The Moral Bankruptcy Of Moral Equivalency

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by William Milam

17 April 2022

To those readers who have dismissed the Russian war in and on Ukraine as just another illegal war, which despite its ugliness and brutality, and the tragic certainty it will kill a huge number of Ukrainian civilians and Russian soldiers — will play itself out and leave the world more or less as it is now, I say think again. This war is exposing a fundamental intellectual and emotional rift in the world order that threatens to become a permanent fracture between disparate countries loosely grouped around two ideological guideposts: Democracy and Totalitarianism. If that sounds an over simplistic and exaggerated conclusion, it probably is, because the truth is always much more complicated than a two-sentence warning. But the complications when one sorts through them lead to the same conclusion.

And I am not saying that it is inevitable; Like Ben Franklin, I believe that the only things in life that are inevitable are death and taxes. If our leaders across the growing divide wake up and understand, and behave accordingly, we are not sentenced to an inexorably renewed and more dangerous cold war.

The rift is driven intellectually by the concept of moral equivalency. This concept is, at its most essential, a recitation of Mercutio’s dying statement, “a plague on both your houses” in Romero and Juliet, blaming both feuding families for his death. In the case of the Ukraine war, I fear that the issue may be more generational and much more nuanced than Mercutio (or Shakespeare) understood. I do not believe that the younger generation is imputing moral equivalence between Russia and Ukraine anymore although some may have done so at the beginning when most believed that Russia would win in a cakewalk.

After 50 days of extensive TV coverage showing clearly the brutality and terrorist tactics that Russia is using to conduct an illegal war against civilians in a smaller, weaker, and much more attractive and likeable Ukraine is pretty damning. To the astonishment of many, the Ukraine Military has made the Russian Army look like a congregation of amateurs; this contrast between a heroic David and a villainous Goliath, is aided by the contrast between a clearly evil Russian leader Vladimir Putin and a heroic and surprisingly effective Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky. But the equivalency is a more general one; purveyors of this assertion dismiss the moral high ground claimed by the governments of the NATO alliance that are supporting Ukraine with weapons and other military equipment and insisting that a Ukrainian victory over totalitarian Russia is the only acceptable and just conclusion to the war. Proponents of the theory of moral equivalency insist that the illegal wars illegal wars the West  has initiated over the past 2 0r 3 decades, pointing mainly to the US invasion of Afghanistan, Iraq, and other displays of US military power put NATO and Russia (with China hovering behind Russia somewhere) on the same moral level, which has given many countries reason for continuing business as usual with Russia and avoiding attempts to condemn Russia’s aggression.

These purveyors of the moral equivalency theory are driven, I expect, either by ideology, or experience, or both. By ideology, I mean that this theory is not new, and was a favorite of many of the political left during the cold war. Its proponents were prompted and encouraged by Soviet and other left-wing propaganda. It was the intellectual basis for the non-aligned movement which was a strong force in international relations in those days. It was a much less pernicious force then, bothersome at times to the industrial nations, but did not imply a breakdown of the international rules-based system as it does this time around. By experience, I mean that it seems to me that many of the proponents of moral equivalence are in the younger generations, those who have no experience of the period just after  World War 2, before and in the early days of the cold war, (or of memories from parents and teachers of the period before that war) when the West came to understand the brutality and invidious nature of totalitarianism and its imperial deigns. The examples from those periods of Nazi and Soviet genocide and imperialism instilled in most minds a good idea of the evils of those regimes and an understanding that they must be resisted, by force, if necessary, as their insatiable desire for expansion would not ever be sated and their duplicity unmatched in its perversion. For many of the older generations, these unsettled epochs made clear that there was real and deadly evil in the world.

The existence of such evil is the key point of difference between moral equivalence and the rules-based system that Ukraine is fighting for and for which NATO and other industrial countries are giving maximum support. A Ukrainian victory is seen by NATO as vital. The former eschews the existence of evil, of a kind that Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia exemplified. The latter recognizes that totalitarian regimes harbor the seeds of evil by their very nature. And the longer they last the more likely they are to become evil. That is why we have continued to hope that China’s economic success would encourage it to move in democratic directions. In fact. It has moved in the opposite direction, becoming more totalitarian, and more potentially dangerous to a rules-based system. Yet China has much to gain, in fact more than it will from its totalitarian direction, from a rules-based system. That appears to me to be true of most of the developing world; from countries as large as India and as small as Nepal, logic tells me that they all benefit from a proper rules-based system more than the dog-eat-dog system that awaits them if Russia gets its way.

The urgent need to preserve the rules-based system against the most recent totalitarian attempt to tear it down by Russia is what has unified Europe, the US, and other industrial counties. This is what proponents of the moral equivalence theory miss—that the alternative to the rules-based system is not a system that does not recognize evil, but in a system in which the evil that is present in totalitarian states is held in check by a rules-based system that is enforced by collective action. It will not be enough to just settle the Russia-Ukraine war by some agreement that papers over the illegal attack on Ukraine. The rules-based system must be seen as a clear winner; therefore, Ukraine should not be pushed by its allies or its well-wishing friends to agree to a peace that it is not in full agreement with. The rules have been that large (or small) countries cannot change borders by force. That rule must stand or we have a peace that is as unviable as the Versailles treaty. And its friends in NATO seem to understand this. Note the 180 degree change in German policy, both as to dependence on German gas and oil imports and defense  spending, and even more astounding the Finnish and Swedish governments, die-hard neutrals, now ruminating on joining NATO. Russia has done what no NATO country could do—brought NATO into the 21st century.

The moral equivalence theory harps on the illegal wars initiated by the West. This is a telling point in some ways, but also somewhat sophistic in others. Sophistry is the use of fallacious arguments, usually with the intent to deceive. Now that we have seen the kind of war the totalitarian state of Russia wages, the attempt to match it with the wars the West has initiated can be seen to be a gross violation of the truth. Still, despite their very different motivation, I think many in the West have been uneasy about these wars, in particular the invasion of Iraq, as very unwise, major political mistakes in some cases which led to egregious loss of human life and great damage to the  Western reputation, and possibly partially responsible to the vitality of moral equivalency arguments. Clearly, democracies cannot run amok without injuring the rules-based international system they claim to be defending.

My final thought is that defending the rules-based system is much more important and much more difficult in this part of the 21st century, which so far has not been a good century for democracy. I have written often about the decline of democracy around the world. The NATO alliance has democratic back sliders such as Hungary, which could pose problems if Article 5, which requires members to come together if one is attacked. But nowhere is the democratic decline so important as in the United States. The Republican Party, its second major party has turned away from democracy and what its attitude would be if Article 5 were invoked is not clear. Its leader, Donald Trump when he was President, appeared to be in Putin’s pocket and still after 51 days of war in Ukraine has not uttered a negative word about Putin or Russia. I had hoped that the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the ugly war it waged there would begin to bring the Republican back to their senses, but so far no evidence of that. My bottom line is that with democracy on the run in the world, the last thing the global order, and its self-identified leader, needs is an end to the Ukraine war that weakens the rules-based order and strengthens the case for moral equivalency between Democracy and Totalitarianism.

The article was published in the Friday Times