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Reason in Times of War by Sven R. Larson

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Commentary

Reason in Times of War

There is not much good news in the unfolding tragedy that is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but the resolve and the courage of the Ukrainian people is one example. We are also beginning to see cracks in the domestic support for Putin’s war in the form of anti-war protests. In addition, sensational reports allege that Russian intelligence sources told Kyiv about Putin’s plan to assassinate Ukrainian President Zelenskyy. 

In other good news, the West is almost completely united in condemning the invasion. However, that has not prevented the issue from becoming a contested topic in conservative circles. The desire to express rightful outrage over Putin’s war is unfolding a wet blanket over broader conversations about political affairs—especially on the conservative side of the ideological aisle. 

Moral spillover is common in the wake of major global events. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, any attempt at reasoned exchange of thoughts on America’s role in the world were quickly dismissed as unpatriotic. Further back in time, British critics of the Versailles Treaty—among them economist John Maynard Keynes who was present at the negotiations—prudently suggested that excessive, punitive debt payments on Germany’s shoulders could have catastrophic consequences. Those critics were summarily dismissed, even criticized for lack of patriotism.

As the world reacts to Putin’s unacceptable invasion of Ukraine, there is a growing risk that those reactions will dry up the broader public discourse. This unwanted curtailing of reason shows itself in, e.g., thwarted attempts to broaden our understanding of why the war happened in the first place. 

Some voices are being heard, such as Ukrainian-born American immigrant and politician, Karina Lipsman. She sternly blames the Biden administration for not doing enough to stop Putin.

The need for this broader conversation is growing, in no small part with reference to Russia’s well-known opposition to Ukraine becoming a NATO member. Regardless of whether one sides with Russia or Ukraine on that issue, in times of international crisis it is more important than ever to keep in mind how an open, rational dialogue is to be carried out, even on highly sensitive yet incredibly important issues. 

Before we get to the format of a reasoned conversation, it is worth recognizing yet another motive to have that conversation in the first place. There are emerging allegations that the U.S. Department of Defense has funded bio-warfare laboratories in Ukraine. This admittedly speculative story may or may not have substance—USA Today made an unconvincing effort to fact check it—but it is worth noting that stories about those labs, and similar ones in other countries, appeared already in 2013

By driving a reasoned conversation out of the mainstream spotlight, we leave stories like this one about the bio-warfare labs to a fringe where their veracity matters less than their propagandistic value. In doing so, those who maintain the mainstream of the public discourse also downgrade the pursuit of truth and facts. In their case, they give pride of place to the moral outrage over the war.

If we let this moral uproar, however justified, overwhelm its levees, we lose our clarity of reason and with it our ability to stop another disaster like the one currently unfolding. If global geopolitics can turn the people of a nation into its hostage, even its victims, then any virtuous repudiation of the war will fail to prevent another one from happening. 

As emotions overcome reason, the first victim has been the topic adjacent to the war itself, namely Russia’s alleged motives for invading Ukraine. Beyond that, there is a tendency among conservatives to let the war in Ukraine become the Gordian knot that brings their movement to a halt. Due in part to the fact that some conservatives have expressed respect for Putin in the past, for his family-oriented policies, and his explicit support for Christianity, the moral spillover from the war is having a chilling effect on their conservative endeavor.

Fortunately, there is a path forward, but it starts in a place that is currently the center of controversy: the enigmatic mind of Thierry Baudet, a member of the Dutch Parliament. 

On February 25th, NL Times reported that Baudet, who represents the conservative Forum voor Democratie, FvD, was being sharply criticized by other members of the parliament for a number of pro-Russian statements. One of his most heavily targeted comments questioned whether the Netherlands should continue to be a NATO member. He also accused Western countries of “tunnel vision” regarding their relations to Russia.

The wall of criticism stretched from the far Left all the way to Geert Wilders, leader of Partij vor de Vrijheid, PVV. Wilders did not mince words, calling the Russian invasion of Ukraine “a blatant and condemnable violation of Ukrainian sovereignty.”

Baudet has been lifted up as a conservative leader, which to some extent is merited. He wrote his Ph.D. for Roger Scruton and took Scruton’s concept of “oikophobia” to a global audience. In the past, Baudet has been interviewed by Ben Shapiro, a prominent American conservative writer and podcaster, and as recently as in January this year PJ Media, a well-known U.S.-based conservative publication, referred to Baudet and his video channel as a voice of reason.

In terms of conservative substance, Baudet is fairly mainstream—he is neither bland nor spectacular. Perhaps his one selling point is his finger-pointing at the welfare state as an economic burden on Western economies. At the same time, he does not recognize that the welfare state can be a conduit for advancing socialism within the realms of parliamentary democracy.

Regardless of where Baudet actually stands in terms of conservative ideology, the controversy around his apparent Russia-friendly statements have gained enough momentum to impact the European conservative movement in general. The most apparent impact is the tie that is being suggested between his pro-Russia statements and allegations that Baudet is on Moscow’s payroll

Baudet may or may not be on the Kremlin’s payroll; while he denies receiving any Russian compensation, there are calls for a legal investigation into the matter. Their veracity notwithstanding, these allegations can easily be generalized, casting any attempt to go beyond the rightful dismay over the war as driven by financial interests of Russian origin. 

It is worth noting that Baudet has played a contested role in Dutch and European politics ever since his party was founded in 2016. At that time, Ukraine was formalizing its conversations with the EU into an agreement that could lead to membership. Baudet and his party went to great lengths to stop the membership plans: their campaign forced a Dutch referendum on the agreement. 

Voter turnout in the referendum was low, but because of the result—a resounding 68% opposition to the agreement—the Dutch government had to extract assurances from Brussels that an agreement with Kyiv did “not confer on Ukraine the status of a candidate country” for EU membership. 

The current opposition to Baudet’s pro-Russia positions is likely driven, at least in part, by a desire to avenge his opposition to Ukrainian EU membership. However, it is also a case in point of how a misled ambition to discuss the war in Ukraine in a broader context falls flat when both sides of the issue fail to separate the war from its motives. 

This failure is having broader consequences, fueled by the praise and respect that some conservatives in the past have shown for Vladimir Putin’s domestic policies. Just as any conversation about Thierry Baudet’s strange pro-Russia opinions is clouded by the moral upset over the war in Ukraine, so can Putin’s decision to start that war be a dagger in the heart of the conservative movement itself. 

To use conservative sympathy for Putin’s past policies as a rope to tie conservatives to his war atrocities is of course completely unacceptable. It is also an example of a common analytical error: to conflate two equally important but separate spheres of political thought. One sphere, concerned with political theory, deliberates the “why” of politics and government affairs; the methodological sphere is focused on the “how.”

With focus on theory, not methodology, Putin’s goal in the conflict with Ukraine is, per his own definition, to prevent Russia’s neighbor from becoming a NATO member. His theory, then, would be that Ukraine is essential to Russia’s national security. 

From the Ukrainian perspective, the goal is to preserve their national sovereignty. The theory behind this goal is that Ukraine is a European nation with cultural and economic ties reaching out westward. Ukraine, simply, has the unabridged right to determine its own future.

It is possible, even desirable, to have a conversation about these two theories regarding the Russia-Ukraine conflict. The issue of the war is equally relevant, but a separate conversation focused on how nations and their leaders act in order to further their goals. Put differently: 

  • A condemnation of the invasion of Ukraine does not constitute an automatic condemnation of Russia’s concerns with having NATO forces on its long Ukrainian border; and
  • A show of respect for some of Putin’s past domestic policies does not constitute moral approval of his method for dealing with Russia’s disagreements with Ukraine. 

Some conservative voices have set examples of how to apply this dichotomy. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is well known for good relations with Putin, yet he has condemned the invasion of Ukraine in no uncertain terms. 

As mentioned earlier, Dutch conservative politician Geert Wilders has lambasted Putin for his decision to invade Ukraine, but Wilders has also tried to take the debate one reasoned step further. He has noted that Western powers could have excluded Ukraine from NATO membership. 

The point that Wilders makes is one about Russia’s national-security interest. As such, it has nothing to do specifically with the deeper conservative debate about ideology and policy. However, his comment does serve a respectable purpose: it shows that you can separate the methods by which a political leader tries to achieve his goals, from the goals themselves.

A contribution along the same lines, though more profound and more directly pertinent to the conservative movement, comes from Cole Kinder, a writer with Crisis Magazine. He recognizes that many Catholics, disappointed with the lack of commitment to Christianity from political leaders in America and Europe, have looked at Putin as a friend of their faith. 

Kinder demonstrates how this appreciation for a faith-and-family friendly Russian leader does not have to fall into the conflation trap. He separates Putin’s past domestic policies from his present political methodology, concluding:

Catholics should not only hesitate to support a Putin invasion because unnecessary wars are against our Faith, but we should also be against a Putin invasion of Ukraine because our Faith is strong in Ukraine. If conservative Catholics desire a more Catholic world, then we should do all we can to support Ukraine, one of the few countries with a truly Catholic heritage.

Hopefully, in due course of time, reasoned voices will prevail and put the current events in Ukraine in their proper context. Our rightful sense of disgust over Putin’s invasion of Ukraine should be limited to the war. It has nothing to do with conservatism or the conservative movement. 

Sven R. Larson is a political economist and author. He received a Ph.D. in Economics from Roskilde University, Denmark. Originally from Sweden, he lives in America where for the past 16 years he has worked in politics and public policy. He has written several books, including Democracy or Socialism: The Fateful Question for America in 2024.

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