This week the editors discuss Alan Dowd’s suggestion for offering Putin an off-ramp, Mike Watson’s article about the value of America’s empire of nations, and Mark Tooley’s comparison of Christian realism with cynicism and idealism.

Rough Transcript

Mark Tooley: Hello, this is Mark Tooley, editor of Providence: A Journal of Christianity and American Foreign Policy with another episode of Marksism with fellow editors and fellow Mark’s, Marc LiVecche, Mark Melton, covering three pieces from Providence today. Firstly, from our contributor, Alan Dowd, suggesting an off ramp for Vladimir Putin to end the Ukraine war. Secondly, a piece by our other contributor, Mike Watson, on the American empire versus other empires, Thirdly, a piece by myself about Christian realism versus Christian cynicism/Christian idealism, but we’ll start with Alan Dowd suggesting an off ramp for Putin, suggesting that in a negotiation that the Crimea be ceded to Russia, it having only been added to the Ukraine in the 1950s, but that Ukraine retain the rest of its territory, that the Russian troops be withdrawn, that sanctions be ended, that the INF Treaty be revamped, and that the Ukraine would be brought into the European Community or European Union. Marc LiVecche, your thoughts on an off ramp for Vladimir Putin? Obviously, we would prefer that Putin be punished for his crimes, but as Alan Dowd points out, it’s unlikely that he will be so in the near term and that the more realistic goal is to try to end the war. Your thoughts?

Marc LiVecche: Yeah, unfortunately, those are my thoughts, right? I think what Alan Dowd does really well is he illustrates the fact that Christian realism is always going to be, or probably always going to be, given the realities of our world, an uncomfortable position to take. You’re probably never going to be completely satisfied. In that, he dovetails nicely with an article from one of our own contributors, Robert Nicholson, over at World magazine, which I recommend to people. Both of them touch on the idea that, you know, the only realistic, or likely realistic ways out of this are these sorts of compromises in which justice, or at least a fullness of justice, is not going to be done, and that the solutions are going to be generally unsatisfying but because of the conditions on the ground and the facts of Putin’s strength and power, despite the incompetence and the defeats that I think he’s suffering in Ukraine, despite all of that, we have to compromise and they’re going to be frustrating and they’re going to be uncomfortable. I think Alan Dowd has a sensible set of them: Crimea does seem to be, first of all, not in the cards. Putin is never going to give it up, so that seems like an easy sell. Maintain the territory of the rest of the country, that seems about right. The off ramp is essential. Putin has to have a way – we discussed this the other night when Matthew Kroenig was speaking with us – and you know, maybe the only thing worse than a triumphant Putin is going to be a humiliated Putin. So how do you defeat him without humiliatingly defeating him, and by giving him a way to try to save some face? Allen Dowd has as good of a proposal as I’ve seen.

Mark Tooley: Of course, the question remains, is Putin even open to an off ramp? He would have to himself face the logic of his own defeat to come to that realization. He probably is a long ways off from that point right about now.

Marc LiVecche: Yeah, no, I think that’s absolutely right. That’s the trick, right, you’ve got to bring him close enough to fully acknowledging his failure, without pushing him into a humiliating acknowledgement of that failure.

Mark Tooley: Mark Melton, your thoughts?

Mark Melton: Oh, I was going to say I don’t think he’s anywhere close to looking for an off ramp. I think he thinks that he is going to still prosecute this war, the Russian way, with a massive army taking massive number of casualties, slowly grinding through territory. And, as I was telling someone earlier, I think it’s going to take months, possibly years before he starts thinking seriously about an off ramp. I think we can offer it to him, but while you can offer an open hand of negotiation, you need a fist in the other. So just because we are negotiating, it doesn’t mean you don’t have a fist in the other hand, doesn’t mean you de-escalate from what we’ve done. And so, as I know, earlier this week Putin had these offers that he was willing to consider. Honestly, I don’t think they were serious, like I think one was wanting the neutrality of Ukraine. I don’t think that he wants Ukraine to be neutral, I think he wants to neutralize Ukraine. And, because basically I think that would give Putin the ability to say no to all these potential rulers of Ukraine, because they’re all too pro-Ukrainian, too pro-EU, too pro-NATO, or whatever. I don’t think there’s going to be a possibility of a neutral Ukraine. I think he’s going to try take over the country and I just don’t see off ramps coming anytime soon.

Mark Tooley: Marc LiVecche, isn’t this the gray border land between just war teaching and Christian realism, where a very robust, even static version of just war teaching would say the aggressor must specifically be punished, whereas Christian realism would counsel that, given the pragmatics of the situation, that the aggressor has to be given an off ramp?

Marc LiVecche: Yeah, no, I think that that’s probably an elegant way to put it. I’ve argued numerous times that an implication of just war thinking is a decisive victory. Another way of saying that is that that’s a kind of ideal. And so, Christian realism is always going to identify the ideal and then identify the context, and if that ideal cannot be applied to the context, it’s going to try it’s best to approximate it as much as possible. So yeah, I think that’s exactly right, it’s not to say they’re incompatible, I think you need the one in order to have the other. The realist has to understand what the ideal is and then attempt to achieve it, given the context. And so, I think you’re right, I think that’s exactly right.

Mark Tooley: Shifting to another topic, but one that is not disconnected from Ukraine war, Mike Watson’s article on empire, specifically American empire in contrast to other empires, such as the empire that Putin would like to maintain and expand. But Watson makes the point that the American empire is one of nations who voluntarily align with the United States motivated by self-interest, militarily, geopolitically, economically, obviously NATO, but many other bilateral relationships that the United States has sustained through its vast economic resources and the benefits of trade with the United States, as opposed to other empires, classically put together by conquest and maintained by occupation or intimidation. The old Warsaw Pact was part of the old Soviet empire. Obviously, Putin would like to pull the Ukraine back into the historic Russian empire. your thoughts, Marc LiVecche?

Marc LiVecche: I like the article. I think he couches it up nicely. You know, I’ve said before, I think, when one reflects on what American leadership looks like in the world, I think a model is that America, speaking ideally, should be a hegemon. Like, I’m perfectly satisfied and comfortable with the idea of American leadership in the world, even dominant leadership, because American leadership in the world, more often than not, when it’s been hegemonic, it’s been a benevolent hegemon that’s been willing to step back and let other nations and other partnerships and allies be self-determining and not to fight zero sum games. I think at our best, we’ve come closest to demonstrating not domination over other nations, but exercising a kind of dominion which is, as we’ve argued in our pages, a kind of providential care over creation, in this case it’s a kind of stewardship over the liberal international order. A benevolent hegemon can do that. A bureaucratic hegemon, like the European Union, or an autocratic hegemon, like the Soviet empire and the now new Russian aspirations, cannot, and so I think it’s an argument for American leadership.

Mark Tooley: And then, finally, starting with you, Mark Melton, my piece contrasting Christian realism with Christian cynicism and Christian idealism. I make the point that Christian cynicism often is more like a secular realism in that it is somewhat disdainful of ideals and international morality, tends to be more isolationist and more narrowly focused on a particular view of American interest, and currently those who are Christian cynics seem to be very uncomfortable with helping Ukraine and prefer to blame America’s foreign policy elites for supposedly somehow provoking Russia’s aggression, in contrast with Christian idealists, some of whom are simply pacifists and want to oppose violence, without naming or specifically opposing aggressors with force. And then finally, Christian realism, which aspires to ideals, but deals with the pragmatic reality and seeks to achieve the maximum good that’s available. And to my perspective, Christian realism affirms material aid for Ukrainians and rhetorical support, certainly peripheral support, but not to support a military engagement directly with Russia, as some Christian idealists are advocating, in that Christian idealism wants justice in the world and wants it sooner rather than later, and obviously all of decent human opinion are horrified by Russian atrocities in Ukraine, and so why shouldn’t the relatively more decent forces in the world intervene to stop and destroy the Russians? I think Christian realism argues against such an intervention and that Christian realism would counsel patience. Let’s count on the Ukrainians’ resolve and courage to stop the Russians and hope that the Russians are slowed and defeated by time and attrition as we continue to do what we can to strengthen Ukraine without injecting our own forces so Melton, your thoughts.

Mark Melton: Yeah well, kind of the way you’re talking there, I’m reminded, because I’ve been doing this project of reading through the old Christianity and Crisis articles from the beginning of the Cold War, and you know some of the stuff there obviously correlates to what you’re saying. One of the things we ran I think last week, we were talking about firmness with Russia, and the idea was there was a group who wanted to have, like, open hands in peace with Russia, and Russia wasn’t interested, and the Christian realists were kind of realizing this. And so, there is this idea of like needing to be firm and patient, not hysterical. I think there were like four different points that reading that article and others that he kind of latches on to. That being said, I actually disagree with some of what he meant by hysterical, because I think what he was meaning was basically the Republicans’ stronger firmness than what he was willing to do, and I think that’s what actually helped end the Cold War. But that being said, I think one important aspect with this is creativity. So creativity, trying to come up with creative solutions for these problems in the real world as it is, and you know, in 1947, you’re about to be to the point where the people are going to debate the Marshall Plan and so we’ll have Christianity and Crisis articles later this year, maybe early next year around the 75th anniversary of them, where they’re talking about implementing the Marshall Plan as a creative solution to the Cold War problem. And I think that’s what Ukraine will require. It’s creative solutions, and I think within that, you have to – when you describe like Christian idealism and Christian cynicism, they sound to me, the way you described them, as too rigid – and I think in Christian realism, there is a bit of flexibility, because originally, 1945-46, Christian realists are, I think way too “open hands,” you know, offering too many concessions to the Soviet Union. And as they realize, facts on the ground that’s not going to work, they shift towards a firmer position, and so I think that’s another aspect that should be remembered, is this flexibility in the face of facts on the ground.

Mark Tooley: I should point out that in my article I cited Reinhold Niebuhr in terms of not advocating for U.S. war with the Axis Powers until the U.S. was actually attacked. Someone online corrected me and cited a 1940 article by Niebuhr saying that Niebuhr had advocated a US intervention in 1940, but the only quote I can find online or in a book from Niebuhr in 1940 is maximum support for the Allies without America itself joining the war, which would be my attitude towards the Ukraine. But your thoughts, Marc LiVecche?

Marc LiVecche: Yeah, it’s complex, right? Melton used the word “rigid” to describe the cynics and the idealists, I would probably use the word “absolutist,” it does the same work. You know, the flexibility of Christian realism is essential. It’s interesting to me, reading the way you cashed out, which I appreciate, it occurs to me that it’s easier to craft ahead of time a Christian idealist foreign policy or Christian cynic foreign policy, easier to do that than to craft ahead of time explicit details of a Christian realist perspective, because Christian realism is always going to be incredibly dependent on context. If you change the context a little bit, we might look like an idealist; if you change the context in another way, we might look like a cynic in certain circumstances. I’ve said this already a couple times, especially since the conflagration in Ukraine took off, but Christian realism reminds us that in this world, because of the conditions of history and of the human soul, there is continually, it seems, a conflict of “oughts.” So, the West in America ought to come to the aid of the Ukraine that seems to me, just absolute. The United States in the West ought to be careful not to allow the heavens to fall, which could happen if we act irrationally, if we act in an idealistic way, if we try to pursue justice to the nth degree that heavens could fall. And so, in one sense, this betrays Christian idealists in that in their absolutism, their vision is too narrow because the ideal is true. We ought, as they would say, to intervene, we ought to come to the aid of the Ukrainians, but the idealist also forgets that we ought not to let the heavens fall, that would be ideal, and so the Christian realist view has a capacious view of circumstances, it has to. It’s more nuanced, it’s more willing to embrace complexity, and for all those reasons, it disdains moral absolutism, for a kind of contextualization. It’s not relativism, it’s not subjectivism, it’s simply saying that the way the rules work in the real world is complex. It’s always been the case, that’s the premise of the just war tradition, that’s the premise of Christian realism. You know, we could go back and forth on some of the details. I probably disagree in one sense with the way you enumerated the conditions on the ground, where you list, first, we don’t have any vital interest there, which is absolutely true. That’s unfortunate but true, Ukraine is important to us but it’s not vitally important to us. I’m not sure that interest is the number one concern because if you change the circumstances, even though there’s not a vital interest there, we might say, “fine, the circumstances are different.” And here, I think you and I probably disagree a bit as well, if he didn’t have nukes, the circumstances would be so decisively different that I might say, at this point, not knowing what that world looks like where Russia doesn’t have a nuke and we still have it, I might say “no, we can directly intervene, because the cost will be so low that we ought to do this in order to protect the innocent and requite injustices and to punish evil.” That’s me speaking without knowing what that future context would look like, we’d still have to keep an eye on China, if Europe could handle its own problem, we would still promote that. But circumstances matter, the Christian realist knows this. And I think that’s the strength of your article is it illuminates what that looks like, and it seems like it’s always going to be dissatisfying.

Mark Tooley: Dissatisfaction, but always looking for opportunity and remaining hopeful, that’s the key to Christian realism. Thank you, Marc LiVecche, Mark Melton, for this latest episode of Marksism. Our prayers and solidarity remain with the people of the Ukraine, and we hope for better news next week. Until then. Bye-bye!