By Daniel A. Connelly & Joseph B. Piroch
U.S. statesmen today must be careful. As they weigh policy options for the United States in the Ukraine crisis, they find themselves immersed in the political cacophony of Washington and its calls for forceful action against Russia. Military leaders and foreign affairs strategists on both sides of the political aisle are promoting a response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that relies on a single narrative, one that denies the possibility that any policy options exist between appeasement and military escalation. The war drums are beating, and hawkishness is “in.” Perhaps the warfighters in our military should indeed be preparing for conflict, for that is what they do best. But our statesmen are called to a different vocation, one that seeks diplomatic solutions to even the most fractious events, and they will need to hold the line and moderate the discourse if a full range of policy options is to be made available to U.S. decision-makers.
The dominant narrative in political circles today views Russia’s actions as an attempt by an imperialist power to reestablish the Soviet Union. It refuses to consider Russia’s national security concerns about a West-leaning Ukraine, rejects diplomatic compromise, and presents a basket of similar policy options, all of which entail a strong and unyielding resistance to Russia. This narrative vilifies Vladimir Putin as the “ultimate bad actor” and seeks the total incapacitation of a hated enemy—a characterization that, true or not, can lead only to greater conflict. More concerning, its polarizing mindset often reduces arguments to emotional salvos that eclipse sound judgment with cries for decisive action. The result is a one-sided discourse rendering moderate proposals unacceptable before they even gain consideration.
It is possible that military escalation is the best response to Russia, but if we cannot openly weigh that option against more measured ones, we shall never know. The Prussian military strategist Carl von Clausewitz famously wrote that war balances reason, passion, and chance — a trinity of competing forces that must be reconciled. But as some commentators have noted, today’s narrative about Russia has been dominated by passionate fervor at the expense of rational deliberation. In addressing security concerns, statesmen and military strategists have traditionally promoted the value of “DIME” — a model that aligns diplomatic, information, military, and economic means to pursue political ends — but the emotional content of the Russia-Ukraine crisis threatens to replace this approach with a single strategy of “M” (military action) and a distaste for “D” (constructive diplomacy). One is reminded of the powerful scene from Roger Donaldson’s film 13 Days about the Cuban Missile Crisis, when Robert F. Kennedy seeks policy options other than passive appeasement or an aggressive military strike and faces a wall of resistance from defense officials and statesmen alike.
The seeming refusal to consider a diplomatic and moderate foreign policy toward Russia appears to be influenced by two historical strains of thought, discussed widely in the scholarly literature. The first is fatalism, a belief in the inevitability of war on a massive scale. This phantasm often materializes when tensions between nations rise. In his memoirs, Winston Churchill describes it as “a strange temper in the air,” noting that just before World War I, “nations turned fiercely toward strife, internal or external…. Almost one might think the world wished to suffer. Certainly men were everywhere eager to dare.” Fatalism again pushed the United States closer to war in the 1950s, when a small group of U.S. Air Force generals dismissed President Eisenhower’s deterrence doctrine and advocated for a preemptive nuclear strike on Russia. Before General Nathan Twining closed down this insubordinate campaign in 1954, the generals were lobbying policymakers for support and ordering Air War College students to write papers defending preemptive war. Many U.S. strategists appear to have adopted such a fatalist spirit today, nudging the nation toward the use of force and dismissing the possibility of de-escalation. Some seem ready and willing to pursue a third world war that they claim is unavoidable.
A second assault on a moderate foreign policy comes from a total-war mindset, which asserts that international conflict requires a response of overwhelming force. According to this idea, no national resource merits preservation from the war effort; no personal resource is withheld from it, and no dimension of life is seen as greater than the needs of the war. Dutch lawyer Hugo Grotius anticipated this mentality as early as the sixteenth century, claiming it was sinful to use anything less than maximum force in war. Europe began to embrace total war in the 1800s, and the idea’s popularity grew in the twentieth century as evidenced by, among other events, the demand for German war reparations after World War I, the call for unconditional surrender in World War II, and the strategies of nuclear annihilation in the Cold War. Italian officer Giulio Douhet also espoused total war as part of his fascistic political orientation, rejecting any constraints on war-making as “traitorous.” One pivotal effect of this mindset is to forbid discourse on moderate foreign policy options, compelling a single narrative that mimics Shakespeare’s line spoken by Mark Antony: “Cry ‘Havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of war.”
The two predominant philosophies of U.S. foreign policy in the post-Soviet era — neoconservatism and neoliberalism — embrace the themes of fatalism and total war. Despite their divergent premises and objectives, they both see international relations as an endless struggle and use a self-created moral compass to validate the persistent use of force. The first views the world as an antagonistic battleground where nations grapple for power and believes aggressive, unconstrained action in world affairs is necessary to prevail. The second sees a world in dire need of democratic governance and liberal values and judges that a forced transformation of governments and institutions is required to instill Western ideals everywhere. Both see interventionism and war as permissible, if not laudable, tools of foreign policy. Neither one, therefore, is predisposed to de-escalate a crisis, such as the one in Ukraine today.
An alternative foreign policy that holds promise for statesmen in their consideration of an appropriate response in the Ukraine crisis is one of prudent restraint — a paradigm endorsed by a substantial minority of international relations scholars. It advocates cautious and selective engagement in foreign affairs based on critical national interests. Shifting to this paradigm would allow statesmen to stand firm on U.S. interests while at the same time recognizing Russia’s. It would encourage them to reconsider aggressive action by the United States and would question if Ukraine is indeed a critical U.S. national interest. It would engage diplomatically with Russia to better understand her interests and seek common ground. It would entertain the hypothesis held by many experts that Russia is not a revisionist state seeking dominion but is simply protecting itself by avoiding encirclement. It would engage with Russia as a peer rather than treating her with the notoriety due a predator.
Critics may argue that rapprochement with Russia has been tried before. But advocates of prudent restraint would point out that negotiations and “resets” with Russia over the past two decades have largely ignored its chief concerns: the overwhelming eastward expansion of NATO, the exclusion of Russia from geopolitical decision-making, and the pursuance of policies destabilizing Russia’s economy. Others may contend that the Ukraine crisis has escalated to a point where negotiation and compromise are no longer possible. The counterpoint is that diplomacy is far more important in times of crisis than in times of peace. Finally, some may claim that negotiating now would make the Biden administration look weak to its domestic constituents. Such a statement ignores the political gains that would come from resolving an international crisis and restoring peace. Cultures thrive on a return to tranquility and normality.
The United States is heading down a risky path of escalating conflict with a nuclear-armed power that does not like to be pushed into a corner. This strategy, driven by a mindset of fatalism and total war, is taking policy options off the table and constraining us to conclude that war is the only choice apart from appeasement. Our statesmen must stay on their guard and refuse to take the bait. It is certainly possible that a hardline approach to Russia is the best option for the United States, but to draw such a conclusion without considering a wider range of policy options is both impulsive and imprudent. Perhaps we need a Russian, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, to remind us that “vile means defeat the ends they seek to bring about.” If we are not careful, in combatting Russia we could destroy the values we profess to hold in highest esteem. To paraphrase philosopher Josef Pieper, now is the time for the excellent statesman to exhibit courage in policy and in deed — a courage aimed at securing the common good for all.
(The views and opinions expressed or implied are those of the authors and should not be construed as carrying the official sanction of the Department of the Air Force, Air University, or other agencies or departments of the US government.)
Daniel A. Connelly is an Assistant Professor at the Air Command & Staff College and retired US Air Force intelligence officer who has lived in Ukraine. He holds a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology (Auburn University) and master’s degrees in Strategic Intelligence and Russian Culture. Joseph B. Piroch is a US Air Force Fellow at RAND Corporation. He holds master’s degrees in Foreign Affairs (Univ. Virginia) and Military Operational Art and Science (Air University) and has worked as an intelligence professional for over 27 years with the U.S. government.