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Ukraine and the 'Rational Calculus' of War

03/18/2014 02:39 pm ET | Updated May 18, 2014

"All the harm done by an egotist is unintentional." These words from a great American filmmaker are as good a way as any to begin these meditations on how to avoid a war. That national egotism lies at the root of the current crisis involving Russia, Ukraine and the United States seems clear enough. As for the intentionality of this incipient war one can argue later -- after we manage to prevent it.

It is too early yet to throw in the towel, though the signs are not good. Prior to previous conflicts, the Kremlin first quickly shut down alternative sources of information. That is happening again now. The independent leadership of Lenta.ru was fired earlier this week. Today, the popular Grani.ru was blocked altogether. Echo of Moscow radio and web site is under pressure. These Internet sources are among the last and most widely-used of the non-state-dominated media holdouts in Russia. Add to this the exercises being carried out, again, on several sides of Ukraine's borders ... it is easy to see where this is headed.

One gets the sense that all sides are helplessly sleepwalking straight into this insanity. And indeed, how can anything be done to stop it, when the interests of the sides appear so hopelessly irreconcilable? What can be done?

A lot can be done. The first step: remove our self-imposed blinders and stop the mutual demonization. Demonization is always the easiest course for a national egotist. It allows one to avoid the difficult task of living up to one's own ideals. How much easier to denounce the failures of an enemy! It will be obvious to many observers that the Kremlin excels in this game of hating the flaws of the enemy, while ignoring one's own. But America likewise has little to brag about. To live up to our American ideals, we will first have to resurrect them from the utilitarisn pragmatism which, for many years, has crowded out nearly everything else. And there is hypocrisy galore in America's criticism of Russian interventionism and violation of human rights.

As for Ukraine, there is a lot of irony here also. The right-wing elements in Ukraine that harbor the fiercest hatred for the Muscovites ("Moskali") have much in common with their supposed Russian enemies. They have come through a similar period of degradation and have come to similar conclusions. Not all of those conclusions are wrong.

I will never forget the time, years ago, when I was a translator for a high-level American military delegation in Minsk. The Byelorussian officers invited the Americans to the city's main opera house, and when I got to the lobby, I was shocked by what I saw. Babushkas in head scarves had set up card tables, such as one used to see on Broadway years ago, and were openly hawking hard-core porn magazines inside the opera house. This was a few years after the break-up of the Soviet Union. I imagined how Americans would react if someone tried to pull such a stunt at the Kennedy Center. I turned to one of the Byelorussian officers, and asked, "How can you put up with this?" He looked grim as he answered: "We won't. For long."

Freedom, liberal freedom, for many in the former Soviet space, means "bespredel," literally, the absence of limits, in other words, open-ended decadence. What I saw in the Minsk opera house is only one example of much that was still worse in the 1990s, and that has thrived in Ukraine till the present day. Fear and loathing of this "bespredel" -- feelings that are shared by authoritarians in the Kremlin, as well as by many members of the Ukrainian right wing -- must not be simply dismissed. What right do we have to hate them for wanting to hold on to certain standards, and to define those standards for themselves? What is more, America's own 'bespredel' is in part to blame for the very thing that these right-wing and authoritarian forces fear. But of course we don't see it that way.

What we see instead are all the heavy-handed things Putin has done. And he has done them. But -- thanks to our own propaganda machine -- this is all we see. And vice versa. We advertise the other side's sins, while ignoring our own, which are at least as great. We pat ourselves on the back about our ideal self-image while ridiculing even the ideals of the enemy. This is where the egotism game becomes lethal, an existential threat.

To be sure, from both sides point of view, the conflict over Ukraine is not only, or even mainly, about ideals. For the Kremlin, the existential threat is in the first instance material and geographical. When the U.S. and EU (as the Kremlin sees it) put Ukraine in their pocket, Russia found itself suddenly faced with the threat of NATO rockets on its border and its gas pipelines in unfriendly hands. Kissinger has already explained this aspect well enough in a recent essay.

But again, the existential threats are not only physical. When American politicians compare Putin with Hitler, just as when Russian leaders compare Ukrainian nationalists with Hitler, one is in effect already declaring war. What is one to do with pure evil, other than destroy it? It doesn't take a genius to get the hint.

Ideological Aggression

Less obvious, though, is another type of ideological aggression, a prime example of which was provided unwittingly by the occasionally erudite New York Times columnist David Brooks. In a recent column, Brooks condemned Putin for telling the governors of Russia to read works by the Russian philosophers Vladimir Solovyov and Nicholas Berdyaev, along with some theories by the legal scholar Ivan Ilyin. Brooks' column makes clear he had little familiarity with any of these authors. If Putin recommended them, however, they must be all bad!

Now, Ilyin was a follower of Hegel, a monarchist and an anti-liberal who was much respected by Solzhenitsyn. His thinking resembles that of many Catholic thinkers of his day (and earlier), who likewise were suspicious of liberalism and favored monarchy. Ilyin is a minor figure in Russian culture, though an important inspiration for many on the Russian right.

Solovyov (1853 - 1900) and Berdyaev (1873 - 1948), by contrast, were giants. To portray them, as Brooks does, as proponents of nationalism, as voices of an irrational "messianic ideology" and extremism, is to do violence to the truth. It is tantamount to assailing America for respecting Locke, or France for respecting Rousseau. Most of what is best and highest in Russia's past, at least as regards moral philosophy, is to be found in Solovyov and Berdyaev. Russia can survive condemnation for not living up to its ideals. It cannot survive having even its legitimate ideals denied and taken away.

I would go further. Far from being a hindrance, Solovyov's thought may hold the key to resolving this entire conflict. To begin with, his philosophy is by far the most inclusive of the options available to us; much more so than that of Locke or Rousseau, to say nothing of our present-day political midgets. A proper exposition of Solovyov's nuanced political-moral theory cannot be attempted here, so I will limit myself to just a few obvious points.

First of all, Solovyov saw Russia as a part of Europe, not an alternative to it. He had a particular fondness for England. His religious thought combines Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, though he also finds a place in it for Protestantism, Judaism and indeed much else. On occasion, he even puts in a good word for atheism. He criticized the barbarism to which Christian fanatics have sometimes stooped with particularly sharp language -- some of the sharpest that has ever been printed. What made Europe the heart of world civilization, for Solovyov, was its combination of ancient Greece and Christianity. In Greek thought Europe expresses its universalism, its openness to anyone capable of using reason to discover the good. At the same time, in the concrete reality of Christianity, Europe remains open to an always living source of new inspiration.

Secondly, according to Solovyov, Russia, like other great cultures, does have its special talents and mission, but Russia has no right to prefer its own welfare to that of any other nation. To the contrary, Solovyov writes:

... Patriotism as a virtue is part of the right attitude to
everything, and in the moral order ... not a single nation can prosper
at the expense of others; it cannot positively affirm itself to the detriment
or the disadvantage of others. Just as the positive moral dignity of a private person is
known from the fact that his prosperity is truly useful to all others,
so the prosperity of a nation true to the moral principle is
necessarily connected with the universal good.

This logical and moral axiom is crudely distorted in the popular sophism
that we must think of our own nation only, because it is good, and therefore its
prosperity is a benefit to every one. ... It must be one or the other.
Either we must renounce Christianity and monotheism in general,
according to which "there is none good but one, that is, God,"
and recognize our nation as such to be the highest good that is,
put it in the place of God -- or we must admit that a people
becomes good not in virtue of the simple fact of its particular
nationality, but only in so far as it conforms to and participates in
the absolute good. And it can only do so if it has a right attitude
to everything, and, in the first place, to other nations. A nation
cannot be really good so long as it feels malice or hostility against
other nations, and fails to recognize them as its neighbours and to
love them as itself.
(italics mine)

This quote is from The Justification of the Good, Solovyov's great final work of moral philosophy, the tome which, as we learn from Brooks, Putin urged his regional governors to read. Brooks apparently finds these words dangerous, a sign that Russia today is "not a normal regime" properly motivated by a "rational calculus."

I find in this text a very different application to our present crisis. To the extent that Russia and the United States continue to operate according to the "rational calculus" of national egotism, both will find it easy to justify actions that will tear Ukraine limb from limb, and set brother murderously against brother throughout the Slavic world. There is no purely procedural or pragmatic means of disentangling ourselves from this brutal logic, which has repeated itself endlessly throughout history. The alternative is to rise above it in precisely the way that Solovyov taught.