Much has been written about the imperial designs of both Russia and China. Intending to make a forceful statement to the world, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping utilized the timing of the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympic Games to announce their opposition to any NATO expansion, while asserting that Taiwan belongs to China. Having conducted joint military exercises as recently as the summer of 2021, they declared that their unity had “no limits” and contained no “forbidden” areas of cooperation. It is surely the case that, based on their global intentions, what they share in common exceeds any ideological differences they might have. Tellingly, China is Russia’s biggest trade partner.
Although Chinese imperial designs have been economic as well as military, both regimes have sought to impose their will around the globe through a military presence. For this reason, political and moral realism require us to acknowledge that neither Ukraine nor Taiwan serves as a “distraction” from other more pressing geopolitical realities. The present and future realities of both press upon the free world, and both require a measured and forceful response by democratic nations.
It is telling that Putin has publicly lamented the collapse of the Soviet empire, with untold numbers of its own people having been murdered, imprisoned, tortured, and sent off to the Gulag by reasons of ideological non-conformity and conscience. French historian Stéphane Courtois estimates the number of deaths due to communist ideology in the twentieth century to be in the 100 million range, while military historian Robert Conquest places the number in the vicinity of 170 million. By any reckoning, the numbers simply boggle the mind. China, too, has been relentless in its persecution of those who challenge its ideology of the state. We really do not know how many millions of Chinese—and not only the million-plus Uyghurs who have been persecuted, killed, or placed in internment camps in recent years—have been murdered or imprisoned for similar reasons. The question confronting the free world is whether or not the free world really cares.
The absurdity of the “new world disorder” is well illustrated by the fact that China currently chairs the United Nations’ Conference on Disarmament, a 65-member forum that the international community established to negotiate arms control and disarmament agreements. Meanwhile, with no resistance, China conducts its own build-up of armament. North Korea, which abandoned the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty roughly two decades ago and just conducted its seventh missile test of the year, will occupy the Conference chair in May. In the words of the UN Watch, a Geneva-based human rights organization, having nations such as North Korea and China preside over global nuclear weapons disarmament is like putting a serial rapist in charge of a women’s shelter.
Since the Soviet collapse three decades ago, Putin has been determined to reverse Russia’s lost fortunes due to the Soviet breakup. As with China and Taiwan, Russia is committed to “absorbing” Ukraine, as the tortured history of the two nations indicates—a history that we might be tempted to forget. Millions of Ukrainians, it will be remembered, starved to death due to an “artificial” famine created in the 1930s by Stalin, while thousands of Ukrainian Catholic priests were persecuted, killed, or sent off to the Gulag.
After observing few consequences for having invaded Georgia, Putin attacked Ukraine in 2014—a “hybrid” war, which in the eyes of some has never ended but continued by means of cyber-threats, fake bomb threats, economic blackmail, and internal destabilization and manipulation. The 1994 Budapest Memorandum—which Russia, the US, and Great Britain signed and which guaranteed the territorial integrity of Ukraine—alas means nothing today. And where internal criticism of Putin emerges—witness, for example, the fortunes of one of Putin’s chief critics at home, Alexei Navalny—those voices are brutally silenced. Navalny, as it is, has been falsely charged with embezzling millions, poisoned, imprisoned, and (in prison) subjected recently to bogus trials.
As announced at the beginning of the Winter Olympics, Putin and Xi are in league with one another. Each respectively will assess the response by the US and its allies to Ukraine and Taiwan. Make no mistake. Together, the two regimes pose not a regional but a global threat. Trouble indeed lies ahead, and the West—inclusive of the US—is clueless and without a moral backbone. The world’s dictators, as someone has observed, will not wait until the next US election to take their next sovereign and unimpeded steps.
The present need is to deter. This is why a “cold war” and a “just war” response is necessary. Strength must be opposed by strength—a deterrent strength and threat. Only true strength, which begins with moral fortitude and aims at protecting the innocent, can deter the wicked, the tyrannical, and the despotic. The concepts of law, security, “civil society,” and the dignity of the human person do not fall out of the sky; in social-political terms, they are hard-won, and they often emerge as a result of conflict with totalitarian tendencies among the nations. While it is not incumbent on the US to police the world or get involved in every international crisis, it is a fact that to whom much has been given, much is required. For better or worse, this principle attends responsible government and geopolitical involvement; and for better or worse, it beckons the US to recognize and realize its strategic position in the community of nations. Nations and coalitions of nations have a moral obligation to defend the community of nations of which they are a part, just as—domestically viewed—law enforcement officials have the moral responsibility to protect their communities from rogue criminals and fortify those communities of which they are a part—at the local, regional, state, or national levels.
Deterring criminal activity is central to criminal justice broadly construed. Deterrence works because of human nature. Just as domestic law enforcement and a commitment to guard the common good serve to build and protect communities in the domestic context, foreign affairs as well require that fixed laws of justice be both affirmed and implemented. Democratic nations during the Cold War were, for the most part, willing to align themselves together to present a unified defense against communist tyranny. That same mindset is needed today. The just war tradition, a venerable 2,000-year-old conversation in the broader Western cultural tradition, is the sole repository of moral reflection that weighs not only whether to intervene for just purposes but also how to go about intervention. The essence of this moral tradition expresses itself in three moral conditions that inform (a) whether or not to intervene (ius ad bellum) and (b) two moral conditions that inform how to execute that intervention (ius in bello). (A third related consideration, ius post bellum, flows out of the former two, with decisive implications for our day.) The three ad bellum requirements, succinctly summed up by Thomas Aquinas, are the justness of the cause, legitimate representative authority, and right intention. None of these three stands independently; all three are interlocking.
The two chief in bello principles, discrimination (i.e., noncombatant immunity) and proportionality, remind us that justice—if it is truly just—is not fluid. Intervention is by nature a moral-prudential consideration; human response to the egregious can be both restrained and morally guided or unrestrained. The just war mindset, where faithfully implemented, is anchored in moral principle: all human action and response, even military action, can be guided by moral intent and restraint. It must be justified, and it must be discriminating as well as proportionate to the threat. (Whether or not this has actually been the experience of nations in conflict is immaterial to the present argument.) Coercive force, then, is a neutral commodity; it can be used for good or for evil.
Without a viable military system that can thwart social-political evil (which will always require the threat of coercive force), there is no deterrent to rogue superpowers. The present crisis of Ukraine and the coming crisis of Taiwan remind us of the need for geopolitical backbone on the part of free nations. President Joe Biden had it dead wrong when, in September, he declared at the United Nations that the US is “not seeking a new Cold War” with either Russia or China. “Cooperation” rather than “competition” was the declared goal. This, of course, is none other than the language of appeasement. The reason that both Russian and Chinese totalitarian regimes have waxed exceedingly bold is the very fact of the West’s weakness. We have no moral backbone. We have lost the ability to deter. Given the West’s underlying passivity, we are unwilling and unable to prevent either regime from imposing its will around the globe.
But as Gabriel Scheinmann has argued, not cooperation but competition is needed to thwart Russian and Chinese imperialist designs. The Cold War did not lead to military conflict; rather, it helped avert it. Moreover, the Cold War demonstrated this for decades. And whether or not it was acknowledged, often this willful resistance to tyranny was anchored in just war moral reasoning.
“Cooperation” with totalitarian regimes is sheer fantasy, while the oft-repeated “diplomatic path to avoid war” reflects sheer weakness. Hence, the silliness of US Vice President Harris, who stated over the weekend, “I can say with absolute certainty if Russia further invades Ukraine the United States, together with our allies and partners, will impose significant and unprecedented economic costs.” Does anyone in the world really believe that this sort of non-response to the totalitarian threat means anything? It only makes the world unsafe for the innocent by emboldening tyrants.
Putin has continually reminded the world that he will not allow Ukraine to join the NATO alliance. Why? And on what basis and authority? This demand alone, which he has repeated on multiple occasions, should reveal Russia’s intentions. Recall that, according to Putin and Xi, there are “no limits” and “no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation” between the two regimes. Just-war moral reasoning, in stark contrast, declares, “Yes, some things are forbidden; some things may not be tolerated.” In the end, to ignore the ambitions of these two totalitarian systems would be catastrophic on a massive scale. It would mean for millions of human beings the disappearance of basic human rights—chief among these is religious freedom—as well as imprisonment and torture, and the murder of untold numbers of individuals who dare to oppose tyranny.
Will those living in Western nations—and the US, in particular—respond or retreat in the face of the current geopolitical crises? More will be on the way. Can relatively free nations—and coalitions of nations—prevent Russian and Chinese imperial designs? Can democracy in our day thwart the totalitarian spirit? Only the moral resources and accumulated wisdom of the past can help us in the present hour of desperate need.