How to do what's right without starting World War III
A conversation with historian and foreign-policy scholar Stephen Wertheim
How do we do the right thing in Ukraine without stumbling into World War III?
This, as much as anything, seems the question on many Americans’ minds — indeed, on many minds around the world.
Yesterday, watching Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky address the U.S. Congress, I couldn’t help but feel the tension ratcheting up between these two goals: beating back illegal Russian barbarism and avoiding the blowing up of the world.
In moments like this, those who favor war — who favor it invariably, even when there is no need for it — get a lot of airtime. I am interested in highlighting different, less-heard voices in The Ink. So I reached out to Stephen Wertheim, a brilliant foreign-policy scholar and an eloquent critic of American overreach in the world.
Stephen is a senior fellow in the American Statecraft Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is an historian by training, specializing in global grand strategy and America’s relations with the world. His 2020 book, “Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of U.S. Global Supremacy,” chronicled the unlikely American decision to become a global superpower and its consequences.
“We should not commit collective suicide”: a conversation with Stephen Wertheim
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky just addressed the U.S. Congress and the American people. Invoking the freedom cry of "I have a dream," he said, "I have a need." And his need is to clear the Ukrainian skies of Russian warplanes. He wants a no-fly zone guaranteed by Americans. Failing that, he wants more arms. A lot of Americans will be moved by his quest, and many will also be cautious of taking steps that put the United States on a war path. How do you think Americans can answer Ukraine's freedom cry without ambling into a catastrophic world war?
President Zelensky is fighting for the survival of his country and has rightly become an inspiration to many around the world. Because the people of Ukraine have mounted a heroic resistance to Russian aggression, Ukraine now has a very real chance to preserve its independence.
It's natural that Zelensky would like the United States and other powers to enter the war on Ukraine's side. But as Zelensky hinted at in his speech, the United States is very unlikely to enter the war directly by imposing a no-fly zone, which would require U.S. and NATO forces to shoot down Russian planes over Ukraine and in turn cause Russia to shoot down NATO aircraft, as Russia has the capability to do.
So the Biden administration should continue to arm Ukraine and support Ukraine in seeking a diplomatic solution, if one becomes available, while avoiding steps that would run a major risk not of ending the war but rather of expanding and escalating it.
As things stand, the United States has already taken actions that could prove quite costly to Americans. The truly severe and unprecedented sanctions on Russia may cause a global recession, fuel inflation, and make Americans poorer. And there remains a risk that Russia could retaliate, through cyber attacks, for example, just for the sanctions that the West has already imposed. Far from doing nothing to support Ukraine, the United States has taken costly actions that few would have predicted prior to Putin's full-scale invasion.
You have been an advocate of a less interventionist, less imperialistic America, especially in light of the United States’ failed military interventions in recent years. What, for you, is the line that separates a conflict overseas that is lamentable, condemnable, worthy of partial and supporting and surreptitious help, from a conflict that merits the whole-hog intervention of American power?
To launch an all-out war is an existential act. It means Americans will be killed and will kill others, often on a scale that cannot be well anticipated in advance. As President Biden has said, the United States should go to war only when the security of the United States is truly at stake. Now, security does not need to be defined narrowly, just in terms of stopping or responding to a direct attack: security also involves preserving our republican form of government and our ability to prosper.
There is always a legitimate debate to be had about what vital U.S. interests are and how they might be implicated in any concrete situation. But when the United States tries to do too much — to involve itself militarily in costly ways where the basic security of Americans is not at stake — it essentially tries to defy gravity. Once the downsides become apparent, Americans come to oppose the war and realize that, if only by virtue of causing casualties among service members, the war is actually making Americans less safe, in addition to the other harms it causes.
I think a lot of Americans are confused about distinctions being made between interventions America will and won’t do. Why is sending planes that Ukrainians would fly different from sending other kinds of arms? Is sending drones different from sending planes? What do you see as the line that separates help from direct American war-making?
So far, the Biden administration has sought to support Ukraine with virtually all measures short of those that would pose a major risk of bringing the United States and NATO directly into the war. It has also avoided sending equipment that Ukrainian forces lack the training or supporting infrastructure to use. For example, the United States nixed Poland's idea to send fighter jets to Germany that NATO forces were then to deliver to Ukraine — because transferring those plans to Ukraine raised the risk of escalation into a direct war with Russia, without providing enough benefit for Ukraine's defense. The administration's standards strike me as sensible ones. We shouldn't overlook what the United States and its NATO allies are already providing to Ukraine, including anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles. These weapons pose a smaller escalation risk than others, though the risk is certainly not zero.
How seriously would you take the risk of Russian President Vladimir Putin attacking a NATO country, deliberately seeking to provoke a war? And what should America do in such a moment?
I do not think Putin will launch a conventional attack against a NATO country unless NATO forces enter Ukraine or engage in combat in Ukraine. Even though Putin took a massive gamble in launching his full-scale invasion of Ukraine, to start a war with NATO forces would seemingly strip him of any prospect of being able to walk away with something other than a devastating defeat. Certainly Russian forces are struggling to achieve their objectives in Ukraine as it is. That said, we would enter into incredibly worrying territory if Putin came to believe that his regime might fall and he had no choice but to escalate dramatically in order to give himself and his rule even a small chance of survival.
If the world is letting Putin have his way with a sovereign country, it seems it’s largely because of two words: nuclear weapons. One consequence of this war which I fear is that other countries will take away the message that, if you can get nuclear weapons, no one will ever stop us from doing anything. How do we discourage that?
It is possible that the war in Ukraine could encourage more countries to acquire nuclear weapons. Still, the advantages of nuclear weapons have been evident for a long time. Recent U.S. policy has made that advantage only more apparent. Vladimir Putin has seen what happened to Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi: they lacked a nuclear arsenal, and their regimes were overthrown and their lives ended. Kim Jong Un has seen the same thing, so don't expect him to fully denuclearize.
That said, the world is not "letting Putin have his way with a sovereign country." The West has crashed the Russian economy and is arming Ukraine. It seems unlikely that Putin will walk away with the victory he sought. More likely, Putin will walk away with something that his government can just about plausibly portray as a victory to the Russian people, for whom the Kremlin is now virtually the only source of information. Others will not be fooled.
The world has come together and imposed various penalties on Russia, from sanctions to trade restrictions. Should the goal of these measures, and the various forms of assistance to Ukraine, be to reverse the Russian aggression and invasion? Or is the end game reflected in these policies to force a reckoning in Russia and encourage the country’s most powerful actors to depose Putin?
I hope the main goal will be to get Russia to stop killing Ukrainians as soon as possible, as part of a peace settlement that the government of Ukraine genuinely supports. Although recent indications from U.S. officials are encouraging, I worry that President Zelensky might one day be willing to make a peace agreement but the West might prevent the agreement from being reached by being unwilling to lift some of the most severe sanctions it has imposed, like the sanctions on the Russian central bank. If that were to happen, the West would in effect be bleeding Ukrainians in order to bleed Russians. So let's hope that the sanctions are used productively, rather than becoming purely punitive, like the Trump administration's "maximum pressure" sanctions on Iran.
The West should absolutely not give the impression that the goal of sanctions is to cause regime change in Russia. If Putin believes he might fall, he would become far more willing to use nuclear weapons or launch a conventional war with NATO. During the Cold War, the United States learned that it would be suicidal to make the leaders of a nuclear-armed superpower think they had nothing left to lose. The time to remember that lesson is right now.
Ukraine in 2022 is not Iraq and Afghanistan in the 2000s. And yet there are surely lessons from those American involvements for this moment. What do you think those lessons are?
After September 11, most of the country let itself be guided by fear. Americans wanted to hit back and punish the enemy (without fussing over who exactly the enemy was). This mindset stifled even-handed consideration of the foreseeable consequences of U.S. interventions, with potential harms weighed against potential gains. In addition, some advocates of the wars in Iraq sought, in my view, not so much to make America safe as to demonstrate that American power was strong and righteous.
Despite the manifold differences between then and now, I see the same pathologies at work today in the reaction of some American politicians and commentators to the war in Ukraine. I see an impulse to punish Russia, including the Russian people, that is competing with a desire to achieve genuinely better outcomes. I see fantasies about regime change in Moscow that discount the risks of attempting such a thing. I also see an effort to use the tragedy in Ukraine as an opportunity to rejuvenate American global leadership and reclaim the moral high ground. But this war should be about Ukrainians first and foremost. It is a terrible tragedy, and it will leave the world worse off. The world that emerges from the war will be poorer, more divided, and more heavily armed. For that, Putin is to blame. But Putin's guilt does not make America virtuous.
Wars focus everyone on war. Do you think there is an opportunity in this moment to invite the public to step back and address some of the root causes of this conflict where Americans do have more power, such as the addiction to fossil fuels, a cornerstone of Putin’s hegemony?
Because Americans fetishize the use of force, they often treat war as the only true way to "do something." Everything else doesn't count. Because the risks of fighting Russia are so extreme, perhaps the current crisis will make more Americans consider the non-military actions we can take to make our country and the world better — actions that are also far less likely than military intervention to do harm instead of good. For example, let's be as generous as possible in welcoming in Ukrainians who wish to come to the United States. Admitting refugees would help people who need help, but because such actions do not involve harming an enemy, they receive less attention in the media than dropping bombs. And, yes, instead of merely pumping more oil, the crisis should spur us to decarbonize. If sticking it to Putin is what some people need to move away from fossil fuels, then that is alright with me. But let's be clear that the fundamental reason to preserve a habitable planet is to preserve a habitable planet, for our sake and that of future generations.
Everyone is throwing around the term “World War III” like they know what it means. But it’s confusing. Some think the idea of such a war is overblown. Some think we’re already in it. American overt and covert support is already on the battlefield. Economic war is already being waged. How would you define what it would mean for us to descend into World War III?
I suppose "World War III" would at least have to involve a conventional or nuclear war between Russian and NATO forces. I am not sure it is necessary to develop a strict definition of the term. But I am quite sure it is harmful to claim that we are already in World War III. That is a version of the perennial argument — used by Japan to attack Pearl Harbor — that a wider war has already become inevitable, so it is better to stop the enemy now than to wait for the enemy to advance later. Today we are by no means in such dire straits. Russian forces are struggling to defeat Ukraine, a far less imposing adversary than NATO would be. Russia has not attacked NATO countries. Russia would be very foolish to try to do so, and even in his Covid-phobic state, Putin appreciates the difference between attacking a NATO member and attacking a non-NATO country.
Looking ahead, the West is absolutely capable of deterring and defeating future Russian aggression. It has the overwhelming advantage in actual and latent military power. Before the war, the European Union boasted an economy approximately five times the size of Russia's. The Soviet Union was a much stronger adversary than Russia is today. In fact, one of the few encouraging developments brought about by the war has been Europe's awakening to the threat Russia poses to Eastern Europe. Germany has now pledged to spend more than 2 percent of its economy on defense, a stunning reversal of decades of underspending. While the United States should continue to reinforce Ukraine and NATO's eastern flank in the coming months and years, the Biden administration would be wise to encourage Europe to take the lead in European defense, with the United States ultimately moving to a supporting role.
Let's assess the Russian threat correctly. Russia poses a serious conventional threat to the countries close to it. Russia is a major nuclear power. But Russia lacks the capability to overrun Europe in the manner of the Axis powers or the Soviet Union. It cannot acquire such capability, for the foreseeable future, so long as Europe spends a modest amount on defense and organizes its forces well. The world has endured more perilous challenges, namely in the first two world wars. We should not commit collective suicide by plunging into a third, or by pretending we're already there.
Is there a risk that smashing Russian society into poverty and chaos will turn it into an analogue of Germany after World War I, setting the stage for resentments and brutal conflicts later on?
Yes. The West has taken a gamble by effectively imposing an embargo on Russia. It is difficult to find analogues for the scale and speed of these sanctions against a country like Russia, but the historical record shows that sanctions usually fail to achieve their objectives and often backfire. One month ago, the consensus in Washington was that sanctions should target Putin, his inner circle, and the oligarchs, but should spare the Russian people and avoid crashing the Russian economy. I shared that view. Just days into the Russian attack, which had been widely anticipated, the United States and Europe suddenly found themselves crashing the Russian economy.
It is possible, and perhaps likely, that the sanctions will remain in place for decades. One should not assume that the Russian people or future Russian leaders will regard the sanctions as fair treatment for Putin's war. Perhaps the sanctions will incentivize Russia to behave better, as I very much hope. But I see little reason to conclude that draconian sanctions, if they remain in place, are more likely to have a positive effect than a negative effect.
Having imposed the sanctions, the West should use them strategically. It should tell Moscow exactly what Russia needs to do in order to get relief at least from some of the sanctions. If partial sanctions relief is necessary to secure a decent peace agreement favored by the legitimate government of Ukraine, then the West ought to follow through. Every country involved would benefit.
When it comes to Ukraine, Americans seem to have an intuitive grasp of citizens of other countries not wanting foreign occupiers and rulers. But many of those same Americans were puzzled when citizens of Afghanistan and Iraq didn’t want foreign occupiers and rulers. Why do you think our ability to see this is so selective?
The United States thinks it is exceptional, that its power is intrinsically liberatory and that others will see American power in the same way, rather than in the way that Americans themselves would view any foreign invader that landed in New York. This ideology is deeply rooted in American nationalism. It also takes an internationalist form, which assumes that foreign populations not only embrace U.S.-style liberal democracy but also embrace American power as the guardian of liberal democracy. Today, even after the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, some Americans continue to imagine that tanking the Russian economy will cause the people of Russia to rise up, oust Putin, and replace the regime with a pro-Western democracy. It is exceedingly unlikely to happen.
Americans don't need to be hostage to this ideology. Many see through it. And Americans have the advantage of living in a liberal society, where you and I can have this conversation in public. It may be more difficult for Russians, for example, to overcome their own version of exceptionalism. At the start of the war, Putin appears to have assumed that Ukrainians would welcome Russian forces as liberators; he seems to have believed his own fantasy that Ukraine was an artificial country that would embrace mother Russia once a few bad leaders were swept out of the way. It's a costly mistake, and a recognizable one.
What does this war tell you about the continued relevance or irrelevance of the United Nations?
The war tells me that the United Nations is as relevant and irrelevant as its creators intended. The United Nations is premised on cooperative relations among the great powers, meaning the five permanent members of the Security Council, of which Russia is one. The United Nations cannot create cooperative relations among the great powers, except by giving states a platform to talk. Nor can the United Nations act against great powers that commit aggression against small powers, because the permanent members can veto any Security Council resolution they like. In fact, in my recent book Tomorrow, the World, I show that the United States spearheaded the creation of the United Nations primarily because U.S. leaders believed the organization would act as a vehicle to project American power globally in a legitimate-sounding way. So the United States gave itself certain prerogatives, namely veto power, that it also had to give to other great powers, but denied to all other states. Now Russia is using the U.N.'s limitations to its advantage. China could do the same. I think the United Nations remains valuable, but we should see the institution for what it is.
Do you believe Putin will ever face international justice for what are clearly willful war crimes?
I would love to see Putin face justice. In the ideal scenario, to my mind, a new Russian government would be the one to punish Putin, so that Russians themselves could understand his actions, provide accountability, and move forward. Needless to say, that is very unlikely to happen. The same goes for international justice, which can target leaders of small countries much more easily than those of major powers like Russia. One needs only to look at the American record — the war in Iraq was an illegal and aggressive war, and torture was criminal — to see the reluctance of even a liberal democratic state to hold leaders accountable and the inability of international agencies to discipline a big power. This is lamentable, but also not without reason. The more Putin believes he will be arrested or killed if he steps down from power, the more he will cling to power by any means at his disposal.
Finally, a question from a Twitter user named Ellen Harrison: “My only question is ‘how??’ I am against war. How do we truly help Ukraine? We must, but HOW?? I’ll be listening.”
First, help Ukrainians. Before you listen to me, listen to what Ukrainians have to say about how to help. Individuals can donate to agencies helping the roughly 3 million Ukrainians estimated to have left the country. The United States and Europe can also welcome refugees who wish to come. Second, the West should continue to help Ukraine defend itself in all the ways discussed above. This support is making a difference. At the same time, we should not confuse helping Ukraine, which we should do, with taking every measure theoretically possible to defeat Russia in Ukraine. The latter could mean mutual destruction.
Stephen Wertheim is a senior fellow in the American Statecraft Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is the author of “Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of U.S. Global Supremacy.”