Friday, April 29, 2022

Habermas on the war in Ukraine – English translation

An English translation of Jürgen Habermas's article on the war in Ukraine (Süddeutsche Zeitung, April 29, 2022):

War and Indignation [paywall]

A shrill tone and moral blackmail: In the battle of opinions between former pacifists, a shocked public and a cautious chancellor following the invasion of Ukraine.

Update: Full text available on Reset: Dialogues on Civilizations


The medial presence of this war is holding sway over our daily lives in an unprecedented manner. (....) The result is a growing disquiet among onlookers in the West with each death, a growing shock with each murder, a growing indignation with each war crime – and the urgent desire to do something about it. The rational background against which these emotions are swelling up around the country is the obvious partisanship against Putin and a Russian government that has launched a massive war of aggression in violation of international law and which is pursuing a systematically barbaric manner of warfare in violation of humanitarian international law. (....) 

The dilemma that has forced the West to choose among alternatives in the range between two evils – a defeat of Ukraine or the escalation of a limited conflict into a third world war – is clear. On the one hand, we have learned from the Cold War that a war against a nuclear power can no longer be “won” in any reasonable sense, at least not with the means of military force within the limited timeline of a hot conflict. The nuclear threat means that the threatened side, whether it possesses nuclear weapons or not, cannot end the unbearable destruction caused by military force with victory, but at best only with a compromise that allows both sides to save face. Neither side is forced to accept a defeat or leave the battlefield as a “loser.” The cease-fire negotiations now taking place concurrently with the fighting are an expression of this insight; they enable for the time being the reciprocal view of the enemy as a possible negotiating partner. The Russian threat potential, to be sure, depends on the West believing that Putin is capable of deploying weapons of mass destruction. But the CIA has, in fact, warned in recent weeks of the danger that “tactical” nuclear weapons could be used (weapons that were apparently only developed to enable nuclear powers to wage war against each other). That gives the Russian side an asymmetrical advantage over Nato, which, because of the apocalyptic scale of a potential world war – with the participation of four nuclear powers – does not want to become party to this conflict.

It is now Putin who decides when the West crosses the threshold defined by international law – beyond which he views, formally as well, the West’s military support for Ukraine as participation in the war.

Given the risk of a global conflagration, which must be avoided at all costs, the indeterminacy of this decision allows no room whatsoever for risky speculation. Even if the West were cynical enough to allow for the risk implicit in the “warning” that such a “tactical” nuclear weapon may be deployed – i.e., to accept such a deployment in a worst-case scenario – who could guarantee that such an escalation could be stopped? What remains is a latitude for arguments that must be carefully weighed in light of the necessary expert knowledge and all the requisite information, not all of which is publicly available, to make well-founded decisions. The West, which, with the drastic sanctions it imposed early on, has already left no doubt about its de facto participation in this conflict, must therefore carefully weigh each additional degree of military support to determine whether it might cross the indeterminate boundary of formal entry into the war – indeterminate because it depends on Putin’s own definition.

On the other hand, the West – as Russia well knows – cannot allow itself to be continually blackmailed. Were the allies to simply leave Ukraine to its fate, it wouldn’t just be a scandal from a political-moral perspective, it would also be counter to the West’s interests. Because then, it would have to be prepared to play the same game of Russian roulette in Georgia or Moldova – and who might be next on the list? To be sure, the asymmetry that could drive the West into a dead end in the long term only endures for as long as it continues to shy away – for good reason – from the risk of a nuclear war. Consequently, the argument which holds that Putin should not be driven into a corner because he is capable of anything is countered by the contention that precisely this “policy of fear” gives the opponent a free hand to continue escalating the conflict step by step, as Ralf Fücks recently pointed out in this newspaper. This argument, too, of course, merely confirms the nature of a situation that is essentially unpredictable. Because as long as we are determined for good reason to avoid becoming a party to this war to protect Ukraine, the type and extent of military support we offer must also be qualified in view of such considerations. Those who object to pursuing a “policy of fear” in a rationally justifiable manner already find themselves within the scope of argumentation of the kind that Chancellor Olaf Scholz correctly insists on – namely that of careful consideration in a politically responsible and factually comprehensive fashion. (....)

The decision to avoid participation does not mean that the West simply leaves Ukraine to its fate in its fight with a superior opponent up to the point of immediate involvement. Arms deliveries can clearly have a positive impact on the course of the war, which Ukraine is determined to pursue even at the cost of serious sacrifice. But is it not a form of pious self-deception to bank on a Ukrainian victory against Russia’s murderous form of warfare without taking up arms yourself? The bellicose rhetoric is inconsistent with the bleachers from which it is delivered. Because it doesn’t minimize the unpredictability of an opponent who could bet it all on a single card. (....)

It is, after all, no coincidence that the authors of the “watershed” are those leftists and liberals who –faced with a drastically altered international constellation and in the shadow of trans-Atlantic uncertainties – want to take serious action in response to an overdue insight: namely that a European Union unwilling to see its social and political way of life destabilized from the outside or undermined from within will only gain the necessary political agency if it can also stand on its own two feet militarily. The re-election of Emmanuel Macron in France provides a reprieve. But we first must find a way out of our dilemma. This hope is reflected in the cautious formulation of the goal that Ukraine "must not lose" this war.

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See: Responses to Habermas's "War and Indignation" here.

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