We imagine we know everything that Winston Churchill thought. He wrote volumes of history, reminiscence and current controversy. Quotations from him fill bookcases of books. Some of them are justly titled “The Wit and Wisdom of …” And both his bon mots and solemn geopolitical warnings are littered throughout the writings of others. So it is a pleasant surprise to come across a Churchill quotation that is fresh, memorable, and seemingly directed to our current concerns.
Such a quotation appears in the Winter issue of the American Interest in an article by Professor Eliot Cohen, himself a distinguished historian, whose works include an important study of political leadership in war. It is taken from an account of a 1935 luncheon-party discussion by the then-famous American foreign correspondent Vincent Sheean. It shows Churchill, relaxed but combative, responding across the table to clever people who thought he was attaching too much weight to Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia. He demurred: the problem was neither Italy nor Ethiopia.
“It’s not the thing we object to,” he said, “it’s the kind of thing.”
When asked by his shrewd hostess if the British had not committed the kind of thing many times before, Churchill responded that Britain had done so in “an unregenerate past”. But since the Great War a large fabric of international law had been established to restrain nations from infringing on each other’s rights. That was now at risk:
In trying to upset the empire of Ethiopia, Mussolini is making a most dangerous and foolhardy attack upon the whole established structure, and the results of such an attack are quite incalculable. Who is to say what will become of it in a year, or two, or three? With Germany arming at breakneck speed, England lost in a pacifist dream, France corrupt and torn by dissension, America remote and indifferent—Madame, my dear lady, do you not tremble for your children?
Churchill’s prescience was, as always, remarkable: what followed was the Second World War. Whether or not the children of Churchill’s hostess were among its victims, Mussolini ended up hanging upside down in a Milan piazza.
Like Churchill, however, Professor Cohen is less concerned with the thing than with the kind of thing—in his case not so much Putin’s de facto invasion of Ukraine as its impact upon the post-Cold War structure of international order. Whatever the rights and wrongs, or risks and gains, of NATO expansion, the Soviet-era transfer of Crimea to Ukraine, and the Maidan revolution, the rules of international life clearly prohibit subverting, invading, occupying and ultimately either conquering or dismembering a sovereign state. Such actions are “the kind of thing” that signal a wider breakdown in civilised international conduct and increased insecurity for all states.
This essay was published in the May, 2015, edition of Quadrant.
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Ukraine is a particularly instructive example of this kind of thing because its sovereignty and borders were guaranteed in the Budapest Treaty by Russia, the United States and the United Kingdom in return for its handover of nuclear weapons. In effect Ukraine decided to entrust its security to international law rather than to its own military resources. But international law is in the end dependent upon the decisions of sovereign states to observe, support and even implement it. Even if Russia had legitimate claims to Crimea or in some wider “sphere of influence”—which is highly dubious—it had accepted a duty to settle such claims by peaceful means. As we know, however, Russia used its sovereign power to override such law by invading Ukraine. What of other states?
In the last two decades, especially since the US invasion of Iraq, there has supposedly been a semi-philosophical division in the West on attitudes to international order. Americans were said to be Hobbesians from Mars, Europeans Kantians from Venus; the former relied on military force to protect both their interests and international order; the latter placed their trust in law and, ultimately, in non-military sanctions.
This contrast was drawn too simply and too harshly—Kant should not be blamed for European foreign policy, and the eminent Hobbes scholar Noel Malcolm points out that Hobbes was not especially tough-minded in his remarks on foreign relations—but it was not entirely false. In the writings of the two principal theorists, Robert Kagan (for the Hobbesians) and Robert Cooper (for the Kantians), it was presented clearly and its implications worked out persuasively. My own sympathies are largely with the Hobbesians. But a commonsense reconciliation of the two attitudes might be that the Kantians are the first line of defence against aggression, subversion and other international violations and the Hobbesians are the fall-back team that takes over against recalcitrant violators.
Neither team has covered itself with glory in the Ukraine crisis. The Hobbesian United States, though committed by its Budapest signature to defend Ukrainian sovereignty, has yet to decide on something as elementary as whether to provide Ukrainian forces with lethal weaponry. That may be attributable to the fact that the Obama administration is a largely Kantian one, as its policy on Iran among other issues demonstrates. If so, it would reveal a serious fissure in the theory: if the Hobbesians can’t be relied upon to save the Kantians’ bacon, then the latter must show that their non-lethal weaponry alone is effective against formidable opponents whether Hobbesian or Kantian.
Their record so far is more than disappointing—but in an unexpected way. Economic sanctions, which have been imposed by both the US and European Union governments, are proving more effective than observers thought likely from earlier crises. In part that is because the formal sanctions have been augmented by a fortuitous collapse in the price of oil—together they are inflicting real pain on the Russian economy. But it is also because the US government, international banks and international agencies have developed sophisticated financial sanctions that impose heavy costs on both the violator-state and on “targeted” individuals and companies within it. Given time such sanctions might well work; they are a serious disincentive to any ruler contemplating aggression; and in the case of Iran, they are overwhelmingly the reason why the Iranian government has come to the negotiating table.
If sanctions can be effective, then, why are they disappointing and even fragile? The answer is that very few nations want to impose them, to maintain them once imposed, or to return to them once lifted—and Kantian-minded nations (which should be the most willing to impose them) are more reluctant to do so than others. Sanctions disrupt trade, as they are intended to do, and make the nations imposing them poorer too, which is not intentional but happens to be their inevitable consequence.
Democratic republics from Ireland to Romania have a free press, open debate and disagreements about every issue; authoritarian states control their media and, in the case of Russia, whip up their populace to a hyper-nationalist frenzy in which their nation plays the role of eternal victim. Commercial republics such as modern Germany (or pre-1940 Britain) are risk-averse, driven by economic imperatives, and have a tendency towards pacifism; despotic states are driven by imperatives of power and regime stability, over-arm themselves, and take calculated risks. It is not hard to understand why despotic regimes might sometimes attack vulnerable states and outlast democracies over sanctions.
Here is the great Kantian self-contradiction: the risk-aversion that prompts European states to prefer lawfare over warfare also prompts them to ignore or paper over violations of law if it seems likely to lead to conflict or economic downturns. When Russia occupied Georgia—which was a kind of low-budget trailer for the same kind of thing in Ukraine—President Sarkozy of France rushed to the Kremlin and, on behalf of the European Union, agreed on a compromise that left Russian troops occupying large parts of the country. Somehow Kantian respect for a peace based on law didn’t figure in his calculations.
This no more means that Putin can sweep all before him than that Hitler could do so. For action prompts reaction, threats invite resistance—at least eventually. Twenty-two political leaders from Central and Eastern Europe, channelling Churchill, responded to the Russian occupation of Georgia with a letter to President Obama seeking America’s re-commitment to their region in 2009. That letter was attacked by former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and ignored by a US administration then naively entranced with a “Russian Re-Set” foreign policy. Ukrainians are fighting today for their country, and though resisting superior force with inferior weaponry, they show no sign of enduring either surrender or final defeat. And in this week’s diplomatic news there is an announcement by a coalition of Nordic and Baltic foreign ministers, some in NATO, some outside it, that they are forming a defensive regional alliance. We can only guess how Putin’s gambit will turn out.
As Churchill could have told us, however, we should never wait too long before responding to the kind of thing.