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U.S. Lacks Moral Authority to Criticize Russia for Intervening in Ukraine*

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Once again, the United States government is chastising another nation for resorting to military force to solve a problem. The New York Times reports today that Russian troops, acting on orders of President Vladimir Putin, have swept into the Crimea region of Ukraine after a popular uprising led to the ouster of a pro-Russian government and continued social unrest. President Barack Obama denounced Russia’s actions as a “breach of international law” and “clear violation” of Ukraine’s sovereignty.

President Barack Obama has denounced Russia's military intervention in Ukraine while overseeing ethically questionable actions by U.S. armed forces.

There is a glaringly obvious problem with Obama’s complaints: the U.S. doesn’t practice what it preaches. To become a morally credible critic of others’ militarism, the U.S. must dramatically alter its own policies and actions.

I, like Obama, fear that Putin’s show of force could make a bad situation worse. But the Russian intervention in Ukraine–a neighbor and home to millions of ethnic Russians—is arguably far more justified than massive U.S. military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The U.S. has occupied Afghanistan for more than a dozen years now and only recently withdrew from Iraq. The U.S. carries out drone strikes against alleged enemies in Pakistan and Yemen in spite of the condemnation of the United Nations and other groups. The U.S. enthusiasm for drones has inspired many other nations to pursue the technology. The U.S. denounces attacks on civilians by governments like Syria and terrorist groups like Al Qaeda but makes excuses for thousands of civilian deaths caused by its own military operations.

The U.S. has by far the biggest military in the world, in terms of spending. Our budget, in spite of recent trims, is still almost as big as the budgets of all other nations combined. U.S. “defense” outlays are roughly five times those of China, the world’s second biggest military power. The U.S. is also by far the planet’s biggest arms dealer, accounting for 58 percent of global sales, according to SIPRI, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

So what can the U.S. do to gain moral credibility? In an excerpt from a 2012 video just posted by Big Think, I urge the U.S. to lead humanity beyond the war era by slashing its armed forces, eradicating its nuclear arsenal and resorting to military violence only when absolutely necessary to prevent greater violence. I elaborate on these arguments in my 2012 book The End of War and in many posts on this blog.

As I wrote last spring in a column calling for a new just-war theory, we Americans “are guilty of shameful hypocrisy. If we practiced what we preached—if we showed through our actions that we recognize how wrong war is—we Americans could lead the entire world to an enduring peace.”

*Postscript: Some readers may wonder what this post has to do with science. If you follow my blog, you know that I view war and militarism as problems that, while daunting, can be solved by rational, empirical analysis. My concerns about war can be a bit obsessive, however, and so when I started browsing the Internet this morning, I was determined to find something fun and non-martial to write about. Maybe the resurrection of woolly mammoths, or a scientific angle on the Oscars. Then I read the latest news from Ukraine and thought, How can I wrote about anything else?

Photo: Kevin Lamarque, Reuters, Wikimedia Commons.

About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and The End of War (McSweeney's, 2012). Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Gerard Harbison 2:49 pm 03/2/2014

    Idiotic. The US invaded Afghanistan to rid it of a nest of terrorists which had attacked the US and killed 3000 of our citizens. Russia invanded Crimea in order to add it to its empire. There is a difference.

    Horgan is evidently incapable of making ethical judgements at the level of a five year old.

    Link to this
  2. 2. rshoff2 3:21 pm 03/2/2014

    Agreed, John, but the US has also become the world’s patsy. Yes, we seem to predictably react to every event, as anticipated. In some ways we are puppets to the world’s military desires. And we pay for it many times over. Why does the rest of the world skimp on military? Because they can count on manipulating us to fight their battles….. Some may even lend us money to waste on these kinds of tactics.

    At least the U.S. is ‘threatening’ political consequences, not military, in this most current european event. Why put youths’ lives at risk for a political uproar? I haven’t heard that there is a true distribution problem, there is no massive hunger, shelter, or genocide problem. This current event is entirely made up. There is no basis in human survival terms to justify these wars.

    However, where we might not completely agree is how fast we can transition to a peaceful society, if we want to continue as a society. If we must maintain the military machine to survive as a society, are we ‘Just’ in doing so? Does our society provide better for the human condition than do those we defend against? Are we a positive force moving humanity forward?

    If the answer to questions like these are ‘yes’, then we are burdened with a slow transition and thereby must maintain our military. If the answer is no, then hey, abolish the military and accept a military free life, which may result in the repainting of our borders and possibly great losses to our people.

    Unfortunately (very unfortunately), my opinion is that we have no other practical choice but to maintain our military while showing great restraint while resorting only to political, world-driven solutions. I think that the world is naturally transitioning into a time when we are finally free to choose diplomacy over military. But we are not to the point we can abolish its militaries. Not until we can be assured that the majority of the world will choose diplomacy over military might.

    I think all countries are very flawed. I also think the US continues to be one that stands out as a beacon of a peaceful and free future for the people of this earth. However, we must exercise strength, commitment, and military restraint for the time to come.

    Your American readership may better understand and appreciate some of my words. Some people may dismiss them as arrogant without bothering to try and think it through in their own terms and how they may relate to their (also very human) thoughts in some ways. I would ask them to peel the layers that they may perceive as bias and try to understand the intent of my comment.

    In the kernel, I always mean and wish the best for people, and try to respect what we each have to offer. Although, I’m human, so its expression comes with a lot of baggage.

    Link to this
  3. 3. Marc Levesque 7:25 pm 03/2/2014

    Gerard Harbison,

    I’m sure Putin is also spinning the events in a biased and one sided fashion as you just did.

    “The US invaded Afghanistan to rid it of a nest of terrorists which had attacked the US and killed 3000 of our citizens”

    And as far as I know the terrorists that killed 3000 American citizens were from Saudi Arabia.

    Link to this
  4. 4. Owl905 7:49 pm 03/2/2014

    The questions about ‘moral authority’ should be addressed to Vladmir Putin. He’s the one violating the 1993 Ukraine Security Guaranty Russia and the United States signed. The knee-jerk attempt to equivocate with past American actions is the absurd tilt of a latte-crowd argument – the Russian invasion has been done with the express intent of wrecking Ukrainian democracy and dismembering the country. The Crimean puppets have already declared a referendum on secession for May 25th (the same day as the Ukrainian general election).
    This isn’t Afghanistan (911), or Iraq (WMD) – this is the Sudetenland Crisis of 1938. And Mr. Horgan should wave a piece of paper if he wants to do a better imitation of Neville Chamberlain.

    Link to this
  5. 5. ronwagn 10:12 pm 03/2/2014

    Doing the right thing is not dependent upon whether you have always done the right thing in the past. It is always better to support freedom. Europe knows this very well. They have experience with our military, and with that of Russia. Guess which is preferred.

    Link to this
  6. 6. phalaris 1:50 am 03/3/2014

    #3 Marc Levesque -
    oh, so they weren’t operating out of Afghanistan and didn’t have a base there, then?

    Link to this
  7. 7. Bremsstrahlung 5:47 am 03/3/2014

    @3 Marc Levesque

    “And as far as I know the terrorists that killed 3000 American citizens were from Saudi Arabia.”

    You’d make a good front man for the organization, al-Qaeda, which was headquartered at that time in Afghanistan. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Al_Quida#Refuge_in_Afghanistan

    Given President Obama’s history of drone use though, I’d recommend keeping a low profile.

    Link to this
  8. 8. Bremsstrahlung 5:50 am 03/3/2014

    @4. Owl9057

    “And Mr. Horgan should wave a piece of paper if he wants to do a better imitation of Neville Chamberlain.”

    Do what you do well, eh?

    Link to this
  9. 9. jtdwyer 7:36 am 03/3/2014

    The author lacks the ‘moral authority’ to criticize the United States of America’s criticism of Russia in this international matter.

    Link to this
  10. 10. rshoff2 11:56 am 03/3/2014

    I think the problem with past US behavior is that it set a precedence of a unilateral pre-emptive strike and invasion of another country. The merits, morality, and justification of the action do not even need to come into question. The problem is, how can the world now judge (with what method) each country that chooses the path of invasion or preemptive strike to have just cause? That creates an entirely new level of world oversight. It’s an extra burden to world organizations such as NATO, United Nations, etc, etc. We are now seeing the consequences of that unilateral action.

    Link to this
  11. 11. KevinCahill 12:52 am 03/4/2014

    Horgan is right. Again.

    Link to this
  12. 12. ZSorenson 3:20 am 03/4/2014

    I have come across this post and am very intrigued by the notion of a new just war theory.

    Unfortunately, the scientific community has too many hurdles to overcome to reach a new understanding of war. For one, the scientific community is very institutionally oriented. Professional success means being a team player in any number of massive institutions that are mostly all more or less linked together in someway with the national government. Secondly, the scientific community relies on normative thinking to govern the progress of knowledge between and among scientists. This is all fine and good, but it certainly prevents proper political analysis in most cases.

    In the case of war, the reality of political economy and how governments interact with economy players and other institutions to spread influence violently (most often through covert means, but sometimes rather overtly) is lost to many in the scientific community. The problems lies with what I mentioned earlier concerning the normative biases of scientists concerning their institutional milieu. In politics, the love of the progressive theory which translates to large exogenous interventions into human life and behavior means that government institutions with power commensurate to this ideal are somewhat idolized. The very clear historical evidence of political economy on how such large institutions inherently exercise violent coercion the world over to sustain their policy inertia (which more often than not benefits big players and not the little guy) is therefore ignored.

    War isn’t something that misguided hawks stumble into, its a necessary component of any overly consolidated political institution.

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  13. 13. rshoff2 10:30 am 03/4/2014

    zsorenson – Thank you for your insight and explanation. (it really is cool to read and connected somes dots for me). On your last paragraph I cannot help but want to replace your word ‘war’ with the word ‘conflict’. Would it still retain the same meaning to you?

    I perceive conflict as part of healthy competition. I perceive war as a control strategy. The former being inherent to any system, the latter not.

    Link to this
  14. 14. rshoff2 10:33 am 03/4/2014

    ie, conflict has rules of engagement and agreed upon outcomes, war has neither.

    Link to this
  15. 15. Marc Levesque 6:18 pm 03/4/2014

    phalaris,

    I’m not aware of the tragic events on 9/11 were orchestrated by, or the work of, Al-Qaeda.

    Link to this
  16. 16. Marc Levesque 6:24 pm 03/4/2014

    Bremsstrahlung,

    See my comment above to phalaris. If you know of information that points otherwise please let me know.

    Link to this
  17. 17. Marc Levesque 6:50 pm 03/4/2014

    Gerard Harbison,

    I wasn’t clear.

    As I said above, I’m not aware the tragic events on 9/11 were orchestrated by, or the work of, Al-Qaeda. If you know of information that points otherwise please let me know.

    Link to this
  18. 18. rshoff2 12:21 pm 03/5/2014

    Again, I don’t think who did what and why in the Gulf wars is the problem we are facing today. That argument belongs in the history books. What we are dealing with today is the reality that we allowed our leadership to take an action that created a precedence of unilateral pre-emptive strikes and invasions into other countries before a war is ever declared. Now our problem is to sort out when that behavior is ‘just’ or legal, and when it is not. Putin would like to consider Russian invasion into Ukraine as ‘just’. But is it? What world body with authority decides that definitively? I have my own opinions as to the justice or morality surrounding Russia’s actions (keep in mind Putin did not act alone) but what is one opinion worth in a world of 7 billion people?

    Link to this
  19. 19. brock2118 5:31 pm 03/5/2014

    What a peachy new world order in which the various Islamic states will have nukes, the Chinese will have aircraft carriers, the Soviets new ICBMs and us-we will have moral authority.

    Or something.

    Link to this
  20. 20. Marc Levesque 10:39 am 03/6/2014

    rshoff2,

    “I think the problem with past US behavior is that it set a precedence of a unilateral pre-emptive strike and invasion of another country”

    I agree. It sets a bad example.

    Link to this
  21. 21. rshoff2 12:08 pm 03/6/2014

    brock2118 – I think it’s the same peachy world it’s always been. In some ways much better and in some ways more dangerous. But who we are as humans hasn’t seemed to change much. Only the tools we have to help or harass each other have evolved. We have not.

    Link to this
  22. 22. jayjacobus 4:29 pm 03/14/2014

    Geopolitical boundaries change all the time. Think of South Sudan, Yugoslavia, North and South Korea, etc.

    The important question is “Will the people of Ukraine and Crimea be more or less violent with the split.”

    Link to this
  23. 23. GM2021 9:01 pm 03/15/2014

    TOO TRUE

    I was a friend of the USA until the USAWN-LYBIA war, them my eyes were opened.

    Like most Americans I was deceived by Bush The Boy about the his war of Iraq.

    See the blog by D. D. “Brat Boy USA”

    How did the USA become the USAWN?

    George Mymary

    Link to this
  24. 24. xopr72 2:54 am 06/7/2014

    Bill of Sale Contract for Province of Crimea Ukraine;
    By: Ukraine;

    Sold To: Russia;
    For the sum of 250,000,000,000 Euro’s payable to Ukraine;

    This contact is binding in perpetuity and Russia agrees to pay by the act of annexing Crimea.

    Link to this

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