A fatal flaw in US foreign policy is costing lives in Ukraine and beyond

Washington and its western allies need to realise the deadly foolishness of principled maximalism

Relatives mourn next to the coffin of Ukrainian serviceman Andrii Vorobiov at the Kryvyi Rih cemetery in eastern Ukraine on Monday. AP Photo
Powered by automated translation

More and more analysts are coming to the conclusion that neither Ukraine nor Russia can win the current war outright, and there are reports that privately the Biden administration is considering urging Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to accept some kind of ceasefire later this year. This would not mean accepting the permanent annexation of land under Russian occupation, nor a formal peace treaty, but would end the fighting until a more lasting resolution can be found.

This view was expounded recently in a widely read essay in Foreign Affairs magazine by Richard Haass, president of the US Council on Foreign Relations, and Charles Kupchan, professor of international affairs at Georgetown University.

“Peace in Ukraine cannot be held hostage to war aims that, however morally justified, are likely unattainable,” they wrote. “At the same time, the West should not reward Russian aggression by compelling Ukraine to permanently accept the loss of territory by force. Ending the war while deferring the ultimate disposition of land still under Russian occupation is the solution.”

This is all well and good, but it must be pointed out that a similar form of truce may have been available only a month into the conflict when the then Israeli prime minister, Naftali Bennett, attempted to mediate between the two sides. In an interview this February, Mr Bennett said that Mr Zelenskyy had agreed that his country would not join Nato, and Russian President Vladimir Putin said he would drop his goals of “demilitarisation” and “denazification” for Ukraine. The two sides were moving towards a possible ceasefire, Mr Bennett said, with “17 or 18” drafts of a peace deal being written up, but then “at some point the West decided to crush Putin rather than to negotiate”.

US President Joe Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in front of St Michael’s Golden-Domed Cathedral in Kyiv in February. AFP
It is not that I don’t understand the appeal of principle. But it has to be tempered by realism

Quite apart from the rather cynical willingness of bellicose western leaders to fight to the last Ukrainian in order to weaken Russia, this means that the catastrophic death and destruction of the last year could possibly have been avoided. If the US and its allies end up urging Kyiv to accept a ceasefire in the coming months, they will have to justify why they did the opposite in March 2022.

Most of them pushed for maximalist, idealist aims, in the belief that the Ukrainians might be able to prevail and to punish Mr Putin. Now, they might say, we see the limits of what is achievable, hence the ceasefire proposal. But it is not the hawks in Washington and London who have had to pay the price of the maximalism they pushed on Mr Zelenskyy. And for what, if the outcome is a deal similar to that negotiated by Mr Bennett more than a year ago?

Similarly, one of the chief reasons for the longevity of the Syrian civil war was the insistence by many countries that President Bashar Al Assad had to go. As far as 10 years ago, some of us were arguing that, short of the kind of massive intervention that the US and UK would not contemplate, Mr Al Assad was an immovable object and thus had to be part of a solution. Maximalists, however, wouldn’t hear of it.

Today, Syria under Mr Al Assad is returning to the fold regionally and may be on the brink of being readmitted to the Arab League. Think of all the lives that could have been saved, and the greater chance there would have been of containing the rise of the monstrous ISIS, if a compromise that included Mr Al Assad had been reached years ago.

A different example, of idealist maximalism not prolonging but possibly causing a conflict, concerns Taiwan. For decades a compromise, whereby nearly every country in the world recognised or acknowledged some form of the “One China” formula, kept the peace. Now the US is busily blowing up that compromise in favour of an aim – moving towards ever more de facto independence that hovers on the brink of official recognition – that it isn't even clear the Taiwanese themselves want, as polls show they realise the status quo has worked well for them. We risk a third world war for this totally unnecessary provocation.

Druze men carry Syrian flags and a picture of President Bashar Al Assad during a rally marking Syria's Independence Day, in the Druze village of Majdal Shams last week. AP Photo

It is not that I don’t understand the appeal of principle. But it has to be tempered by realism. The realist school of international relations is sometimes accused of being amoral; and it may be that some advocates of realism, who see a world in which states will always act in their naked self-interest, are genuinely uninterested in the abstract “rightness” or “wrongness” of policy. I prefer to interpret realism through the prism of what moral philosophers call consequentialism: actions are judged not by the intentions of the actors, but by the consequences of those actions.

This is a more radical distinction than it may appear. We are so used to excusing mistakes or gaffes in personal interactions by saying “their hearts were in the right place” that this forgiving attitude sometimes leaches into how we view leaders acting on the international stage. Consequentialism allows no such charity.

No one doubts that then US president George W Bush and then UK prime minister Tony Blair had at least some good intentions when it came to Iraq, for instance, and likewise Mr Blair’s successor, David Cameron, and then French president Nicolas Sarkozy with Libya. They weren’t wrong that Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi were brutal dictators who had terrorised their own populations. But the consequences of their intentions tore the two countries apart. And that is what counts.

So, to return to both Ukraine and Syria: if, out of lofty principle, you prolong a conflict, with all the devastation that causes, and end up settling for a compromise that could have been reached years before, then I say: J'accuse. These idealistic maximalists may tell themselves that their consciences are clean – but they have blood on their hands.

Published: April 25, 2023, 2:00 PM