Most mornings I hear Joe Scarborough, on his MSNBC show Morning Joeconfirms the non-interventionist stance that insists if NATO military forces, on foot or by air, were to get involved in fending off the criminal and barbarically murderous and inhumane Russian invasion, they would trigger World War III.
Scarborough is not alone. I hear it a lot in the media.
The mantra, rarely accompanied by explanation or defense, begs some questions worth exploring. For example, how should we characterize this savage invasion? Is it really an isolated skirmish and not an act of war against the democratic world, even if only in its early stages? And what would this World War III look like? Who would be involved?
Before diving into these questions and reflecting on the political wisdom and efficacy of a multi-national military intervention to aid and assist Ukrainian soldiers, let’s re-affirm some generally agreed upon facts about this situation.
First, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its assaults upon civilians and relentless bombing of cities are absolutely unprovoked and without justification. Putin simply decided he wanted the land out of a nostalgia to restore the Soviet empire and refused to recognize the sovereignty of Ukraine as an independent nation.
Second, the invasion is not just thuggish, it is thoroughly criminal in the technical terms of international law. The Russian military are shooting civilians, relentlessly shelling residential sites, cutting off access to electricity, water, and food for civilians, leading to the deaths of civilians by starvation, dehydration, and exposure, in addition to being killed by bullets and missiles.
Would the NATO nations really not have justification to intervene, as Ukraine has requested, and play the role of policing the globe in the name of democracy and humanitarianism?
Pundits and politicians express this fear of triggering World War III, but we also have to ask what the world order will look like if Putin occupies Ukraine and even manages to some extent to subdue or control it.
Simply watching Russian violently invader Ukraine creates and certainly legitimates a world order featuring constant war and brutality in which larger nations, by virtue of force and whim, can simply exert their military might and lay claim to the territories of sovereign nations, especially if those nations are not part of larger alliances by prior agreements such as the North Atlantic Treaty.
I’m not sure what the pundits mean by World War III. It seems to me, though, that if a coalition of many NATO nations intervened to nip Putin’s barbaric military campaign in the bud criminal and weaken his military capacity, democratic nations on the globe might just be taking a big step to stop World War III, Or at least to forestall the development of a world order characterized by constant and effectively legitimated war in which sovereignty, especially democratic sovereignty, had no authority or standing.
Let me be clear about the point I’m making. I’m not just saying fighting alongside Ukrainian soldiers is the moral thing to do. I’m saying it’s the smart political move to defend democracy globally and domestically and to create a modicum of geopolitical stability. And let me also be clear that I’m not talking about the United States, with its own tainted history of doing damage around the globe in the name of “democracy,” deciding on its own to police the world. I’m talking about a coalition of democratic nations standing up for the right of other sovereign nations to be self-determining.
I stress this point in response to a recent CNN opinion piece by Marcus Mabry titled “Why the Cavalry Isn’t Coming to Ukraine’s Side” in which he explained, and basically defended, the position of realpolitik behind Biden’s response to the invasion.
Millions around the world watch, outraged, and ask, “Are we just going to let this happen? Is the world allowing a large, powerful country to swallow up a smaller, weaker one?” And so many people can’t believe the world is allowing it to happen. But we are. And we usually have.
In fact, it has long been considered “sound” foreign policy. One of the central reasons offered by its defenders: Calculating which negative outcomes are undesirable yet not existential for the outside world (Ukraine potentially falling to Russia) and which are worth going to war over (a NATO member being attacked) has kept much worse outcomes from occurring, like World War III.
Here we see again the implication that keeping our military out of Ukraine is somehow a way of preventing World War III.
And Mabry explains the political reasoning of realpolitik this way:
To put the current state of international affairs in the most terribly brutal realpolitik terms: Is Ukraine worth the possibility of involving the United States and Russia, two nuclear powers that could destroy human life on earth, in a shooting war? And are the risks to their citizens and the world worth keeping Putin out of Ukraine?
These questions do not consider the morality of allowing a smaller country to be swallowed by a larger one, or a democratic one to be crushed by an authoritarian one. But that is the whole point of realpolitik.
Well, though, we have to take on Mabry and his application of realpolitik to the current situation. If Ukraine falls, is that not a threat to democracy and the geopolitical stability of democracy and sovereignty around the globe?
We can apply Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words here and recognize that an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
Realpolitik means recognizing that the attack on the Ukraine is an attack on the world, a threat to all of us.
Mabry writes that the resistance to the contemporary strategy of realpolitik is a result of the fact that we see its brutal consequences in our contemporary wired up world:
But we have never had to watch realpolitik unfold in real time on 24/7 social media in a world of ubiquitous camera phones. And it complicates matters, especially for world leaders, like Biden and Putin. It makes the cruelty of traditional power politics transparent and ubiquitous.
And, yes, as we all witness it, we recognize the threat to us and others—that if we allow Russians to inflict this savagery on the people of Ukraine, we are legitimating it—making it kind of a “legitimate political discourse”— which means it could be coming our way next and certainly spreading around the globe in a way that portends, if not a World War III, a world of constant war, of the constant undermining of democracy.
Tim Libretti is a professor of US literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.