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The Dangerous Desire To Take Sides In Other Nations’ Conflicts

Peggy Noonan asks some odd questions:

Europe and America can do little beyond considering, threatening and imposing economic and political sanctions against the Ukrainian government. But it’s all very high stakes and carries big implications for the future. So shouldn’t we be making it clear where we as a nation stand? Shouldn’t we make clear where our sympathies are? [bold mine-DL]

These strike me as odd questions because they seem to be beside the point. If “making it clear” where we stand is all that we are really doing, we are doing this solely to satisfy our own need to appear to take an interest in someone else’s conflict. I assume that Americans deplore the sort of government brutality that has been on display in Ukraine this week, and they also deplore the violent protest actions that have happened there. In this case, as in many conflicts around the world, “where we as a nation stand” is on neither side because most of us don’t really agree with either side. We aren’t obliged to take sides, and unless the U.S. could realistically help reduce tensions and prevent the conflict from getting worse it isn’t even clear why our government should be actively involved. Noonan wants to know which side we are on and thinks that America is being ill-served by not making this clear enough, but her assumption that the U.S. has to pick a side in foreign conflicts is an ongoing threat to drag the U.S. into virtually every quarrel in the world. On the one hand, this seems like futile posturing to make ourselves feel better than we have declared for a particular side, and on the other it is potentially harmful in that it could create the false impression that the U.S. is in a position to offer more than rhetorical encouragement.

The questions are redundant for another reason. It is blindingly obvious that Americans generally support the rule of law, representative government, the rights to peaceably assemble, speak freely, and protest one’s government, and the principle that political legitimacy comes from the consent of the governed. That doesn’t mean that they are required to cheer on one side in an increasingly bitter and violent internal conflict in another country. Americans are not required to declare support for specific political movements in other countries to affirm principles that we have cherished for centuries, especially if a significant fraction of one of these movements values few or none of these things. We don’t need to endorse a protest movement in another country to “remember who we are,” and no one is likely to forget what we believe in if we choose not to wade into the middle of a foreign conflict that Americans don’t really understand in the first place. This has much more to do with an obsession to be “a nation with meaning” than it does with the pursuit of wisdom, prudence, or justice.

Noonan continues:

Just because it doesn’t seem there’s much you can do doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot you can say.

But that’s just wrong. Having a lot to say when there is no chance that it will be backed up by anything meaningful is just the sort of reckless loose talk that helps mislead people and gets even more people killed. If there isn’t much that the U.S. can do, a lot of talk will be perceived as the empty rhetoric that it is. It is at best useless, and at worst potentially harmful if it can be exploited by the other side of the conflict for propaganda purposes or used as a pretext for an even harsher crackdown.

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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