was not even any discussion of the issue of NATO expansion, although Gorbachev did add that the expansion was a "big mistake" and "a violation of the spirit of the statements and assurances made" in 1990.

Putin simply assumes that a Great Power alliance like NATO cannot be a purely defensive alliance, because it must be an aggressive threat to other great powers like Russia--because that's what great powers have always done in competition with one another.  Mearsheimer agrees with this assumption, because this is what he has called "the tragedy of great power politics" (the title of his best book):  even if a great power seeks only security from being attacked, it must preemptively attack other great powers, because it can never trust other great powers to not use their offensive capabilities to attack first.  By this tragic Machiavellian logic of great power politics, as soon as Putin saw NATO building up its offensive capacity near the borders of Russia, he had to assume NATO would soon strike Russia, and so he had to strike first.

For that reason, Mearsheimer insists, the decision of the United States and its NATO allies to expand NATO membership into Eastern Europe is the root cause of Putin's war in Ukraine, because they created the circumstances in which Putin was forced by the logic of great power politics to launch the war.

Contrary to Mearsheimer's claim, however, the historical evidence of the behavior of the NATO powers toward Russia does not support this logic.  First of all, the fact that the NATO alliance has prevented any great power wars in Europe for over 70 years contradicts the predictions of Mearsheimer's "tragedy of great power politics."

Secondly, the NATO countries have never directly attacked Russia or shown any propensity to do so.  Five NATO countries share a border with Russia--Norway, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland.  None of these countries have shown any inclination to attack Russia, although they have aided Ukraine in preparing to defend itself against the kind of attack from Russia that was launched in 2014 and a few weeks ago. 

Moreover, the economic and political integration of the European countries through NATO and the European Community has contributed to a "Long Peace": since 1945, the great powers have not been involved in any direct military conflict with one another.  This long period of peace among the great powers is unprecedented in modern history, and it contradicts Mearsheimer's whole theory that great power wars are inevitable, because it is impossible for great powers to cooperate for their common defense. 

If Putin was not motivated by a fear of a NATO attack on Russia, then one must turn to his first argument as possibly indicating his true motivation for the invasion of Ukraine.


"For Russia's leaders," Mearsheimer claims, "what happens in Ukraine has little to do with their imperial ambitions being thwarted; it is about dealing with what they regard as a direct threat to Russia's future."  "Furthermore," he asserts, "Russian policymakers--including Mr. Putin--have said hardly anything about conquering new territory to recreate the Soviet Union or build a greater Russia."

Anyone who reads Putin's speech of February 21 will see that what Mearsheimer says here is patently false.  Putin devotes the first two-thirds of this long speech to arguing that Ukraine has always been part of "historical Russia"--"an integral part of our own history, culture, and spiritual space."  In his article of July 12--"On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians"--he traces the origin of this "same historical and spiritual space" uniting Ukrainians and Russians to 988 when Vladimir the Great (Volodymyr in Ukrainian) converted to Orthodox Christianity and became the ruler of "Ancient Rus":

"Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians are all descendants of Ancient Rus, which was the largest state in Europe.  Slavic and other tribes across the vast territory--from Ladoga, Novgorod, and Pskov to Kiev and Chernigov--were bound together by one language (which we now refer to as Old Russian), economic ties, the rule of the princes of the Rurik dynasty, and--after the baptism of Rus--the Orthodox faith.  The spiritual choice made by St. Vladimir, who was both Prince of Novgorod and Grand Prince of Kiev, still largely determines our affinity today."

"The throne of Kiev held a dominant position in Ancient Rus.  This had been the custom since the late 9th century.  The Tale of Bygone Years captured for posterity the words of Oleg the Prophet about Kiev, 'Let it be the mother of all Russian cities.'"

                                                                   Kyivan Rus (882-1240)

Vikings who called themselves the Rus settled along the Dnipro River at the end of the 9th century.  Their rule was centered at a trading post called Kyiv.  The Rus had a pagan religion.  But in 988, the ruler of Kyiv--Volodymyr or Vladimir--decided that conversion to a monotheistic religion would solidify control of territory.  After considering Judaism and Islam, he decided to convert to Orthodox Christianity, and to make all of Kyivan Rus an Orthodox Christian civilization.  Around 1240, Kyivan Rus was broken up by the invasion of the Mongols.

Notice that in the map above, Moscow was not part of Kyivan Rus.  In fact, Moscow did not even exist at the time.  After the Mongol invasion, in a new city called Moscow, princes gained power by collecting tribute for the Mongols.  Then, as the western Mongol empire broke up, a new ruling order called Muscovy asserted its independence and expanded its power.

In 1721, Muscovy was renamed the "Russian Empire," so that there was a mythical connection to ancient Rus, which had not existed for 500 years.  Between 1772 and 1795, Catherine the Great expanded the empire westward and proclaimed that she had restored the original Rus.  

Putin is renewing Catherine's myth of a restored Rus.  This allows him to say that "Russians and Ukrainians are one people--a single whole."  He can also identify this as a "spiritual unity" because Ukrainians and Russians share their Orthodox Christian faith going back to Vladimir the Great's conversion.  With this, he can justify the Russian invasion of Ukraine as serving the "true cultural, economic, and social interests of the people" of Ukraine as part of "historical Russia."  He thus provides a moral and religious justification for Russian rule over Ukraine.

And yet there are three deep flaws in Putin's rhetoric.  First, he ignores the fact that Kyivan Rus and Ukraine existed for seven hundred years beyond Russia.  Second, he also ignores the fact that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has existed for most of its history independently of the Russian Orthodox Church.  Finally, and most importantly, he refuses to recognize the will and agency of the Ukrainian people in deciding for themselves whether they want to exist as a free people separated from Russia, and whether they want to fight a war for that independence.  These three mistakes by Putin explain why his war plan has failed, and why Ukraine has a chance to win.

In Putin's speeches justifying the invasion of Ukraine, he manifests a rhetorical theme running throughout many of his speeches over his twenty-two years of rule: the choice between the ethnic nationalist autocracy of Russia and the multiethnic liberal democracy of the West.  It's the illiberal "Russian World" (russkiy mir) versus the liberal "Western World."  This is the Counter-Enlightenment alternative to liberalism presented by Russian conservative political thought, which defends a Russian World based on a shared Russian history, Russian language, and Russian religion.  Oddly, however, Putin has often been forced to contradict this myth of Russian World in recognizing the multiethnic and multicultural reality of Russia.

This contradiction in Putin's rhetoric has been well studied by Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy in their book Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin (2015).  See pages 38-62, 96-105, and 362-374.

In a previous post, I have written about the incoherence in the rhetoric of ethnic nationalism as an evolutionary adaptation.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, which Putin experienced as a KGB operative posted to Dresden in East Germany, and then the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, some Russian thinkers began to wonder how a new Russian state could be founded on "the Russian Idea" (Russkaya ideya).  This suggests an ethnic Russian identity, because russkiy is an adjective associated with ethnic Russianness.  This became the language of the ethnic Russian nationalists.  But other thinkers spoke of "the Russian Idea" as Rossiyskaya ideya, which suggests an ethnically neutral Russian identity, because rossiyskiy is derived from Rossiya, a word for "Russia" as an abstract state to which all Russian citizens could belong regardless of their ethnic identity.  Putin's rhetoric has shifted back and forth between these two conceptions of Russian national identity.

In the fall of 1999, Putin was appointed first prime minister and then acting president of Russia.  Early in 2000, he was elected president.  On December 29, 1999, as part of his political campaign, Putin published a 5,000-word treatise on "Russia on the Threshold of the New Millenium."  

His main argument in this "Millenium Message" was that since the Russian state had always been weakened whenever its people were divided, the power of the new Russian state would depend upon the unification of the Russian people in affirming the "Russian Idea" (Rossiyskaya ideya) that makes Russia distinctive.  This would require that the majority of Russian citizens (rossiyane)--not just ethnic Russians--would voluntarily embrace the general ideas supporting the state.  This Russian Idea would be broad enough to encompass all of Russian society in its multiethnic and multireligious diversity.

This kind of rhetoric was necessary to support Putin's response to the renewed war in Chechnya in 1999 and 2000.  Most of the people in Chechnya are ethnic Chechens who are predominantly Muslim believers, which sets them apart from the ethnic Russian minority of people are predominantly Russian Orthodox Christians.  Islamist Chechen separatists had exploited these divisions in fighting for independence from the Russian Federation.  Russian federal soldiers entered Chechnya to fight alongside some pro-Russian Chechen paramilitary against the Chechen separatists.  

Putin needed to pull some ethnic Chechens to the Russian side.  For example, Ramzan Kadyrov was a Chechen paramilitary leader who fought against the Russians in the First Chechen War (1994-1996); but in the Second Chechen War (1999-2009), he switched sides and led his men to fight for the Russians against the Chechen separatists.  He is now Head of the Chechen Republic and a staunch supporter of Putin who has fought for the Russians in Ukraine.  To pull people like this--people who are not ethnic Russians and not Orthodox Christians--to the side of the Russian Federation, Putin had to speak of Russia as a multiethnic and multireligious state.

But then, in 2014, Putin was trying to keep Ukraine from breaking away from Russia, as he is now in 2022, and for that purpose, Putin has employed the rhetoric of restoring and reuniting the russkiy mir--the world of ethnic Russians and the Orthodox community of Holy Russia.  But when he does this, he risks alienating people like Kadyrov.  Why should ethnic Chechen Muslims fight in Ukraine to restore a Russian World of ethnic Russians and Orthodox believers?  So, in a speech in 2014 commemorating the end of World War II, Putin said: "The unity of our multinational, multiconfessional nation is the greatest legacy or our victory" over Nazi Germany.  Putin's rhetoric of the Russian Idea is caught in an inescapable contradiction.

To overcome that contradiction, Putin has adopted the expansive concept of "Eurasianism"--the idea that Russia is destined to create a glorious Russian Empire that stretches across the entire Eurasian continent.  Russia has always had an empire, and the Russian people have always been an "imperial people."  Putin got this idea from White Russian emigres like Ivan Ilyin (1883-1954) and Nikolai Trubetskoi (1890-1938) and recent Russian thinkers like Lev Gumilev (1912-1992) and Alexander Dugin.  I have written about Dugin in a previous post.  Jane Burbank has written an essay about this as "The Grand Theory Driving Putin to War."

The Eurasianists see the emergence of a bipolar geopolitical battle in which the opponent of a Russian Eurasia will be the "Atlantic" world led by the United States.  The "Atlantic" is Dugin's term for the modern liberal democracies around the North Atlantic--the United States, Great Britain, and Western Europe.  

This is a moral and metaphysical battle.  On the one side, the Atlantic world stands for the decadent values of liberal modernity--atomistic individualism, rootless cosmopolitanism, bourgeois consumerism, and soulless secularism (Nietzsche's "Last Man").  On the other side, Russian Eurasianism stands for the noble values of illiberal traditionalism--family life, patriotic nationalism, manly militarism, and transcendent spirituality (Nietzsche's New Nobility).  This explains why many traditionalist conservatives in the West support Putin as a defender of the "traditional values" of Christianity against the moral decadence of Western liberalism.

Putin's conception of the Eurasian Empire embraces both the Russakaya ideya of the ethnic and Orthodox Russian people and the Rossiyskaya ideya of the multiethnic and multireligious Russian people, so that the apparent contradiction between these two ideas is resolved by combining the two in the larger idea of Eurasia.  Throughout his twenty-two years of power, Putin has been obsessed with the need for a unifying vision of Imperial Russia that overcomes the disintegrating effects of ethnic and religious divisions.  

In a January 2012 article, Putin wrote about "Russia: The National Question" and said:

"I am convinced that the attempts to preach the idea of a 'national' or monoethnic Russian state contradict our thousand-year history [that is, the history from 'ancient Rus' to the present].  Moreover, this is a shortcut to destroying the Russian people and Russian statehood, and for that matter any viable, sovereign statehood on the planet. . . . As for the notorious concept of self-determination, a slogan used by all kinds of politicians who have fought for power and geopolitical dividends, from Vladimir Lenin to Woodrow Wilson, the Russian people made their choice long ago.  The self-determination of the Russian people is to be a multiethnic civilization with Russian culture as its core.  The Russian people have confirmed their choice time and time again during their thousand-year history--with their blood, not through plebiscites or referendums."

A few months after this article appeared, a member of the Russian Duma suggested to Putin that the preamble to the Russian constitution be changed from beginning with "We the multinational people [narod] of Russia," to "We the [ethnic] Russian [russkiy] people and the people who have joined with it."  Putin vehemently rejected this by saying:

"Do you understand what we would do [if we did that]?  Part of our society would consist of first-class people and part would be second class.  We must not do that if you and I want to have a strong single nation, a single people [narod], if we want each person who lives on the territory of the country to feel that this is their homeland, and that there is no other homeland, nor can there be one.  And if we want each person to feel like that, then we have to be equal.  This is the principal question.  The fact that the [ethnic] Russian [russkiy] people are--without a doubt--the backbone, the fundament, the cement of the multiethnic Russian [rossiyskiy] people cannot be questioned. . . . But to divide everyone up into first, second, third categories, you know, this is a very dangerous path.  You and I, all of us, must not do this."

 An independent Ukrainian people is the great obstacle to achieving this Eurasian Russian people.  In 1927, Trubetzkoy wrote an article on "The Ukrainian Problem," arguing that Ukrainian culture was an "individualization of all-Russian culture," and that the Ukrainian people should be assimilated into the Russian people based on their shared Orthodox faith.  That's exactly Putin's argument for justifying the invasion.  Similarly, in 1997, Dugin said that Ukrainian sovereignty created a "huge danger to all of Eurasia."  To unite a Eurasian Russia, Ukraine had to become "a purely administrative sector of the Russian centralized state."  As President Zelensky said in his recent speech to the Israeli Knesset, Putin sees his invasion of Ukraine as the "final solution" to the "Ukrainian problem."

This vision of a Russian Eurasian Empire explains Putin's miscalculation in invading Ukraine.  Putin has said that for a thousand years, the Russian people have confirmed their choice to be one Eurasian people "with their blood"--that is, fighting in wars of conquest and resistance to invaders.  And so he thought that this same bloody spirit of Russian imperial glory would support a quick and decisive victory in the Russian invasion of Ukraine.  But he did not foresee that the Ukrainian people would confirm their choice for freedom from Russian domination "with their blood."


When the Russians invaded Ukraine, the Ukrainians could have submitted by not showing any resistance, by surrendering.  The Ukrainian people would thus have consented, if not expressly at least tacitly, to Russian rule over them.  But most of them chose either to flee the country or to stay and fight, even though the Russians seemed to have superior military power.  The Ukrainians chose what John Locke called "the appeal to Heaven."

Locke's "appeal to Heaven" is his answer to what he takes to be the ultimate question in political disputes--"Who shall be judge?"  This is the question when there is an irresolvable debate over whether political power has been right used or not.  Locke's answer comes from the Biblical story of Jeptha (in Judges, chapter 11).  In the conflict between the people of Israel and the Ammonites, Jeptha is selected by the people to be their chief and war leader.  He negotiates with the Ammonites.  But then this negotiation fails to reach an agreement, Jeptha declares, "Let Yahweh the Judge give judgment today."  That divine judgment will come through war.  He's appealing to the God of Battles.  That's what Locke means by the "appeal to Heaven" when there is no "appeal on Earth."  (See First Treatise, para. 163; and Second Treatise, para. 21, 109, 155, 168, 176, 232, 240-43.)  As far as I can tell, this phrase "appeal to Heaven" is Locke's.  It doesn't appear in the Bible.

The influence of this Lockean idea in the American Revolution was vividly displayed in the design of what apparently was the first flag of the American navy in 1775--perhaps commissioned by General Washington--which had an evergreen tree of liberty against a white background and the motto "Appeal to Heaven."

Locke's "appeal to Heaven" shows a natural human inclination to violent resistance to attack or exploitation that is fundamental for classical liberalism.  As a manifestation of Darwinian natural right, this can be explained as rooted in an evolved animal disposition to aggressive retaliation against attacks, which arises in human beings as a natural propensity to vengeance against injustice.  Human beings can use their unique capacities for language and conceptual reasoning to express this natural propensity through abstract principles of justice, but these abstract principles are ultimately rooted in this evolved animal tendency to self-protection.

Human social and political evolution has brought a general decline in violence (as Steven Pinker has shown).  But that decline in violence can never bring perpetual peace (contrary to the hopes of utopian pacificists), because the enforcement of the liberal norm of voluntary peaceful cooperation will always depend on the threat or use of force against those who would violate that norm.  That's what we are seeing in Ukraine and around the world in the punishing resistance to Putin's aggression.

This suggests that if it is rightly understood, it's really true that might makes right.  The threat or use of violent vengeance is the ultimate natural restraint on injustice.  This is what Locke means by "the executive power of the law of nature"--the natural propensity of human beings to punish those who attack or threaten them.  Natural rights emerge in human history as those conditions for human life and well-being that cannot be denied without eventually provoking a natural human tendency to violent resistance against attacks and exploitation.

For this reason, the history of Lockean liberalism has often turned on the history of warfare, both revolutionary and international warfare.  So, for example, the Declaration of Independence was not just a declaration of Lockean principles of natural right but also a declaration of war, so that the practical success of those principles depended on the fortunes of war.  Similarly, the American debate over the justice of slavery was finally settled by the bloodiest war in American history.  And the establishment of the liberal international order after World War Two depended on the defeat of Nazi Germany in the war.

We have seen that in the Ukrainian resistance to conquest--not only today in their resistance to the Russian occupation of their country, but also in 1943 in their resistance to Nazi occupation.  In 1943, the Battle of the Dneiper River was one of the biggest and decisive military campaigns of World War II, involving almost four million troops.  The Dneiper (or Dnipro) River is one of the longest rivers in Europe, and it flows through Kyiv and the middle of Ukraine, dividing the east bank region from the west bank.  By the middle of 1943, the Germans were in full retreat on the Eastern Front, falling back from the attack of the Red Army.  The German troops had retreated from Russia to the Dneiper.  Beginning on August 26, the Red Army launched a campaign to take the eastern bank and then cross to the western bank, knowing that if they did that, it would be a turning point in the war against Germany.  As the Red Army moved through the villages, cities, and countryside where the Germans had brutally killed and tortured innocent people, the Red Army soldiers became ever more aroused to vengeful retaliation to punish the Germans.  The Red Army crossed the Dnieper in early October and then liberated Kyiv on November 6.

On November 7, the day after the Germans had been expelled from Kyiv, Leo Strauss delivered a public lecture in New York City as part of a public session on "The Re-education of Axis Countries Concerning the Jews" at the annual meeting of the Conference on Jewish Relations.  Strauss said that any talk about the need for "re-educating" the Germans was mistaken if this implied that the Nazis had "educated" them in the pretended theoretical doctrines of Nazism--about the rule of "the master race"--which would suggest that these doctrines should be taken seriously.  In fact, Strauss observed, these Nazi doctrines were nothing more than "pedantic follies."  

Strauss said that the only Nazi doctrine that was persuasive with the Germans was the claim that Nazi arms would win a short and decisive war that would give Germany global dominance that would solve all German problems and satisfy the needs of the German people.  And this would be possible because the Nazi leaders--under "the most efficient man in the land"--would be Machiavellian in being unconstrained by any moral considerations and consequently free to use all of the brutal means necessary for fighting a successful war.  According to Strauss, the Nazis assumed that the "moralistic countries" would be defeated by an utterly immoral country.  The Nazis would thus prove the Nazi doctrine "that large scale and efficiently prepared and perpetuated crime pays."

Strauss claimed that that Nazi doctrine is "subject to the test of sense-experience," because we can see with our own eyes whether immoral warfare is victorious or not on the battlefield.  And so the defeat of the Nazis in World War Two is "the refutation of the Nazi doctrine."  Therefore, Strauss observed, "the re-education of Germany will not take place in classrooms:  it is taking place right now in the open air on the banks of the Dnieper."

Strauss also explained that this re-education of Germany would be consummated by a meeting of Allied tanks in Berlin, and then the Western and Eastern occupying forces would bring the German leaders to trial for war crimes.  He was anticipating what became the Nuremburg war crimes trials that began in November of 1945, acting under international law and the laws of war.  Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels escaped this punishment by committing suicide in the spring of 1945 before they were captured.  This outcome of the war would prove the Nazi doctrine wrong by proving that "large scale and efficiently prepared and perpetrated crime" does not pay.  But this lesson in the legal rule of just punishment had to be preceded by the lesson taught by the meeting of Allied tanks in Berlin.

Notice that to refute the Nazi doctrine of the immoral rule of the stronger over the weaker, Strauss suggests, we cannot appeal to some transcendent standard of right set by God, Nature, or Reason.  Rather, we must appeal to "the test of sense-experience" by seeing that "moralistic countries" can defeat immoral countries in war as an exercise of Locke's "executive power of the law of nature" to punish those who violate that law by an "appeal to Heaven."

In this way, might does make right.

We can see this in Ukraine today--in another Battle of the Dnieper.  As Francis Fukuyama has recently said: "A Russian defeat will make possible a 'new birth of freedom,' and get us out of our funk about the declining state of global democracy.  The spirit of 1989 will live on, thanks to a bunch of brave Ukrainians."

I have elaborated some of these points in previous posts herehere, and here.

Monday, March 21, 2022

Jaffa on Jaffa: The Trumpian Isolationism, Nativism, Protectionism, and Nihilism of the Claremont Institute

Philip Jaffa has written a comment on my March 9th post ("Appeasing Putin"). Since his comment is an instructive statement on how far the Claremont Institute has departed from his father's thinking, I thought I should republish it here as a post:

Larry … Philip Jaffa checking in here. I would like to say that you are absolutely correct on this issue. My father would have rejected Angelo Codevilla’s latest work in its entirety. Angelo abandoned my father’s views pretty much across the board—quite some time ago.

Angelo was a personal friend. We hung out together, starting when he was in graduate school and continuing through the time his oldest kids were in High School. His views were always quirky—never quite matching up with my father’s. But everything changed after his heart transplant. He went through something of a personality transformation. He had always had a tendency towards conspiracy theories. After the transplant, every time I talked to him, he had gone down another wacky rabbit hole. Of course, this just made him increasingly popular in conservative circles. Conservatism today appears to be nothing but rabbit holes.

I like to say that when Angelo and I began hanging out together I was Methodist and he was Catholic. I converted to Catholicism and he converted to libertarianism.

My father lost influence at the Claremont Institute, starting around 2005. He had zero influence … and I mean that literally … after 2010. My father’s exact words, which he repeated over and over again, were: “They did not wait to bury the teaching with the teacher. What they are trying to do is put a top hat on Jefferson Davis and call him Abraham Lincoln … and put the dust cover of the Nichomachean Ethics on Atlas Shrugged and call it Aristotle.”

My father loathed libertarianism and isolationism—both before and after Angelo adopted those views.

At any rate, to turn back to the matter at hand, my father was a stern critic of the America First movement, including its latter day nativist descendants. The Claremont Institute has become one of the leading voices for immigration restriction. My mother and father were the most pro-immigration people you ever met in your life. They dug into their own pockets on several occasions to hire legal representation for illegal immigrants. No one ever dared to say a bad word about immigrants in our household. I remember my first visit to New York City, when I was 16. We visited the Statue of Liberty. When my father read aloud the plaque with Emma Lazarus words … “Give me your tired, your poor, your hungry, yearning to be free” … he broke down and cried. It was the first time I had ever seen my father cry. I didn’t know how to respond. I remained silent, as did he, until we were on the boat back to shore. Then he turned and pointed to the Statue of Liberty. “That,” he said, “is Europe’s version of the Lincoln Memorial.” My father then launched into a lecture on Lincoln’s immigration bill of 1864, which set the stage for the huge flow of European immigration that was to transform this country. And he added that the Civil War needs to be seen not merely as a fight over slavery but also as a fight over immigration. The same racial theories that were applied to blacks also were applied to immigrants. My father liked to point out that one quarter of the union army was foreign born, and if you include soldiers who had at least one parent who was foreign born, the number was 40%. After the Civil War, the fight to restrict the rights of black was matched by a movement to restrict immigration, culminating in the Johnson-Reed Act of 1923. My father referred to the Johnson Reed Act as “An Act to Prevent the Contamination of the Gene Pool from Jews.” Tom Cotton’s immigration bill is just Johnson-Reed revisited. 

Donald Trump (with a little help from the Claremont Institute) has reconstituted the Republican Party around four core principles: isolationism, nativism, protectionism, and nihilism. My father opposed all four.

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

An "America First" Foreign Policy Supports Ukraine Against Russia

The Trumpian advocates of an "America First" foreign policy--like those at the Claremont Institute--have been arguing that it's not in the national interest of America to take the side of Ukraine against Russia.  But there is a good argument for saying that it really is in America's national interest to support Ukraine.

In my previous post, I wrote about Angelo Codevilla's essay recently published by the Claremont Institute.  Yesterday, the Claremont Institute published a new essay by Kyle Shideler.  Both essays suggest that an America First foreign policy based on the Monroe Doctrine should teach us that the U.S. should not get involved in the war in Ukraine.  But as I have studied these statements, they seem confusing and even incoherent; and some of what they say suggests that intervening on the side of Ukraine serves American interests.

There are at least three questions here.  First, does Russian expansionist autocracy threaten the interests of the United States?  Codevilla and Shideler generally say no.  But some of what they write suggests that the answer might be yes.  

Codevilla can say both yes and no in one paragraph: "Although today's Russia poses none of the ideological threats that the communist Soviet Union did (and though we have no directly clashing interests with it), Russia is clearly a major adversary in Europe and the Middle East.  Its technical contributions to China's military, and its general geopolitical alignment with China, are most worrisome for the United States."  

So which is it?  Do "we have no directly clashing interests" with Russia?  Or is Russia "a major adversary" and "most worrisome for the United States"?

On the one hand, Codevilla says that "Russia is no more willing to conquer Europe than it is able."  On the other hand, he stresses Russia's offensive capabilities for fighting in Europe: "its operational doctrine since World War II calls for taking the initiative in a preemptive, massive, decisive manner.  In these prospective conflicts, the Russians would use the S-400 air/missile defense system to isolate U.S./NATO forces by air, as well as strikes (or threat thereof) by the nuclear-capable Iskander missile to cut them off on the ground.  Their ground forces, led by Armata tanks, the world's best, would then press to make them prisoners."

So, again, which is it?  Is Russia an offensive threat to U.S./NATO forces or not?

But then, since both Codevilla and Shideler assume that an America First doctrine is based on the Monroe Doctrine, which says that America's interest is in defending its hegemony in the Western Hemisphere, while avoiding any entanglements in Europe, they imply, although they do not explicitly say so, that it's not in America's national interest to be a member of NATO and thus obligated to defend every NATO country against attack.

This raises my second question: Is the Monroe Doctrine a sufficient foundation for American foreign policy today?  Both Codevilla and Shideler say yes.  But they also say a lot that suggests no.

Shideler says that America has "an interest in preventing the rise of a power consolidating all Northwestern Europe, the Pacific Rim, or the Middle East, as such a power could hamper or deny our ability to engage in commerce, and likewise harm us."  Through the early history of the American Republic, he observes, the British Empire secured these interests by serving as an offshore balancer on mainland Europe, so that no state could become so powerful as to achieve regional hegemony on the continent.  But then with the weakening and collapse of the British Empire, the U.S. had to take the role of offshore balancer.  Realists like John Mearsheimer would say this explains why it became a national interest for America to intervene in European wars to check the rising power of Imperial Germany (in World War I), Nazi Germany (in World War II), Imperial Japan (in World War II), and the Soviet Union (in the Cold War).  Do Codevilla and Shideler agree with this?  If they do, then they have rejected the Monroe Doctrine as insufficient for today.

Codevilla observes: "As always, Ukraine is where Russia's domestic and foreign policy intersect.  With Ukraine (and the Baltic states), Russia is potentially a world power.  Without it, much less."  If that is true, and if it is true that it's in America's national interest to prevent Russia from becoming a world power, then the U.S. needs to intervene on the side of Ukraine, and thus set aside the Monroe Doctrine.

But then we need to be clear about what we mean by America's national interest.  And that leads to my third question:  Are America's interests morally right?

Shideler seems to affirm a moral relativism in foreign policy that would say no:

"to recognize that Russia has long opposed the expansion of Western power into its near abroad is not the same as defending its security claims.  And recognizing the Russian demand in no way denies Ukraine's own interest in preventing itself from being dominated by its larger neighbor.  To recognize the interests of one nation is not to deny the interests of another, nor does it make a moral claim as to which set of interests are 'right' or 'wrong.'"

Shideler also says, however, that American national interests include "preserving the way of life, beliefs, and distinctiveness" of America, and "that distinctiveness is based, in part, upon shared principles, articulated in our Declaration of Independence."  

But then, of course, the Declaration of Independence does make a moral claim as to which set of interests are right or wrong:  the natural rights of all men to equal liberty are naturally right, and tyranny is naturally wrong.  Judging by those distinctively American, and yet also universal principles, the interest of Ukraine in liberal democracy is right, and the interest of Russia in illiberal autocracy is wrong.  Consequently, an America First foreign policy really does support Ukraine against Russia. 

But, apparently, Codevilla, Shideler, and the Clarement Institute disagree.  They say that in international conflicts over national interests, we cannot make a moral claim that any of these interests is "right" or "wrong."

Vitaliy Kim is governor of the Mykolaiv region of Ukraine.  The port city of Mykolaiv is shelled by the Russians every day.  Bodies pile up at the morgue.

"Good morning.  We're from Ukraine."  This is typically the beginning of Kim's morning video message that is watched by most of the people of Mikolaiv.

A few days ago, his message was: "What can I say, the 17th day of war, all is well, the mood is excellent. We have freedom, and we're fighting for it.  And all they have is slavery. . . . Together to victory."

If Harry Jaffa were alive today, he would be cheering them on by comparisons with Winston Churchill.  Instead, the spokesmen for the Claremont Institute tell us that there is no "right" or "wrong" here.  

This is the moral nihilism of Trumpian foreign policy.

Wednesday, March 09, 2022

Appeasing Putin: The Claremont Institute's "America First" Foreign Policy and Its Betrayal of Harry Jaffa


Neville Chamberlain shakes hands with Adolf Hitler after signing an agreement on September 30, 1938, which provided "cessation to Germany of the Sudeten German territory" of the Czechoslovak Republic.  Previously, in March, Hitler had annexed Austria.  Hitler had argued that he was expanding Germany to include all German-speaking people in a "Greater Germany." He promised that his taking of the Sudentenland would be his last territorial claim in Europe.  Many people across Europe and North America praised this Munich agreement as the only way to prevent a major war in Europe.

Even after the war in Europe began in September of 1939, after Hitler had invaded Poland, many Americans supported the "America First Committee" in arguing that the U.S. should stay out of the war because Hitler was no threat to American interests.  The "American First Committee" disbanded on December 10, 1941, three days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and one day before the German declaration of war against the U.S.

Today, the American proponents of an "America First" foreign policy say that the U.S. and the European powers should reach an agreement with Vladimir Putin to allow the cessation to Russia of Ukraine, with Putin promising that this will be his last territorial claim in Europe.  Donald Trump has suggested something like this.  At a G7 summit in 2018, Trump told the leaders at the meeting that Putin had persuaded him that since all Ukrainians speak Russian, Ukraine is part of Russia.  He also told them that they should lift the sanctions on Russia for the annexation of Ukrainian territory in Crimea.  Now Trump says that Putin has shown himself to be a "genius" in invading Ukraine.

Surprisingly, many American conservatives are endorsing this position.  One prominent example of this is the Claremont Institute.  On March 3rd, the Claremont Institute posted on its website an essay by Angelo Codevilla, which is an excerpt from his forthcoming book America's Rise and Fall Among Nations: Lessons in Statecraft from John Quincy Adams.  Codevilla finished this shortly before his death last year.  The book originated in response to a request in 2019 from Trump's Department of Defense that he lay out what a truly "America First" foreign policy ought to be.  He wrote the memo as presenting what John Quincy Adams might have recommended.  The editors at the Claremont Institute praise Codevilla for his "characteristic incisiveness and perspicacity on the most serious matters of foreign relations."

Codevilla condemns American political leaders because "they pushed NATO to Russia's borders in the Baltic states and interfered massively in Ukraine."  Then, "when, in 2014, Putin took Crimea, Obama imposed economic sanctions, meddled even more in Ukraine, and agreed to station token NATO and American troops in Poland and the Baltic states."

Codevilla insists that Russia is no threat to the U.S. because "we have no clashing interests with it."  According to Codevilla, John Quincy Adams

"would be confident that Russia realizes it cannot control Ukraine except for its Russian part, or the Baltics, never mind the states of Eastern Europe.  He would reassure Russia that the United States will not interfere with Russia joining the mainstream of European affairs and will not use normal relations with Ukraine or any of Russia's neighbors to inconvenience Russia. . . . He would trust in Russia's actual acceptance of its inability ever again to control this Ukraine.  This would be Adams Ukraine policy."

According to Codevilla, Adams would also have removed all sanctions punishing Russia for taking Crimea and the Donbass.

"In sum," Codevilla concludes, "nothing would be geopolitically clearer to Adams than that natural policy for both America and Russia is not to go looking for opportunities to get in each other's way."

Remarkably, Codevilla and the Claremont Institute are taking the side of the socialist left!  The International Committee of the Democratic Socialists of America has issued a statement condemning any sanctions against Russia for threatening Ukraine.  They blame the U.S. and NATO for the crisis in Ukraine:  "NATO is a mechanism for US-led Western imperialist domination, fueling expansionism, militarization, and devastating interventions."

The Claremont Institute was originally founded by students of Harry Jaffa, who were devoted to advancing Jaffa's conservative political philosophy.  But I cannot believe that Jaffa would have said that it is not in America's interest to fight against the "evil empire" of Russia in defense of freedom.  Consider this passage from Jaffa's "Decline and Fall of the American Idea" (The Rediscovery of America, edited by Erler and Masugi, p. 209):

"The moral rationality of the distinction between freedom and despotism articulated with transcendent lucidity in the Declaration of Independence was the ground of the righteous cause not only in the Revolution and the Civil War, but in all the great wars (hot and cold) of the twentieth century.  When Ronald Reagan pronounced the Soviet Union an 'evil empire," he needed not many counselors to say so. . . . The Declaration of Independence stands squarely against tyranny, whether of the one, the few, or the many.  Every single human being is entitled by the moral law, whether of reason or of revelation, to be considered an end in himself, to be governed, under the laws of God and of nature, by his own consent.  Any exception to this can only be a harbinger of reappearing tyranny."

I cannot believe that Jaffa would have said that it is no longer in America's interest to fight for the freedom affirmed in the Declaration of Independence against the despotism of Putin's Russian Empire. 

Codevilla invokes the Monroe Doctrine in arguing that as long as Russia does not interfere in the Western Hemisphere--he calls it "our backyard"--Americans ought to reciprocate by not interfering in Russia's backyard, which includes Ukraine.  But doesn't this deny the Declaration of Independence in its affirmation of the right of every people to declare their independence from despotic imperial rulers?  And didn't the American revolutionaries ask the French to intervene on the American side against the British?  Don't the Ukrainians have the same natural right to seek the protection of NATO and the U.S. against conquest by Russia?

If the Claremont Institute is now rejecting the principles of the Declaration of Independence, then they are rejecting the fundamental principles of the American Founding, which were Jaffa's principles.

If I am wrong in my interpretation of the Claremont Institute or of Jaffa, please correct me.

Monday, March 07, 2022

Ukraine, Russia, Estonia, and Syria in the Human Freedom Index

In 2019, in an interview published in the Financial Times, Vladimir Putin said that the growth of nationalist populist movements in Europe and America proved that "the liberal idea" had "outlived its purpose," because the majority of people in the West were turning against immigration, open borders, and multiculturalism.  He praised Donald Trump for turning America against liberalism, particularly in his attempt to stop the flow of migrants into the United States from Mexico.  (I have written about the importance of an open borders immigration policy for Lockean liberalism.)

Putin's intellectual attack on "the liberal idea" has been combined with his military campaigns attacking countries that are moving to liberalism (like Ukraine) and defending illiberal regimes (like Bashar al-Assad's autocratic rule over Syria).  The conflict between liberalism and its critics is both intellectual and military, as manifested in the war in Ukraine.

The intellectual debate over liberalism becomes ultimately an empirical question that must be answered by looking at the factual evidence of liberalism's success or failure.  Does the freedom secured by liberalism promote human happiness?

The Human Freedom Index 2021 helps us to answer that question, because once we see how countries rank in that index, we can then see whether the countries ranking high in freedom also tend to rank high in promoting human happiness.  As I have indicated in some previous posts (herehere, and here), the general pattern is clear: the liberal regimes tend to be high in both freedom and happiness, and the illiberal regimes tend to be low.

Since 1995, classical liberals at the Fraser Institute in Canada have published an annual Economic Freedom of the World that ranks the countries of the world according to their levels of economic freedom.  Beginning in 2012, the Fraser Institute has cooperated with the Cato Institute to produce an annual Human Freedom Index that ranks countries according to a comprehensive index of human freedom that combines economic freedom and personal freedom.

As is characteristic of classical liberals, they define freedom in a negative way as the absence of coercive constraint, which follows John Locke's definition: "liberty is to be free from restraint and violence from others," so long as one's liberty does not infringe on the equal liberty of others (Second Treatise, para. 57).  Consequently, the measurement of such freedom in any country is also the measurement of a country's liberalism.

The Human Freedom Index 2021 uses 82 distinct indicators of personal and economic freedom in the following 12 categories:


1. Rule of Law

2. Security and Safety

3. Movement

4. Religion

5. Association, Assembly, and Civil Society

6. Expression

7. Relationships


8. Size of Government

9. Legal System and Property Rights

10. Access to Sound Money

11. Freedom to Trade Internationally

12. Regulation of Credit, Labor, and Business

The most recent Human Freedom Index covers 165 countries for 2019, which is the most recent year for which sufficient data are available.  The data are not collected by the authors but come from credible sources (for example, the World Justice Project, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, the Economist Intelligence Unit, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and Freedom House).

For each of the 82 indicators, countries are scored on a scale of 0 to 10, where 10 represents the highest level of freedom.  The scores for each of the 12 categories are averaged.  These are then averaged for personal freedom and economic freedom.  The final score for freedom in general is the average of these two, so that personal freedom and economic freedom are weighed equally.

For 2019, the top 10 freest countries, with two tied for 6th place, were:

1.  Switzerland

2.  New Zealand

3.  Denmark

4.  Estonia

5.  Ireland

6.  Finland

6.  Canada

8.  Australia

9.  Sweden

10. Luxembourg

Other countries rank as follows:  United Kingdom (14), United States (15), Germany (15), Taiwan (19), France (34), Ukraine (98), Russia (126), and China (150).  At the very bottom are Venezuela (164) and Syria (165).

Although Ukraine ranks far below the freest countries, it does rank above Russia and China; and it ranks far above Venezuela and Syria.  Ukraine ranks as low as it does mostly because of its low ranking in two categories: rule of law and legal system and property rights.  The rankings there are low because of the pervasive corruption of its government and legal system: people have to pay bribes to ensure public services from police, the courts, and other public officials.  If Ukraine is to become a fully developed liberal democracy, the Ukrainians will have to win the war with Russia and rebuild their country.  But they will also have to reduce the corruption in their country.  Only then will they move more towards those countries with the highest rankings for freedom.

The best model for emulation might be Estonia, which ranks as the 4th freest country in the world.  Estonia and Ukraine have similar histories, and they both share their eastern borders with Russia.

Both Estonia and Ukraine were under the rule of the Soviet Union until they declared their independence in 1991.  But since then, Estonia has been far more successful in becoming a liberal democracy oriented toward Western Europe and away from Russia.  In 1992, Estonia established a fully market and free-trade economy.  In 1994, Estonia adopted Milton Friedman's proposal for a flat tax: the tax on personal income is a uniform rate of 21%.  In 2004, Estonia joined both the European Union and NATO.  Estonia and Latvia are the only NATO countries that border on Russia.

Estonia has adopted the liberal principle of religious liberty, so that all people are free to practice their religion or to be nonreligious.  It has become one of the most secular countries in the world.  About half of the people of Estonia profess no religious belief.  The other half are mostly Christians--either Eastern Orthodox or Lutheran.

The government of Estonia is based on the liberal principles of limited government, discouraging centralized power, equality under the rule of law, and low levels of political corruption.  The budget for the national government is always balanced, and there is almost no public debt.  Estonia has one of the lowest rates of crime for any country in the world.

Estonia is a unitary parliamentary republic.  The unicameral parliament is the legislative branch.  The executive branch is led by the Prime Minister, who is approved by the parliament.  The head of state is the President, mostly a ceremonial role, who is elected by the parliament.  In January of 2021, the parliament selected Estonia's first female prime minister--Kaja Kallas.

                                                                           Kaja Kallas

George Will has written about Kallas as a classical liberal who learned her liberalism from reading Friedrich Hayek after living as a teenager under the despotism of Soviet rule.  

She has to worry that if Putin successfully conquers Ukraine, he might target Estonia next.  But as a member of NATO, Estonia would be protected by the principle of collective defense in Article 5 of the NATO Treaty.

If Putin's invasion of Ukraine fails, Ukraine will be free to move towards the freedom achieved by Estonia.

                        Secretary of State Antony Blinken Meets with Estonian PM Kaja Kallas

Sunday, March 06, 2022

Ukraine in the Global Battle Between Liberal Democracy and Illiberal Autocracy

Recently, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch was interviewed by David Remnick at The New Yorker.  

She said:  ". . . the thing about the U.S. and NATO and the European Union is that we have ideas.  We are about democracy and freedom and capitalism and security, as well as individual liberties.  It's a fact that people are better off under democracies. . . . It's our ideas that attract others.  Russia under Putin doesn't really have that power of attraction.  He only has the power of coercion, and we are seeing that now in Ukraine in a brutal way."

Is that true?  Are the modern Western ideas of liberalism--democracy, freedom, and capitalism-- powerfully attractive to human beings today?  Is it true that people are better off when they live in liberal capitalist democracies?  Or has the power of those liberal ideas faded in recent history?  Must Putin rely only on the power of coercion?  Or does Putin also have the power of some illiberal ideas in defeating modern liberalism?  Do we see those illiberal ideas manifest in the thinking of Traditionalist philosophers like Alexander Dugin and Steve Bannon, who support Putin?

That the war in Ukraine is part of the global battle of ideas between liberal democracy from the West and illiberal autocracy from the East has been affirmed by Ukrainian philosophers like Volodymyr Yermolenko.  Yermolenko is a political philosopher and political scientist in Ukraine who is the editor of Ukraine World, an English-language news outlet.  He has recently written an essay for The Economist.  Michelle Goldberg has written an article about him for The New York Times as explaining why Ukrainians believe they can win.

"Freedom is the key trait of Ukraine's identity as a political nation," Yermolenko says.  He explains:

"Ukrainian political culture is based upon anti-tyrannical, democratic and republican values.  Most Russians tend to approve of their tsar; Ukrainians identify with opposition to him.  Within politics they see a social contract.  This harks back to the early modern era, when the Ukrainian warrior class known as Cossacks made agreements with their leaders which ensured recognition of their rights and freedoms.  This mode of thinking runs deep and it is impossible to eradicate.  The Cossack, a free warrior on the open steppe, is one of the symbols of Ukrainian identity."

The word "Cossack" is derived from an Old East Slavic word kozak for "free man."  In speaking about how political culture arises from a "social contract" between free men to secure their rights and freedoms, Yermolenko restates the ideas of Lockean liberalism.

Yermolenko continues:

"Ukraine is also a political nation.  It is not centered exclusively on any single ethnic, linguistic, or religious identity.  It is pluralistic.  You can be a Ukrainian speaker, Russian speaker, or a speaker of Crimean Tatar and be ready to defend Ukraine.  You can be Ukrainian Orthodox, Greek-Catholic, Roman Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, or Jewish and stand shoulder to shoulder for this country.  Ukrainians have a Russian-speaking president who has Jewish origins."

Thus, in contrast to the ethnic and religious nationalists, Yermolenko sees that Ukrainians have embraced liberal pluralism, and that they can still be united in their patriotic defense of their country because they are united in their commitment to the liberal values of a free society.  If he is right, Ukrainian political culture is both cosmopolitan and patriotic.  It is cosmopolitan in affirming the universal values of liberalism and patriotic in affirming the national identity of Ukraine as rooted in those values.

That Ukrainian sense of national identity has been formed largely in response to Putin's aggressive attacks on Ukraine--first his annexation of Crimea and the invasion of the Donbass region in 2014 and now his invasion of the rest of Ukraine.  Marie Yovanovitch observes: "When I was in Ukraine in the early two-thousands, nobody knew the words to the national anthem.  By the time I came back, in 2016, everybody knew the anthem.  They put their hands on their hearts.  The same is true now, as Russian troops are targeting kindergartens."

Yermolendo agrees:

"Our sense of Ukrainian identity has taken on a greater intensity in the past few years.  Russian aggression since 2014 helped consolidate it among people who might earlier have felt close to Russian culture or Russia's information space.  Mr. Putin's invasion will accelerate this process.  When Russians shell residential buildings and destroy the central square in Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine, every shot diminishes the number of those who have sympathy with Russia.  People who have felt they belonged in the Russian cultural space ten years ago, feel a strong Ukrainian identity now.  They might speak Russian or go to the Russia-linked Ukrainian Orthodox Church.  But they are Ukrainians.  Russia has lost the battle for their hearts and minds."

This transformation of Ukrainian identity is also the victory of European liberal modernity, and particularly the victory of the liberal humanism of the Enlightenment over the illiberal authoritarianism of the counter-Enlightenment (as promoted by people like Dugin and Bannon).  Yermolendo observes:

"It is the extension of European values to the east.  It is the story of the strength of the European idea--which today's Europe sometimes shies away from.  It is the story of European humanism, rooted in Ancient Greek philosophy, through Roman republicanism, to Italian city-republics, the ideas of the Enlightenment and of anti-Nazi resistance.  Through their resistance to Mr. Putin's empire, Ukrainians are showing that this humanist tradition has the strength, energy, and courage to defend itself."

In the summer of 1989, The National Interest published Francis Fukuyama's essay "The End of History?"  This came just a few months before the fall of the Berlin Wall and two years before the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.  Fukuyama argued that humanity has reached "not just . . . the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: That is, the end-point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government."

When Ukrainians defeat Putin, as they surely will, Fukuyama might want to write a new essay entitled "The End of History--Again?"

As he argued in his original essay, this is not the end of the history of political conflict and war, but it is the end of the intellectual history of the debate over the best social and political order.  Because now most human beings recognize that liberal democracy is the best regime for securing human happiness, because it secures the human freedom that is the precondition for human happiness.

Another way of seeing this is to look at the empirical evidence for the correlation of freedom and happiness as presented in the Human Freedom Index, and to see how Ukraine is striving to move closer to those countries at the top of this index (countries like Switzerland and Estonia) and away from those countries at the bottom (countries like Russia and China).  I will write about that in my next post.

Friday, March 04, 2022

Does Russia's War with Ukraine Refute Pinker's Thesis of Declining Violence?

Over the years, I have written various posts (hereherehere, here, and here) supporting Steven Pinker's argument that history shows a progressive trend towards declining violence and Liberal Enlightenment.  But now Putin's invasion of the Ukraine forces us to consider whether this trend is now going to be reversed.  Are we going back to an age of warring civilizations?  Does this show that history is not progressive after all, and so Pinker was wrong?  Pinker has just written an essay for the Boston Globe in which he tries to answer this question.

Here's the first paragraph of Pinker's Better Angels of Our Nature:

"This book is about what may be the most important thing that has ever happened in human history.  Believe it or not--and I know that most people do not--violence has declined over long stretches of time, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species' existence.  The decline, to be sure, has not been smooth; it has not brought violence down to zero; and it is not guaranteed to continue.  But it is an unmistakable  development, visible on scales from millennia to years, from the waging of wars to the spanking of children."

Notice that he says this decline in violence "is not guaranteed to continue," a point that he stresses in various parts of his book (xxi-xxiii, 278, 361-77, 480, 671).  In his Boston Globe article, he restates this in conceding that the Russian invasion of Ukraine has "brutally halted" one of the historical declines in violence--"the Long Peace"--the absence of interstate war in Europe since the end of World War Two.  And here he defines "interstate war" as "an armed conflict between national governments that kills at least a thousand people in a war."

Pinker identifies five factors--ideas and institutions--that supported the Long Peace: interstate trade, membership in global organizations, the United Nation's outlawing of wars of aggression, democracy, and Enlightenment humanism.  The first three applied to Russia but failed to prevent the war.  The last two did not apply to Russia.

The punishment of Russia through economic sanctions and international condemnation appeals to those first three factors.  The sanctioning has not gone far enough, however.  We need to sanction Russia's oil and gas industry, which is the big source of Russian wealth.  It is possible that this punishment could either change Putin's mind or lead to his losing the power to rule in Russia.  If this were to happen, this would show the power of globalization to force nations to pull back from aggressive wars of conquest.

Democracies put checks and balances on the power of potential tyrants to lead their countries into foolish wars.  But Russia is an "electoral autocracy" rather than a democracy, and so there is no check on Putin's "malignant narcissism"--or what Pinker calls his "grandiose craving for glory, lack of empathy, and a petulant sensitivity to affronts."

The fifth factor favoring the Long Peace--Enlightenment humanism--is "the conviction that the ultimate good is the life, liberty, and happiness of individuals, with governments instituted as social contracts to secure these rights."  Putin's ideology rejects this liberal individualism.  Pinker writes: "Putin cleaves instead to romantic nationalism, in which the ultimate goodto  is the prestige of ethnic nations.  Governments and strong leaders are their embodiments, and they struggle to stake out spheres of influence and rectify historic humiliations."

How could the war in Ukraine be ended in a way that would satisfy Putin's romantic nationalism?  One possibility, as some commentators have suggested, would be for the United States and the great powers of Europe to agree to meet with Putin for a new Yalta Conference, which was the meeting in February of 1945 in Crimea of Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin to plan for carving up their spheres of influence in Eastern Europe after the war.  Biden and some of the European leaders could negotiate with Putin to divide up Ukraine--perhaps allowing western parts of Ukraine to be under European influence and eastern parts under Russian influence.

As Pinker indicates in Better Angels, Putin's romantic nationalism arose in the late 18th and early 19th centuries as one strand of "counter-Enlightenment thinking"--the revolt against Enlightenment liberalism and humanism that was explained in an essay by Isaiah Berlin (186-88, 240-44).  It originated with Rousseau and was later developed in Germany by people like Johann Hamann and Johann Herder.  These thinkers rejected the individualism, the rationalism, and the cosmopolitanism of the Enlightenment and affirmed collectivism, emotivism, and cultural diversity.  

Part of this was Herder's romantic nationalism, which held that an ethnic group--such as the German Volk--had a unique cultural identity that could not be submerged in an abstract universality of humanity, and this ethnic identity was held together by bonds of blood and soil rather than by some individual consent to a social contract.

This romantic nationalism was often bound up with a romantic militarism--the idea that war was a healthy spiritual expression of heroic self-sacrifice and manly honor that was needed to cleanse society of the effeminacy and materialism of bourgeois hedonism.  This romantic militarized nationalism now motivates Putin's wars of conquest and expansion as a glorious expression of the Russian Empire pushing back against the decadent materialism and individualism of liberal modernity.  We can also see this in Alexander Dugin's Eurasianism and in much of the Alt-Right thinking, as in the case of people like Bronze Age Pervert, who argues that the best form of government (and the alternative to liberal modernity) is an ethnostate ruled by military dictators.

Does this mean that the Russian war in Ukraine signals a new historical epoch in which all the progressive trends favoring the Liberal Enlightenment--such as declining violence--are now going to be reversed?  If so, that would refute Pinker's argument.

"Maybe--but maybe not," Pinker says.  Maybe, as he says in Better Angels, history is unlikely to be completely reversed, but it is "jerky"--that is, there can be temporary backsliding (as happened in the first half of the 20th century), but not a permanent retrogression of history.

The renewal of the historical trends of liberal modernity will depend upon whether in the long run most human beings find liberal values--life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness--to be truly desirable because they are conducive to their human flourishing.  This will also depend on whether the human devotion to liberal freedom motivates us to resist the illiberal tyranny of people like Putin.