Depriving the bully of his veto
On countering the aggressions of those who decide to stop following rules, but without losing our own principles
No rational person considering the big picture of life on this Earth wants to see an escalation of hostilities in Ukraine. The escalation has been distinctly one-sided: The thinly-veiled threats of nuclear warfare, the forced deportation of civilians into Russia, and the repeated commissioning of war crimes have all come from the Russian side of the conflict.
■ While the Ukrainian government has pleaded directly for additional resources from the UK, the European Union, Canada, and the United States, the NATO countries have been reluctant to engage in ways that could be interpreted as crossing a line of direct conflict with Russia. Indirect efforts, like supplying defensive weaponry to Ukraine, have been the extent of our commitment.
■ The free nations of the world need to bring our fullest imagination to the scope of the situation. Many of the possible outcomes of this conflict are unpleasant and distressing -- whether or not we ourselves engage directly in the conflict. We need, though, to imagine ways in which to protect and preserve a world ordered by rules without artificially offering an exemption to that order just because a country with access to extreme arms (like nuclear weapons) decides to walk away from those rules. Our self-discipline needs to be our strength, not our Achilles' heel.
■ In permitting the aggressor to set the terms of engagement, we effectively submit to what deserves to be called the bully's veto. The cousin to the bully's veto, the heckler's veto, is widely understood as one of the dangers to freedom of speech. It is not enough to say that we believe in freedoms only to the extent that a malicious actor agrees to let them go on: A heckler does not have the inherent right to shut down free speech by threatening to react badly to it.
■ Since the birth of the United Nations following World War II, the world has submitted to a quasi-legal system in which a handful of nations (the permanent members of the Security Council) have quite literally possessed a veto over the rest of the world's reaction to their behavior. It seems almost daft to acknowledge this, but the Putin regime appears to have contaminated the Security Council with a dose of bad faith even greater than the worst of his Communist predecessors.
■ Does that mean the rules of international law should go out the window? Absolutely not. More than anything, the reckless disregard for the world order that has been put on display should be a reminder that a rules-based order for international engagement is essential and needs to be revivified.
■ It does mean, though, that we need to urgently rethink whether the UN order is enough -- and whether a parallel organization for nations committed to acting in good faith needs to come into being. There needs to be a step between the mutual-defense pact of the NATO alliance and the free-for-all membership of the United Nations. It does not need to involve commitments of arms, but it does require a commitment to rules. And it needs to be both global and aspirational -- countries should want the esteem of membership.
■ The disregard Russia's government has displayed for international rules also means we need to expedite every possible reinterpretation and reimagination of what constraints can be imposed in the face of barbarism. The world has largely been reacting to Russian aggression in Ukraine, and though that reaction has taken the form of a surprisingly united front, it is evident that circumstances may well turn much worse if more is not done to actively shape the course ahead.
■ It is too foreboding that we must actively contemplate the obliteration of peaceful cities (a war crime already underway), the deployment of chemical weapons (a risk now openly feared), or even the prospect of a retreat that sows devastation by "tactical" nuclear weapons in its wake. If we have to even face these issues, then the constraints are already falling short -- all because the regime at fault for starting the war has exempted itself from rules.
■ We are in a dangerous place. Ukraine cannot be asked to turn itself into the state equivalent of a poison pill, making its takeover fatal to both itself and its aggressor. Other aggressors are watching. It is likely to lead to a more dangerous future -- chronically more dangerous -- if we don't see a prompt reassessment of how to put a stop to the bully's veto.