Should we go to war with Russia over Ukraine? A recent poll indicates that only 15% of Americans support that idea. The American public seems more sympathetic these days to isolationism and even pacifism.
Pacifists and isolationists oppose foreign wars, but for different reasons. The isolationist asks, “What’s in it for me?” The pacifist asks whether violence ever really solves anything. To the pacifist, isolationism looks cynical and callous. To the isolationist, pacifism looks naïve and utopian.
But isolationism and pacifism often converge. Consider Tucker Carlson’s opposition to a war against Russia. The Fox News firebrand is more of an isolationist than he is a pacifist. He recently said, “We’re really going to fight a war over some corrupt Eastern European country that is strategically irrelevant to us? With everything else that’s going on right now in our own country? No normal person would ever want to do anything like that.”
Carlson is also an opportunist. He may simply be trying to score political points by opposing Biden’s saber-rattling. But he gives voice to a reasonable reluctance about foreign wars. Isolationism is increasingly popular among Trumpian conservatives.
In his comments, Carlson also suggested that a war against Russia primarily serves the interests of the defense contractors who profit from war. This is the kind of argument that is often made by pacifists, who have long been critical of the military-industrial complex.
But the pacifist case against war is not only about profit and self-interest. Rather, pacifists ask whether violence and war ever really solve social and political problems. They believe that nonviolent solutions are better at producing lasting and stable peace.
Recent wars tend to support pacifist conclusions about the futility of war. American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan resulted in significant suffering for civilians and soldiers. These wars have not left the world better off.
Now, there is a moral argument in favor of war against Russia. The just-war theory teaches that war can be used as a response to aggression. This is connected to an international norm known as “the responsibility to protect” (R2P) which holds that there is a global responsibility to protect people against aggression, ethnic cleansing, genocide and war crimes.
But the Ukrainian crisis is complicated. Western powers warn against Russian aggression. Russia maintains that the West is behaving aggressively by expanding NATO into Eastern Europe. The Russians even appealed to the R2P doctrine to defend their invasion of Crimea in 2014, claiming that Russian sympathizers in Crimea were being oppressed. Critics claimed that this was a cynical employment of R2P, used by Russia as cover for its aggression.
And so it goes. Arguments about war are difficult and complex. Pacifists wonder whether there is not a better way. Isolationists will ask what’s in it for us. And just-war theorists argue about who has a responsibility to do what.
The gravity and the complexity of this issue require careful, critical thought. If American soldiers are going to be sent into harm’s way, our country ought to be engaged in deep moral reflection. The Congress ought to be debating this and voting on it, as the Founders intended when they stipulated that declarations of war ought to come from the peoples’ representatives.
Unfortunately, congressional declarations of war have given way to unilateral decisions about war made by the executive branch. At the same time, the dysfunction in Washington, D.C. and the polarization of our country make sincere debate nearly impossible.
It is not clear how to fix our political morass. But the good news is that in our country the citizens remain free to debate the morality of war. This is not true in Russia, where dissent is prohibited. Nor is it true in Ukraine, where war-resisters have been jailed.
Let’s make good use of our freedom. Our soldiers deserve that from us. We must think carefully about the morality of war before we ask our sons and daughters to kill and die on our behalf. To honor the troops, as the saying goes, means that we should listen carefully to the pacifists, the isolationists, and the just-war theorists. Now is the time for reasonable debate, before the howling of the dogs of war drowns out critical thought.