Like nearly everything else in politics these days, discussions of the war in Ukraine often devolve into nasty rounds of name-calling. If you say you are worried about escalation, aren’t convinced that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ultimate goal is to restore the old Soviet empire, and voice concerns that the war is a costly and potentially dangerous distraction from other foreign-policy priorities, then you’ll probably be accused of being an appeaser, an apologist for Moscow, or something even worse. By contrast, if you favor open-ended Western support for Ukraine, dismiss the possibility of escalation, and believe the war must continue until Russia suffers a decisive defeat and Putin is ousted, your critics will denounce you as a warmonger whose disregard for costs and risks could get us all vaporized.
This level of vituperation is not conducive to a serious discussion of alternative perspectives and policy options at a time when uncertainty is rife and weighing the costs and benefits of different courses of action carefully is critical. Humility, empathy, and attention to logic and evidence should be the world’s guiding principles, but these traits are hard to sustain when war is raging, people are dying, and passions are inflamed.
If we step back a bit, however, the debate on Ukraine can be seen as an illustration of a long-standing divide in foreign-policy circles. This divide was evident in debates on Vietnam in the 1960s and over the decision to invade Iraq in 2003. These competing worldviews are also fundamental to the policy differences between advocates of energetic U.S. interventionism and those who favor greater foreign-policy restraint.
Those who favor open-ended support for Ukraine see the world as highly interconnected and sensitive to small changes. In this view, international order is a fragile thing—like a financial market where a bit of bad news can spark panic and trigger a total market meltdown. For those who think this way, even minor setbacks can destroy a great power’s reputation, lead its allies to switch sides and bandwagon with an opponent, embolden revisionist powers, and produce rapid and far-reaching changes in the international order.
Read the full piece in Foreign Policy.