War in Ukraine: What Does It Tell Us About the Geopolitical Order and America’s Place in It?
A roundtable with Andrew Bacevich, Jesuit Father Drew Christiansen, and Jakub Grygiel on the conflict’s possible implications.
As Russian bombs continue to fall on Ukraine, the Church and much of the world are rightly focused on bringing an end to the violent, deadly conflict and supporting those whose lives have been dramatically disrupted. The destruction of human life wrought by war forces us to confront concrete reality and our immediate responsibilities in a way that eschews detached abstraction.
The conflict, however, is also at least partially the product of much broader forces. And what’s taking place in Ukraine today has the capacity to reshape international dynamics well beyond Eastern Europe.
To get some perspective on what the Ukraine-Russia conflict might reveal about the present geopolitical order and America’s place in it going forward, the Register spoke with a distinguished panel of Catholic foreign policy experts.
Andrew Bacevich is a retired Army officer and Boston University professor emeritus of history and international relations, who currently serves as the president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft; Jesuit Father Drew Christiansen is a distinguished professor of ethics and human development in Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, and is a senior fellow in the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs; and Jakub Grygiel is a scholar of international relations at The Catholic University of America, previously serving as a senior advisor in the U.S. Department of State’s Office of Policy Planning (2017-18).
The most pressing concern in Ukraine is clearly the disruption and destruction of human life. But the conflict — and how the international community is responding to it — may also be revelatory of the way international dynamics have changed in recent decades, and the present lay of the land. What do you think the Russian-Ukrainian war and the world’s response to it so far suggests about the current geopolitical order, how it’s changed, and America’s place in it?
BACEVICH: It won't be possible to assess the implications of the conflict until it has ended. At this point even the outcome remains to be decided. The immediate response by politicians and pundits has been to depict the event as utterly without precedent, as if the post-Cold War era has been marked by universal peace and harmony. Buying that claim requires ignoring events in the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, and several other countries. The global order may well be changing, but the events in Ukraine are unlikely to exercise a decisive influence.
FATHER CHRISTIANSEN: The international order has been shifting for some time. The Russian-Ukraine War is only the latest disruption. Climate change, the coronavirus-19 pandemic and the rise of China had already begun to re-shape international relations. The Ukraine crisis both disrupts the global dynamics [these issues had] set in motion and initiates new currents whose outcomes are still unclear.
The war in Ukraine sets back the efforts at reducing climate-warming gases, both directly through the pollution created by bombardment, and indirectly through the doubts it places on nuclear power and the scramble it has created over fossil fuels, particularly dirty fuels like those from the Canadian tar sands.
The surprising developments emerging from the crisis, beyond the revival of NATO, include renewed commitment by member states to the U.N. Charter and the values undergirding it, and new confidence, if not in the liberal international order, then at least in the rule of (international) law.
GRYGIEL: The war has had two immediate effects. First, it is showing that only strong, confident nations can survive, compete and, if needed, fight in an age of increasing conflict. Facing an aggressive enemy, there is no alternative to a united nation and to a courageous political and religious leadership. No international organization can help and no eloquent appeal on Twitter to “shared values” can arrest hostile forces.
Second, the Western illusion that war was a historical residue occurring only at the geographic margins of the developed and interdependent world (e.g., in Syria or parts of Africa) is no longer tenable. War, in all of its brutality, is happening in the middle of Europe on a scale not seen since 1945.
For the U.S., the main lesson is that Europe is not as stable and as peaceful as we have come to expect over the last 30 years. This means that the U.S. cannot think of Asia as its primary theater and of China as the most pressing threat. If we lose Europe, we will not be able to balance China in Asia.
America’s claims of exceptionalism, and therefore, of having some sort of divinely ordained role in leading the world, have always been met with some skepticism from the Church. But leaving those kinds of ideological claims out of the picture, does the U.S. have a legitimate or even necessary role to play in the conflict? As a matter of justice, what does that role look like, and how does our considerable power, wealth, and international influence factor into it, if at all?
BACEVICH: The United States benefits from order. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a direct affront to that order — as was, for example, the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. The question is this: As a major power, how can the United States most effectively contribute to the restoration and preservation of order? The habit in Washington is to choose sides, which in practice is likely to mean perpetrating violence. It may be time to consider an alternative: Don't pick sides, but try to play the role of honest broker.
FATHER CHRISTIANSEN: After arrogantly handling the American return to the world scene, the Biden Administration has redeemed its name by a consultative approach to the Ukraine crisis. Given its economic and military power, the U.S. will have a leading role among western nations. But Germany and the European Union’s abandonment of caution on military and Russian issues establishes more balance in the western alliance and a check against American overreach.
In the Ukraine crisis, the U.S. has balanced assisting Ukraine in defending itself with avoiding a third world nuclear war. Given the aversion of U.S. citizenry and Mr. Biden to wars without end, the post-war environment will provide special challenges in rebuilding Ukraine, establishing a new political-security order in Europe and limiting the destructive effects of sanctions on Russia. We must avoid revisiting the economic collapse inflicted on Russia in the 1990s, which could lead to another spiral of resentment and revanchism.
GRYGIEL: States have an obligation first to protect their own people and, second, to aid others who are under attack or in the midst of a tragedy. These two obligations can be mutually exclusive: that is, helping others may undermine the ability of a state to guarantee security to its own population. Hence, the United States, as [also with] other European states, have to walk a thin line: help the almost two million of Ukrainians escaping from the war without undermining the economic and social order of their own countries.
It also makes sense, both from an ethical and strategic point of view, to supply arms to Ukraine waging a defensive war against Russia. Ukraine is fighting a just war, fully in self-defense. Moreover, allowing a Russian victory and westward imperial expansion will only weaken the security and stability of the rest of Europe. But aiding Ukraine militarily has to be done with extreme caution in order to avoid an uncontrollable escalation of the war. For instance, the idea of a “no-fly zone” over Ukraine would put the U.S. and its allies in direct conflict with Russia — immediately escalating the war to a dangerous level — and should be avoided.
Putin has characterized Russian aggression as a stand against the growing influence of the morally decadent West. Leaving aside whether Putin actually believes these claims, or if Russia is really in a place to be presenting itself as a defender of Christian orthodoxy (let alone instigating a war of aggression with this claim as its basis), it’s interesting to note that Putin’s critique of the decadent West and its influence upon the rest of the world is at least partially shared by a very different global leader: Pope Francis, who has repeatedly condemned the West’s “cultural colonization” of other parts of the world, most recently in Fratelli Tutti. Likewise, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI warned in his Regensburg Address that the rapid ascendancy of secularism in the Western world risked alienating other cultures.
Expanding our gaze more broadly, to what extent does America’s considerable cultural transformation — and penchant for exporting it — risk undermining our moral credibility abroad and even the stability of the geopolitical order? Or is this a complete non-factor?
BACEVICH: You've raised a highly radioactive subject, which very few national politicians or media commentators will go near. America stands for freedom — on that almost all members of the establishment agree. The fact that the operative definition of freedom is constantly changing is seen as evidence that we are moving closer to a perfect understanding of what freedom requires and consists of. But what if the prevailing American conception is not “true”? What if it contains elements that are “false”? What does that do to America's claim to be freedom's sponsor or proponent? That's a subject that cries out for attention.
FATHER CHRISTIANSEN: Russia alleges it is a defender of Christianity against western secularism. St. John Paul II critiqued “the economism” (materialism) that afflicts both West and East. Pope Emeritus Benedict’s thinking, amplified by Pope Francis, on the lack of historical, cultural roots focused primarily on Western Europe and offered appreciation for the American tradition.
“The symphony” of the Russian Federation and the Russian Orthodox Church has no claim to moral superiority. The ROC maintains an uncritical religious nationalism. By boycotting the 2018 Pan Orthodox Holy Synod, it prevented the adoption of an updated social teaching that might provide a fuller ethic with which to critique Russian autocracy.
American secularism is only partially the result of government action, especially with Roe v. Wade, but also freedom of speech, religion and association. While the Clinton and Obama administrations both supported feminist agendas, most of the export of secular values around gender and reproduction is advanced by Hollywood, the media and the capitalist titans who own them.
GRYGIEL: Let’s start from the basics: Putin has nothing in common with Pope Francis or Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. Putin is a former KGB agent hell-bent on rebuilding a Russian empire, and for him his citizens are expendable tools of the state. Neither he nor the corrupt Patriarch of Moscow Kirill are defenders of some conservative ideals. Their criticism of crazy woke post-modernism affecting much of the West is a useful political tactic to further divide Western societies by appealing to gullible opinion makers, weakening the defenses of the West. Russia has one of the highest abortion rates in the world, and the only reason that at times Putin has mentioned it was because of his fear of demographic collapse resulting in an insufficient number of 18-year-olds serving in the Russian military.
Of course, the woke imperialism advanced by the Biden administration is dangerous because it exports forces that are incredibly destructive in the U.S. As a result, we anger our allies, especially those eager to protect social order by defending the family and the dignity of human life. The last thing we need in a moment of war is to upset allies that are at the geopolitical frontline.
Prudence is the charioteer of the virtues, because seeing reality clearly is a requisite for acting justly. How do you think this applies to our foreign policy establishment in the present moment? Are there factors — institutional, ideological, or otherwise — that risk obscuring an accurate vision of things, and if so, what are they, and how do you see them potentially coming into play regarding our response to the Russia-Ukraine conflict?
BACEVICH: The “indispensable nation” has run into a rough patch in recent years. My sense is that many observers see the Ukraine War as offering a chance for redemption. Standing up for the Ukrainians and opposing Putin enables us to forget about Iraq, Afghanistan, Trumpism, the assault on the Capitol and various other unhappy developments.
FATHER CHRISTIANSEN: Prudence is a key virtue, especially for political leaders. While caution is one component of prudence, a more important dimension is breadth and depth of vision, often lacking especially in the Realist world of international relations. What is more necessary for the United States is another cardinal virtue, moderation, what the Greeks called sophrosunē, meaning “of a balanced mind,” a moderate temperament that can integrate disparate values.
Policymakers need temperance to resist the hubris that grew out of being “the victor” in WW II and “the indispensable nation” in the post-Cold-War era. The American public needs temperance to wean itself away from the fascination with power and force over liberty and charity, the result of too many blockbuster films, of right-wing militia movements, and a power-worshipping ex-president. Pope Francis has offered an alternative to this immoderate culture in his vision of a culture of encounter where mercy and tenderness reign.
GRYGIEL: The main problem is in the series of illusions that have distorted our understanding of reality and expectations for the future. Fundamentally, these distortions stem from a mistaken understanding of human nature. Our modern mindset thinks that everybody in the world is motivated by similar, if not uniform, impulses. The belief is that we all are rational calculating mechanisms that seek material profits, which are best supplied by growing economic interdependence. Hence, we are repeatedly surprised by states and nations that act in ways that clearly damage their ability to continue a consumerist lifestyle. Putin’s Russia was not deterred by the prospect of losing a lot of Western business. And Ukraine, too, is willing to incur a lot of material destruction in order to defend its independence.
The post-war strategist Bernard Brodie once wrote that to have a good strategy, we must have a good anthropology. He was correct: to understand how others will behave, we have to comprehend them and more broadly we must have a correct understanding of human nature. We do not and we should correct it quickly.
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- Andrew Bacevich, Jesuit Father Drew Christiansen, and Jakub Grygiel