Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
Last week British Prime Minister Boris Johnson published an op-ed about the brewing conflict between Ukraine and Russia. And, no surprise, it comprised a catalogue of “new world order” idealism of the sort we’ve watched crash and burn for the last three decades. Vladimir Putin would not be impressed were he to read it, any more than he’s worried about the modest increases in NATO forces near his borders, since the U.S. Commander-in-Chief already announced that we will not go to war over Ukraine. Plus the NATO countries are still disunited over how to respond should Putin go kinetic.
Once again, the hard questions of what threatens our interests and how to meet those threats are ignored in favor of bankrupt idealism and magical thinking.
Amidst all the virtue-signaling and braggadocios rhetoric, Johnson offers this strange sentence that epitomizes that idealism: “If I may adapt some famous words: All nations are created equal, they are endowed by international law with certain inalienable rights, and first among these is the right not to have their territory seized, or their foreign policy dictated at gunpoint, by a powerful neighbor.”
Talk about a false analogy. No, nations are not all “created equal” and do not have “unalienable rights,” but only such rights as are created by treaties with other nations, not by shared universal “norms” or “values.” Nor, as Johnson implies, is “international law” like “nature and nature’s God” that the Founder believed make certain human rights unalienable, a feature of our inherent humanity, not a gift of earthly power. International law, in contrast, is the contingent product of treaties negotiated by sovereign nations that enter into such agreements in order to further their national interests. They do not reflect universal morality or values, and so are regularly violated, or simply abandoned, as those interests shift.
It’s ironic, and historically obtuse, that Johnson makes this claim in the context of Russia’s current designs on Ukraine. Back in 2014 Putin annexed Crimea and virtually occupied southeast Ukraine. At the time Barack Obama pontificated in very similar idealistic terms, also including an echo of the Declaration of Independence: “Russia’s leadership is challenging truths that only a few weeks ago seemed self-evident––that in the 21st century, the borders of Europe cannot be redrawn with force, that international law matters, that people and nations can make their own decisions about their future,” for such aggression “is not how international law and international norms are observed in the 21st century.”
The same naive clichés characterized the foreign policy establishment as well: Fareed Zakaria of The Washington Post referred to “broader global norms––for example, against annexations by force. These have not always been honored, but, compared with the past, they have helped shape a more peaceful and prosperous world.” So too David Rivkin and Lee Casey in The Wall Street Journal evoked “the three basic principles of international law, reflected in the United Nations Charter and long-standing custom,” which “are the equality of all states, the sanctity of their territorial integrity, and noninterference of outsiders in their international affairs.”
Well, here we are eight years later, and Crimea is still part of Russia. So is a fifth of Georgia seized in 2008. The rule against changing borders by force is clearly not a “self-evident truth,” a “global norm” that has “helped shaped a more peaceful and prosperous world,” nor are there “long-standing customs” like “the sanctity of territorial integrity.”
Rather, these all are the provisions of international laws created by treaties signed by sovereign nations that are definitely not all “equal,” and that determine for themselves when, or how much any treaty binds them. This sacrifice of principle to national interest is why Northern Cyprus, invaded, occupied, and ethnically cleansed by Turkey in 1974, is still part of Turkey; or why Tibet, invaded and occupied by China in 1951-52, is still part of China.
And when a nation does use force to change national borders or pursue some other aim, only on rare occasions, such as Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1991, have the nations comprising the “rules-based international order” enforced those “global norms” with military action. But no one stepped up to honor those norms by stopping the genocides in Rwanda in 1993, or Darfur in 2003. And as we speak the great Western nations of the “rules-based international order” are enjoying the Winter Olympics in China, even as the Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang are brainwashed, brutalized, tortured, raped, and penned up in forced-labor camps.
The fact is, despite its lofty rhetoric, the “rules-based international order” based on international laws has rarely been willing or able to enforce this “self-evident truth” that borders should not be changed by force, because no nations have not found it in their own interests to do so.
The permanence of diverse national interests exposes the central fallacy of this foreign policy idealism––the notion that there is an international “harmony of interests” among the large, complex diversity of nations with their distinct cultures, mores, languages, religions, histories, and numerous other “self-evident” features of national identity––which include different views on the legitimacy of violence for pursuing national interests.
This fact of diversity, then, contradicts the West’s claims that “long-standing custom” contributes to “self-evident truths” like the imperative to respect national boundaries and not to alter them with force. On the contrary, as Robert Bork writes in Coercing Virtue, “There is nothing that can be called law in any meaningful sense established by custom. If there were, it would not restrain international aggression; it is more likely to unleash it . . . if custom is what counts, it favors aggression.” The melancholy fact is, the West’s proscription of force as a tool for pursuing national interests remains a historical anomaly.
Hence the problem for the West in confronting Putin’s designs. If Europe, Great Britain, and the U.S. truly believe that stopping Putin is in their national interests, they wouldn’t be making symbolic NATO deployments to the region, but mobilizing their militaries in the numbers necessary to counter an invasion, which of course would pose an exorbitant risk. If they were serious about real deterrence, they wouldn’t, as Biden has done, threaten sanctions after an invasion starts and people are dying. They’d impose them now.
So why don’t these nations act? Because their political leaders are calculating their political risks and their own national interests. The West, besotted by the net-zero-carbon moonshine into weakening its energy resources, now faces inflated fuel costs, making the West, especially Europe, dependent on Russian oil. Nor are the citizens of the Western nations in the mood for a war whose reasons have not been made clear to them. They don’t see an immediate threat that requires spending lives and money to stop––especially in the U.S., just coming off of two decades of feckless idealism in the Middle East culminating in the humiliating retreat from Kabul.
Nor should we be surprised, since this short-sighted vision has bedeviled democracy since its creation. In 1835 Alexis de Tocqueville warned, a “clear perception of the future, founded upon judgment and experience . . . is frequently wanting in democracies. The people are more apt to feel than to reason; and if their present sufferings are great, it is to be feared that the still greater sufferings attendant upon defeat will be forgotten.” This reality means that national leaders must explain specifically to the voters why, in our case, Putin’s annexation of eastern Ukraine, poses a long-term threat to our security and interests.
But so far all we hear about is how evil Putin is, and how anyone who questions taking action is a crypto-fascist admirer of autocrats. Or we get empty, feel-good rhetoric like Boris Johnson’s about common “norms” and the “rules-based international order,” or paeans to “patient and principled diplomacy,” as Johnson calls the time-honored tactic for leaders to avoid doing something meaningful and camouflaging their inactions with the theater of “diplomatic engagement.”
If Putin seriously threatens our interests and security, then make the case to the people. Start taking action now. Don’t just threaten serious sanctions, impose them now, not after the cannon start roaring. Don’t hide behind piecemeal NATO deployments, but mobilize forces and materiel adequate to meet Putin’s challenge. Shame allies like Germany who put GDP ahead of those principles they continually lecture us about. And go before Congress and seek an authorization to use military force.
Finally, we all need to acknowledge the obvious truth that meeting aggression with bluster and foreign policy sermonettes only produces more aggression. We are where we are in Ukraine because in 2014 the annexation of Crimea was allowed to stand.
Most important, if we truly believe in the “rules-based international order,” then we must defend it and enforce its rules with mind-concentrating force. That means spending the money necessary for playing that role––and it means acting, not just talking about acting.