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Realism and Honor

As usual, Jonah Goldberg doesn’t know what he’s talking about:

“The mistake of the ‘realists’ is not their interest in the struggle for power but their deliberate neglect of everything else, especially the non-scientific, contingent, very human feelings and beliefs that most powerfully move people,” Donald Kagan writes in “Honor Among Nations: Intangible Interests and Foreign Policy.”

The neglect of such considerations can have enormous costs (as can too much consideration; see World War, First). The Ukrainians sent troops to fight with us in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, in their moment of need, all they want from us are weapons to fend off the Russians. Our refusal is not merely dishonorable in some poetic sense; it is dangerous because it sends the signal that we are not a reliable friend.

Goldberg is wrong on several points. First, he still doesn’t understand realists. Realists are among the last people in the world to underrate and underestimate the importance of nationalism, ideology, and religion in human affairs. Most realists have understood very well the role that nationalism plays in shaping the behavior of governments, which is why they tend to be wary of unnecessarily provoking and insulting other nations with aggressive policies. It wasn’t realists that made blithe and stupid assumptions about how invading and occupying U.S. forces would be greeted as liberators in Iraq. It was also Kennan’s appreciation of the importance of anti-Russian nationalism in eastern Europe that supported his view that those nations would be “indigestible” for the Soviet Union. His understanding of nationalism that allowed him to recognize the differences and conflicting interests between communist states instead of assuming them all to be part of a monolithic global communist threat. Realists also know that nationalism can be horribly destructive and can blind people to the dangers of military action, and therefore tend to be very critical of our own government when it whips up such sentiments. Realists take such things very seriously in part because they also know that they can lead people to do very stupid and self-destructive things. Then again, there is nothing really honorable in short-sighted, overly militarized responses to foreign events.

It’s true that Ukraine send some soldiers to Iraq and Afghanistan. That was done partly as an attempt to demonstrate their suitability to join NATO, and that was the result of foolish efforts on the part of the last administration to encourage Ukraine’s NATO aspirations. The U.S. was wrong to encourage Ukraine in this way, and it clearly wasn’t doing the country any favors by making Russia think that NATO membership was ever a real possibility. Once again, it wasn’t realists that were blind to the dangers of expanding the alliance deeper into the former Soviet Union. On the contrary, most realists were opposed to each new round of NATO expansion, and were very much against considering Ukraine for membership because Ukraine would be a liability and because of the negative reaction the attempt would elicit from Russia. Along the same lines, sending Ukraine weapons now wouldn’t be doing the country any favors, either, since that would just provoke a more destructive Russian response. It isn’t dishonorable to refuse to set up another country for an even worse and more costly defeat, and it would be shameful to encourage another country to fight a war that it can’t win simply so that we can feel better about ourselves, which is what a lot of Goldberg’s honor talk amounts to in this argument. The “credibility” argument here is wrong as usual, but the more important point is that sending weapons to Ukraine wouldn’t prove that the U.S. is a “reliable friend.” It would set up Ukraine for an even bigger disaster and expose it to far worse consequences than it already faces, and there wouldn’t be anything honorable about that.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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