Tani Burton has written a featured post, “World War III might be worth having,” lamenting what he sees as the inaction and impotence of the West, and particularly the United States and NATO, in the face of Russia’s unlawful and brutal aggression against Ukraine. He laments that “precepts like, ‘do not stand idly by your brother’s blood’ have been supplanted by concerns about what Putin might do next, or higher gasoline prices. Or World War III. Or something.”
More than two thousand years ago, Greek philosophers were thinking about issues that are relevant today. Plato’s most famous dialogue, the Republic, begins with a discussion in which Socrates debunks the idea that “justice” requires that a person always tell the truth and always pay back what he or she has received from anyone else. Socrates says: “I mean, for example …, if one took over weapons from a friend who was in his right mind and then the lender should go mad and demand them back, that we ought not to return them in that case and that he who did so return them would not be acting justly—nor yet would he who chose to speak nothing but the truth to one who was in that state.” (Bk. I, 331c.) Socrates’ audience agrees, and the dialogue then goes on to consider other definitions or conceptions of justice.
Mr. Burton thinks that worries about “what Putin might do next” should not outweigh the urgent need to do everything possible to end Putin’s horrific, ongoing assault against innocent civilians in Ukraine. He is confident that NATO’s intervention would end the war. He writes: “I cannot give an accurate figure as to how long it would take NATO to end the war, but I am sure that the actual number of hours or [d]ays is a finite number.”
But Socrates believed that, if you’re dealing with someone who might be irrational or mad, that person’s mental state should be a highly relevant factor in deciding how to react to that person’s actions. Indeed, it is so relevant that, when dealing with a madman, one might be justified in doing the exact opposite—for example, refusing to return borrowed weapons—of what one would otherwise be obligated to do.
So, as between Socrates and Mr. Burton, who is offering wiser counsel? I say Socrates, and here’s why.
Putin is currently in control of an enormous arsenal of nuclear weapons. That is an unfortunate, frightening fact, but it is a fact nevertheless. Of course, it won’t be a fact forever: either the natural course of human mortality or some other intervening circumstance will someday end Putin’s reign. For today, however, he controls those weapons. If even a small number of those weapons were unleashed, and even if the targets were exclusively in Ukraine, it is likely that total civilian and military casualties would be numbered in the hundreds of thousands or even millions.
There is, moreover, some evidence that Putin has lost the ability to think rationally. The very fact that, at the first sign of effective resistance from Ukrainians he announced that he was putting his nuclear arsenal on high alert status, indicates that he may be drifting towards irrationality. There certainly was no rational justification for such a step on Putin’s part; Ukraine has no nuclear weapons and presents no existential threat to Russia. The situation is quite the reverse.
One might argue that Putin’s moves–including putting his nuclear weapons on high alert–have been entirely rational, because they have succeeded in forestalling any direct, boots-on-the-ground military intervention by the West. That may be so. But, here’s the rub: if Putin thinks that the threat of nuclear retaliation is a good way to dissuade the West from intervening, he might similarly think that the actual use of nuclear weapons is a good way to prevent the West from prevailing.
Mr. Burton assumes that NATO could defeat Russia after a struggle that would be over in a finite period of time. Would Putin permit himself to be defeated in that finite period of time, without first having used literally every resource at his disposal to avoid defeat? One resource currently at his disposal is nuclear weapons; would he permit himself to be defeated without using them? Mr. Burton apparently believes it is not worthwhile to be concerned that Putin might do “something” in response to Western intervention. I think we should be very concerned about what that “something” might be.
Although Mr. Burton does not mention this, I assume it is true that Putin cannot by himself launch nuclear weapons against an enemy. That is, he would need to rely on his military establishment to obey his orders to launch. It is possible, I suppose, that that establishment might refuse to obey such patently irrational and unlawful orders. But it is also possible that the orders would be obeyed. We have no reliable way of knowing which outcome would emerge.
Finally, it is simply not true to say that the West has been standing “idly by” while Putin attacks. It is true that the West has not directly intervened, but countries around the world have taken strenuous action to try to deter Russia’s assault. NATO countries, including the U.S., have provided and continue to provide lethal defensive weapons to Ukraine, and those weapons have no doubt contributed in some measure to Ukraine’s stiff resistance. Certainly, as long as Ukraine is being attacked, the U.S. and NATO ought to intensify their efforts to assist. But should they directly enter into combat against Russia (as, for example, a “no-fly zone” would entail)? As long as Russia’s weapons of mass destruction are under Putin’s control, I think the answer must be “no”.