The Russian aggression against Ukraine is unfolding quickly, for now culminating with Russian tanks rolling in Ukraine’s eastern regions. The West is poised to respond with a set of painful sanctions. After long hesitation, Germany finally forced herself to halt the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project. At the same time, however, the Olaf Scholz government, unlike the United States and others, not only rejects providing defensive weapons to Ukraine but is actively blocking her NATO ally Estonia from doing so. Crucially, one defense of Berlin’s “no” to defensive weapons is a moral one that flows from Germany’s historic guilt.
Many readers will probably remember the 2003 hit “Where is the Love?” by the Black Eyed Peas. That song, written in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, grappled with the question of why there is so much hate in the world. Enumerating a comprehensive list of injustices, the band repeatedly asks where is the love that could lead to a better world. Why, the reader may ask, do I bring up the Black Eyed Peas in an article about the ongoing Russian threat to Ukraine? What has the delivery of weapons to do with love? What can it tell us about the German position? Let me explain.
In an excellent recent commentary, Marcel Dirsus explained the political reasons behind Germany’s position. However, the morality of saying “no” to defensive weapons for Ukraine as such is also worth exploring, especially because the Scholz government has partly argued in moral terms. I will do so by bringing to bear the just war tradition, the moral framework that for centuries has informed the debate about the rights and wrongs of war. In particular, I will argue that Germany does not love her neighbor when she rejects Kyiv’s plea for defensive weapons.
The Just War Tradition: War to Help One’s Neighbor
In the just war tradition, the writings of Saint Augustine of Hippo (354–430) have pride of place. Augustine’s thinking on just war, partly a response to the challenge the warring Roman Empire posed to the Christian conscience, attempted to reconcile Jesus’s teaching on nonviolence with the Decalogue’s demand of love of neighbor. The church father rejected individual self-defense, as it would be tinged with illicit self-love. At the same time, however, according to the just war scholar Paul Ramsey, Augustine justified Christian soldiering if the participation in war aimed at protecting one’s neighbors. In fact, in such cases there would even be a moral obligation to help. In other words, Augustine linked just war to the virtue of Christian love, or charity. As a result, in the words of Oliver O’Donovan, the Christian just war idea expressed “in its sharpest and most paradoxical form the thought that love can sometimes smite, and even slay.”
Applying this early just war idea to the contemporary situation in Ukraine, the picture seems clear. If it can be an act of love to “smite” and “slay” to help a neighbor who is facing an unjust aggression, so would be the delivery of defensive weapons. In any case, even if such support failed to deter Russia, as it apparently does, it would be a critical sign of solidarity, an act of love. The just war argument for defensive weapons does not contradict the framework’s ultimate goal of peace. Just war thinkers are by no means “sorry comforters” of war, as Immanuel Kant famously condemned them. To the contrary, whilst the just war tradition holds that particular wars can be morally justifiable, the condition of war always constitutes an evil because any war includes at least one side that is fighting an unjust war.
Germany and Love of Neighbor: The Kurdish Precedent
In this light, the German “no” to defensive weapons for Ukraine seems morally wrong. “Where is the love?” I dare to ask. Importantly, the just war argument of love of neighbor, of helping the innocent who is facing unjust aggression, was put forward in secularized form by Angela Merkel’s government in defense of Germany’s decision to supply weapons to the Kurds in 2014. At the time, the government decided to send rifles, machine guns, grenades, anti-tank systems, and armored vehicles in support of the Kurds who were fighting ISIS in Iraq. Justifying her coalition government’s decision, which had the consent of Olaf Scholz’s Social Democratic Party (SPD), the chancellor said before the Bundestag:
What about the concrete risks that emanate from ISIS if we do deliver no weapons and no ammunition now? Can we really wait and hope that others take on this acute danger? No. That does not correspond with our understanding of responsibility in this situation. The immense suffering of many people is crying out to the heavens, and our own security interests are threatened.
Let me also suggest that the Merkel government’s 2014 decision proves wrong the claims of the current government that it has been a sacrosanct German policy not to deliver weapons into an active conflict zone.
In the chorus of “Where is the Love?” the Black Eyed Peas ask:
People killin’, people dyin’
Children hurtin’, hear them cryin’
Can you practice what you preach?
And would you turn the other cheek?
In these four lines, although they probably had a different purpose in mind, the band captures a core element of Augustine’s just war. Should state leaders look the other way when another state is facing an unjust aggressor? Augustine’s answer and that of the just war tradition is clear: neighborly love asks us to help the innocent. Germany answered that call eight years ago. It should do so again before it is too late.