Foreign policy is hard
This article caught my eye:
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., was rebuked by lawmakers from across the political spectrum after calling for the assassination of Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Is there a Brutus in Russia?” asked Graham via Twitter Thursday evening. “Is there a more successful Colonel Stauffenberg in the Russian military? The only way this ends is for somebody in Russia to take this guy out. You would be doing your country — and the world — a great service.”
I understand why governments traditionally refrain from trying to assassinate the leaders of enemy nations—they fear retaliation. Is that a good reason? I’ve never given the issue much thought. I suppose it’s what Tyler Cowen would call a “game theory problem”. Interestingly, Graham is not suggesting that the West try to assassinate Putin, rather he wants the Russian people to do so. (And then there is this. Ouch!!)
David Henderson recently did a post expressing concern about the way that war can hurt the innocent:
An old saying goes “Truth is the first casualty in war.” I’m not so sure. I think I’ve got a contender for the first casualty that’s either ahead of truth or tied with truth: rule of law. A basic rule of law principle is that governments don’t violate the rights of innocent people. But various governments around the world, including the U.S. government, seem to be relishing the chance to go after people in Russia who are thought to support Putin, even if they have violated no law.
My views on war are probably not all that different from David’s view, but I don’t get there using the concept of “innocence”. (After all, I’m a utilitarian.) For instance, I wouldn’t object to characterizing the Japanese-Americans who placed in concentration camps as “innocent”. But I’d say the same about 18-year old Japanese boys drafted into their army to fight the US. And what do we make of ordinary German citizens who voted for Hitler, or Russians who voted for Putin? How about those who did so enthusiastically, specifically supporting their militarist rhetoric? I think it’s possible to view them as not being completely “innocent”, and yet also not deserving of being killed just because they exercised poor judgment in the voting booth. I’ve exercised poor judgment in the voting booth. Overall, I view an 18-year old draftee that is ignorant of politics as being more innocent than a 40-year old mother of three who voted for Hitler. But that’s just me.
The US policy during wartime is to kill lots of young soldiers drafted into the enemy army, but we don’t generally try to kill the leaders who made the decision to murder thousands or even millions of people. And make no mistake; decisions such as the Japanese invasion of China and the Russian invasion of Ukraine clearly amount to mass murder. (Some US actions might also amount to mass murder, but the situations have generally been somewhat more ambiguous.)
So where does that leave me? My utilitarian framework leads me to reject “innocence” as a useful tool for making decisions in wartime. But war is so complex that I don’t know exactly what the correct (utilitarian) policy would be.
Criminal justice analogies only go so far. We can all agree that it’s wrong to take away someone’s freedom. But we also agree that if a person murders someone else, it is appropriate to take away their freedom, placing them in prison.
Similarly, we can all agree that one country should not invade and annex its peaceful neighbor. But if it does, how do we react? Put the enemy leader in prison? We cannot capture the foreign leader unless we win the war—which means killing lots of innocent people (with bombs) and economically hurting many other innocent people (with sanctions). Unfortunately, war is so complex that even if we could agree that utilitarianism is the right criterion for making foreign policy decisions, we have little ability to predict the results of our actions. So I have a great deal of sympathy for those who throw up their hands and advocate strict moral rules. Indeed, I’ve previously endorsed “rules utilitarian” approaches such as our Constitution’s Bill of Rights.
War is so evil that we should do almost everything possible to prevent it from occurring. This is why I’m such a strong supporter of NATO. A mutual defense pact encompassing most of the developed world, including the world’s most powerful military, is a very tough nut to crack. Deterring war is better than fighting it. We should do whatever we can to prevent war from occurring in the first place–and mutual defense pacts are one way of doing so. When war does break out, the victims won’t be the mass murderers; it will be the average people that suffer.
To summarize, I’d love to avoid punishing the innocent; I just don’t see how the good guys can win a war without doing so. At the same time, let’s not lose sight of the fact that people in enemy countries are just as human as we are. The people that died at Hiroshima back in 1945 were just as deserving of life as an equal number of Americans. Unfortunately, most people don’t look at things that way. They find it easier to demonize the “other”. Indeed, that’s a major reason why we have wars.
PS. Some people say, “I don’t care about Ukraine”. That reminds me of Trotsky’s remark:
You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.