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

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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.

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

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