To explain a bad actor’s behavior is not to justify it.
In mundane contexts, few people struggle to understand this point. For example, if an alcoholic relative comes over for Thanksgiving dinner and behaves in a charming, avuncular manner until he finishes off his eighth beer — at which point he subjects his prepubescent nephew to a pornographic account of his backpacking trip through Europe circa 1996, says, “I’m thankful for my ex-wife’s heart attack,” and then cries into his mashed potatoes while moaning that he’s incapable of love — most would say that this relative’s inebriation explains his conduct, even as it does not justify it. Had uncle Walter not been drinking, he would not have ruined Thanksgiving. But the fact that Walter was drinking did not make it okay for him to spoil the holiday.
Now, let’s say that this uncle Walter did not bring beer to the festivities himself but merely encountered beer that aunt Rachel had purchased. In that circumstance, we might recognize that Rachel’s decision to bring beer caused Thanksgiving to be ruined, even though aunt Rachel is not morally culpable for that sad outcome. Thus, even though Walter’s family members are not at fault for his conduct, they may nevertheless decide that it would be wise for them to alter their own behavior to preempt such uncomfortable scenes in the future — by, say, establishing a “No alcohol at Thanksgiving” rule.
This mode of reasoning is not terribly controversial when applied to quotidian matters. When one applies it to foreign affairs, however, it tends to raise hackles. In the wake of 9/11, those who argued that Osama bin Laden’s stated motivations for the attacks may have been genuine — and thus that the American military’s interventions in the Middle East had played a causal role in the atrocity — were routinely denounced for justifying bin Laden’s violence and/or blaming America for its own national tragedy.
This tendency to confuse explanation and justification has cropped again up in contemporary debates over the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Some commentators argue that American foreign policy helped to bring about the present crisis. Their argument goes roughly like this: Vladimir Putin’s destructive actions are a predictable consequence of America’s decisions to expand NATO eastward and encourage Ukraine to align with the European Union instead of Russia. For decades, the Kremlin made it clear to the West that it considered NATO expansion and a westernized Ukraine antithetical to Russia’s core security interests. Nevertheless, the U.S. encouraged Ukraine to integrate with Europe and refused to rule out its admission into NATO’s military alliance. America did this knowing (1) that there was a high risk that Putin would defend his conception of Russia’s interests in Ukraine militarily, (2) that the U.S. was not willing to expend American lives or risk nuclear war in defense of Ukrainian sovereignty, and (3) that Ukraine would be incapable of militarily defeating a Russian invasion without the aid of a foreign army.
Given this knowledge, the argument continues, America’s support for Ukraine’s assertions of independence from Russia was, in fact, a betrayal. The optimal path for maximizing Ukrainians’ autonomy and welfare, given the constraints imposed by Russia’s strength and the West’s unwillingness to fight, was for Ukraine to forswear NATO membership and pledge neutrality between Russia and Europe. The alternative course was bound to lead Ukraine into a catastrophe. As the “realist” international-relations scholar John Mearsheimer put the point in 2015, “What’s going on here is that the West is leading Ukraine down the primrose path, and the end result is that Ukraine is going to get wrecked.”
Today, this analysis is largely confined to anti-Establishment foreign policy scholars and left-wing dissidents. But as Peter Beinart notes, its basic premises were once common sense among America’s national security elite:
George Kennan, the living legend who had fathered America’s policy of containment against the Soviet Union, called NATO expansion “a strategic blunder of potentially epic proportions.” Thomas Friedman, America’s most prominent foreign policy columnist, declared it the “most ill-conceived project of the post-Cold War era.”
… In 2014, Henry Kissinger, the personification of the American foreign policy establishment, argued, “The West must understand that, to Russia, Ukraine can never be just a foreign country.” If “Ukraine is to survive and thrive,” he insisted, “it must not be either side’s outpost against the other — it should function as a bridge between them.” Instead of joining NATO, Ukraine “should pursue a posture comparable to that of Finland” in which it “cooperates with the West in most fields but carefully avoids institutional hostility toward Russia.” Zbigniew Brzezinski, who in his time as Jimmy Carter’s national security advisor was known as a Cold War hawk, nonetheless embraced the Finland model as well. Ukraine, he insisted, could have “no participation in any military alliance viewed by Moscow as directed at itself.”
One can raise plenty of objections to this analysis. For one thing, much of it rests on the presumption that Putin would have acquiesced to a genuinely neutral Ukraine as opposed to one that marched in lockstep with Russia’s interests. Given that Putin declared Ukraine an “inalienable part” of Russia’s “spiritual space” when justifying his invasion, it is not obvious that this is the case. Regardless, to argue that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was a predictable response to American policy choices is not to say that it was a justified response to those choices. Too often in recent days, people trying to make the former argument have been denounced for making the latter one.
That said, slippage between explanation and justification is actually happening on both sides of the debate over Putin’s motives. A small minority of the left in the U.S. is so fixated on its contempt for American imperialism that it suggests that Russia is justified in seeing a western-aligned Ukraine as an affront to their security. From this point of view, American support for Ukraine’s integration with Europe was not merely reckless but immoral: Supporting Ukraine’s assertion of independence from Moscow was an imperial act of aggression against Russia, as though Putin were entitled to veto power over Ukrainian foreign policy as a matter of right.
Realists like John Mearsheimer, meanwhile, often speak as though there is no difference between a great power’s predictable actions and its justified ones. Indeed, in Mearsheimer’s telling, a fully independent Ukraine is not just a fundamental threat to Russian security in Putin’s mind but in actual fact. This is despite the fact that Moscow’s vast nuclear weapons arsenal renders a western incursion into Russia unthinkable. After all, as recent events have made clear, the western powers are so (rightly) terrified by the prospect of a nuclear war with Russia that they are not even willing to directly combat the Russian army when it launches a war of aggression.
Mearsheimer’s equation of explanation and justification comes to the fore in his recent interview with The New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner. Mearsheimer tells Chotiner that the United States engineered the conflict with Russia by encouraging Ukraine to join NATO and the E.U., “turning Ukraine into a pro-American liberal democracy.” Chotiner suggests that Ukraine turned itself into a liberal democracy and that Russia does not have the right to tell Ukraine what kind of government it can have or what its foreign policy must be. Mearsheimer counters that, as a great power, Russia does have that right. Russia is acting exactly as “we” (the U.S. government) would in their position. That leads to the following exchange (Mearsheimer’s words are in plain text, Chotiner’s in bold):
Saying that America will not allow countries in the Western hemisphere, most of them democracies, to decide what kind of foreign policy they have — you can say that’s good or bad, but that is imperialism, right? We’re essentially saying that we have some sort of say over how democratic countries run their business.
We do have that say, and, in fact, we overthrew democratically elected leaders in the Western hemisphere during the Cold War because we were unhappy with their policies. This is the way great powers behave.
Of course we did, but I’m wondering if we should be behaving that way. When we’re thinking about foreign policies, should we be thinking about trying to create a world where neither the U.S. nor Russia is behaving that way?
That’s not the way the world works. When you try to create a world that looks like that, you end up with the disastrous policies that the United States pursued during the unipolar moment. We went around the world trying to create liberal democracies. Our main focus, of course, was in the greater Middle East, and you know how well that worked out. Not very well.
At no point in the interview does Mearsheimer articulate the normative content of his worldview. A “disastrous” policy is, implicitly, one that erodes the global power of the United States. Why, precisely, we as human beings should care about whether the United States is more powerful than China — given that, in Mearsheimer’s account, both nations will rule like tyrants over the world’s weaker nations if given the chance — is never explained.
As Chotiner observes, Mearsheimer does occasionally voice moral objections to U.S. foreign policy. He has lamented America’s complicity in “the crimes perpetrated against the Palestinians.” The object of much of his “realist” analysis of international relations is to help America avert needless wars. Yet he nevertheless insists on naturalizing the aggression of powerful states, as though America’s decision to overthrow the Árbenz government was tantamount to a chemical reaction rather than a contingent crime perpetrated by well-connected friends of the United Fruit Company.
This does not merely render Mearsheimer’s analysis morally deficient but also intellectually incoherent. Nations do not have unified, objective interests. The foreign policies that would best serve American power are not necessarily those that would best serve the Pentagon bureaucracy, which are not necessarily those that would best serve an incumbent president’s reelection odds, which are not necessarily those that would best flatter the ideological convictions of his National Security Council, which are not necessarily those that would best please his party’s top donors. Similarly, the policies that would maximize Russia’s national security are not necessarily the same as those that would maximize the Putin regime’s political stability. And in any case, the Russian president is not necessarily capable of accurately identifying either. It is bizarre to suggest that Russia’s actions in Ukraine were dictated by its objective security interests when, by virtually any measure, Putin’s invasion has already undermined those interests.
The anarchic nature of international relations may give Russia an incentive to bully Ukraine. Yet as this week’s sanctions have made clear, Russia also had plenty of incentive to forswear a war of conquest. As of February 15 of this year, Mearsheimer himself deemed that incentive so overwhelming as to prevent a rational actor like Putin from invading Ukraine (his justified complaints about NATO expansion notwithstanding). Putin had “no intention of invading Ukraine,” Mearsheimer assured a group of students at King’s College, in part because “if he invades Ukraine, we have made it clear in the West that we will go to great lengths to cripple the Russian economy.”
The rulers of powerful nations have agency. As Mearsheimer has long (ironically) lamented, America’s leaders routinely adopt policies that undermine their own nation’s standing in great power competition. They could just as easily decide that their nation’s best interests will be served by great power cooperation.
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was a free choice. And whatever role U.S. policy played in determining Putin’s decision, it did not force his hand. Critics of NATO expansion would be wise to stipulate this point, since doing otherwise only renders their causal analysis easier to stigmatize.
More on ukraine
- U.S. Tanks Are on Their Way to Fight Russians in Ukraine
- Ukraine’s Latest Arms Haul: Thanks But No Tanks
- Ian Bremmer on How Putin, Xi, and Elon Musk Are Alike