On Friday, I participated in a discussion hosted by The Atlas Society, with Richard Salsman and I representing opposite views on Russia’s war against Ukraine. And I mean diametrically opposite views.
Opinion among the Atlas Society scholars, mind you, runs strongly pro-Ukraine—see my discussion with Stephen Hicks from early in the war—and Richard is the dissenter. But my what a dissent it is. You can see the whole discussion here.
Richard provides a
pretty faithful rehearsal argument strongly reminiscent of the foreign policy views of Murray Rothbard and the radically anti-interventionist libertarians who basically think that the US can do no right in international affairs, while Russia (for Rothbard, it was Soviet Russia) has never really done anything wrong.
It was a strange experience, and as I say in this discussion, it’s like he and I are living in opposite worlds. In his world, Vladimir Putin is a legitimately elected leader, and Joe Biden is not. It’s like one of those Star Trek episodes where they cross over into a mirror universe where everything is the opposite. I kept thinking: Where am I, and why does Spock have a goatee?
But the whole selling point of The Atlas Society is the idea that we can hash out these differences in a relatively civilized fashion, so I did my best to practice my kolinahr.
It was worthwhile, at least, to get an acknowledgement that the argument against the eastward expansion of NATO is also an argument against the existence of NATO in the first place. That’s especially interesting because Richard complains about America losing all of its recent wars (which is not true even of the ones his lists)—yet he leaves out America’s global victory over communism in the Cold War. That would require acknowledging that NATO not merely served US interests but is one of the most successful alliances in history.
“America First,” as I’ve pointed out before, tends to end up meaning Blame America First, and as I argue here, it also means America Last—that America is the last to act or to have an influence in world events, ceding the initiative to every dictatorship on Earth. Ultimately, it means American Alone.
The one argument that I want to offer an additional rejoinder to is the complaint that my arguments are insufficiently philosophical and merely “concrete-bound and journalistic.” Yeah, I’ve heard that one before, and I have never found it compelling because—well, because I am a journalist. And more important, being in contact with the concrete, journalistic facts is the necessary foundation for understanding any wider issue or making any philosophical argument.
That’s why my one qualm about this open discussion with Richard Salsman is the effect known as Brandolini’s Law. It is very easy for someone to declare in five minutes a whole string of factual falsehoods that it would then take 20 minutes to refute. So I almost feel as if this video should go up with a set of footnotes linking viewers or readers back to news reports refuting every erroneous assertion.
But then I realized that I have already pretty much provided this, in a piece published earlier this week at Quillette. That piece was directed at very similar arguments made by the nationalist conservative crowd, who also tend to be motivated less by any interest in events in Ukraine than by their hatred for the supposed “elites” and “establishment” and “their intramural contest against other factions on the right.” The result, I point out, is a ”portrait of events in Ukraine…in which the Ukrainian people have little or no agency, in which they are merely pawns on a chessboard in a game planned out in a State Department conference room.”
I answer this with a concise overview, filled with plenty of links, of the 20-year history behind this conflict, particularly the events of 2004 and 2014. And I draw out the wider pattern.
At every stage, when given a choice between a European liberal social model, versus the old Russian strongman model, Ukrainians have consistently chosen a liberal model. The biggest choice they have had to make was on February 24th, when the Russians invaded their country in a plan clearly based on the assumption that Ukrainians would not resist. They had to decide whether they were willing to risk their own lives for the kind of government they wanted. It was Zelensky who set the example, refusing an offer of evacuation and staying in Kyiv despite being targeted for capture or assassination. In doing so, he merely reflected the similar choice made by millions of his fellow citizens….
We have been watching the geographically largest country in Europe, with a population of more than 40 million, struggle over a period of decades to transform into a European liberal democracy. These people are nobody’s pawns.
It’s a pretty good pocket explainer on the background of the conflict, and I also describe how you can see the divergence between Ukrainian and Russian culture in the rebuilding and transformation of Ukraine’s military, which explains some of their success in repulsing Russia’s invasion. Read the whole thing.
We are in a global contest between liberalism and authoritarianism. The battle is already raging, and other people who are even more directly interested in the outcome are taking the lead. The only question is whether we sit on the sidelines and scoff while somebody else does the main work, both intellectually and materially, of defending freedom.
Thank you Rob for your excellent coverage and defense of Ukraine. I have been there a few times and actively work with contractors in their tech sector. These are good people fighting for a good cause and who deserve our support.
To hear Salsman’s support of Russias “total war” (does that include torture and rape in Bucha???) is appalling. Apparently poisoning and murdering political opponents at home and abroad are mere “political shenanigans”?! Salsman has lost his mind.
I unfriended Richard Salsman over this.
His writings on economics are superb, I own some of his books but his attribution of imaginary virtues to socialist dictator Vladimir Putin is unforgiveable.