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Should the U.S. Continue Aid to Ukraine?

photograph of Ukrainian flag on military uniform

This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of articles with discussion questions and other resources, visit our “Educational Resources” page.

On Wednesday, September 7th, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken announced a new aid package to Ukraine worth over $1 billion. The announcement came during what may be a critical juncture for the war. Ukraine’s counter-offensive has been slower than initially hoped, leading U.S. officials to question Ukrainian military strategy. However, progress has been made in recent weeks – the Ukrainian military has broken through the first line of Russian defenses in the south and liberated settlements. Further, there is some reason to believe future gains may come at an accelerated rate, as intelligence officials believe the Russian military concentrated its defenses at the first line.

Regardless, continued U.S. aid to Ukraine is no longer an ironclad guarantee. Although a majority of U.S. citizens still approve of aid to Ukraine, poll numbers have shown changing attitudes in recent months. About half of Republican respondents polled feel that the U.S. is doing too much to help Ukraine, and that they prefer ending the war as soon as possible, even if Ukraine concedes lost territory to Russia. Further, despite a majority of Democrats and independents favoring aid to Ukraine even in a prolonged conflict, support for that position has declined somewhat. During the Republican presidential debate in August two candidates, Vivek Ramaswamy and Ron DeSantis, stated they would end U.S. aid to Ukraine (in DeSantis’s case, this was qualified with the statement that he would stop aid unless European nations “pull their weight”). Donald Trump has suggested that all aid to Ukraine should pause until U.S. agencies turn over alleged evidence that incriminates President Joseph Biden.

Given the amount of aid the U.S. has sent to Ukraine – about $76 billion at the time of this article’s writing (although Congress has approved up to $113 billion) – it is worth pausing to weigh the moral arguments for and against continuing to provide aid.

Before beginning that discussion, I want to note two things.

First, while aid to Ukraine is normally reported in dollar amounts, this is misleading. The U.S. has not sent $76 billion in cash to Kyiv. While some money has gone to financing, significant portions of the aid are supplies from the U.S. stockpiles, training Ukrainian soldiers, and collaborating on intelligence. The value of the aid is estimated at $76 billion but this does not mean the U.S. has spent $76 billion. Less than half of the aid has been cash, and some portion of this figure includes loans.

Second, there are arguments about aid this article will not consider. Namely, these concern the strategic or political value of aiding Ukraine. One might argue that a repulsion of the invasion would humiliate and weaken Putin’s regime, thereby advancing U.S. interests. Alternatively, one could argue that if the war effort fails while the U.S. sends aid, it could damage U.S.’s standing internationally; there would be doubts that cooperation with the U.S. is sufficient to ensure security. While these considerations matter and should enter our decision making, they are too complex to discuss in sufficient detail here.

What arguments might someone make against continuing aid to Ukraine? The most common arguments in public discourse stem from what the U.S. government ought to prioritize. For instance, during the Republican primary debate, Ramaswamy commented that the U.S. would be better off sending troops to the border with Mexico. Trump has similarly questioned how the U.S. can send aid to Ukraine but cannot prevent school shootings.

The idea here appears to be something like this. Governments have obligations which should shape their decisions. Specifically, governments have greater duties to resolve domestic issues and help their citizens before considering foreign affairs. Thus, the claim here seems to be that the U.S. should simply spend the resources it is currently allocating towards Ukraine in ways that more tangibly benefit citizens of the U.S.

There are a few reasons to be skeptical of this argument. First, without a specific policy alternative it is not clear what those who utter this argument are suggesting. For any particular program, it is always theoretically possible that a government could do something more efficient or more beneficial for its citizens. But this claim is merely theoretical without a particular proposal.

Second, this argument may pose what philosophers call a false dichotomy. This fallacy occurs when an argument limits the number of options available, so that one choice seems less desirable. False dichotomies leave listeners with an “either this or that” choice when the options are not mutually exclusive. Consider Ramaswamy’s proposal in particular. It is unclear why the U.S. could not both provide military aid to Ukraine and deploy soldiers to protect its borders.

Third, not all aid sent to Ukraine could clearly benefit U.S. citizens. For instance, it is not clear how anti-tank missiles, mine-clearing equipment, or artillery can be used to solve domestic issues in the U.S.

More compelling, however, are the arguments that may appeal to the long-term consequences of prolonged war in Ukraine. Some may point to more speculative consequences. Perhaps a long war in Ukraine will result in a more hostile relationship between Western nations and Russia. This is especially true given recent discussion of Ukraine joining NATO and Russian officials’ attitudes towards the alliance. Further, a prolonged conflict may create more tense relationships between the U.S. and China, and could provide a diplomatic advantage to the latter. So, some might argue that it could be in the interests of long-term peace to bring an end to the war in Ukraine; the more strained these relations become, the less probable cooperation between major powers becomes.

Less speculative is the simple fact that, the longer the war drags on, the more people will die. The more battles fought, the more casualties. Additionally, given that the Ukrainian military is now using munitions like cluster bombs and the Russian military has blanked portions of Ukraine with land mines, it is certain that the increased casualties will include civilians. Given that there is moral reason to avoid deaths, we may have moral reason to bring an end to the war in Ukraine to reduce the number of lives lost – the sooner it ends, by whatever means, the fewer people will die.

However, proponents of aid to Ukraine also appeal to the long-term consequences of current events. In particular, some argue that failing to support Ukraine’s war effort will enable future aggression, specifically, aggression by Moscow. The idea is something like this. The costlier the war is for Russia, the less likely its leaders will be to pursue war in the future. Further, the more support that nations like the U.S. are willing to provide to nations that are the victims of aggression, presumably, the less likely it would make future aggressive acts. Although a prolonged war in Ukraine will lead to a greater loss of life now, one might argue that in the end it will prevent even larger losses in the future by changing the cost-benefit analysis of future would-be aggressors.

Perhaps the most compelling argument for continuing aid to Ukraine comes from just war theory – the application of moral theory to warfare. Just war theorists often distinguish between jus ad bellum – the justification of going to war – and jus in bello – the morality of the conduct of combatants once war has broken out. Typically, just war theorists agree that wars of aggression are not justified unless they are to prevent a future, more severe act of aggression. Defensive warfare, in particular defensive warfare against an unjust aggressor, is justified.

To put the matter simply, Ukraine has been unjustly invaded by the Russian military. As a result, the efforts to defend their nation and retake captured territory are morally justified. So long as we have moral reason to aid those who are responding to unjust aggression, it seems we have moral reason to aid Ukraine. For many, this is enough to justify the expenditures required to continue military aid.

Of course, one might question how far this obligation gets us. It is not clear how much we are required to aid others who have a just pursuit. Resources are finite and we cannot contribute to every cause. This point will be more pressing as the monetary figure associated with aid to Ukraine rises, and our public discourse questions the other potential efforts towards which that aid could have been directly.

As noted earlier, however, there are some reasons to question arguments of this sort when they are light on specifics. It is one thing to reassess the situation as circumstances have changed and find that your moral obligations now seem to pull you in a different direction. It is another entirely to abandon a democratic nation to conquest simply over sophistry. The severe consequences of our choices on this matter should prompt us to think carefully before committing ourselves to a particular plan of action.

On the Morality of Rewriting History

aerial satellite 3d rendering of Hong Kong separated by water

China is pushing for the use of new textbooks, textbooks which will deny that Hong Kong was ever a British colony. The textbooks, which are in the process of being reviewed for approval by teachers, principles, and others affiliated with Hong Kong Bureau of education, would be implemented as curriculum this fall if approved.

These books contain a new narrative about British occupation of Hong Kong, a narrative that will rewrite the previous story that Hong Kong was “lawfully” occupied as a British colony until 1997. The new narrative maintains that Hong Kong was never a British colony and was instead always a part of China. The New York Times, which reviewed teachers’ editions of the new textbooks, quotes the following excerpt: “The British aggression violated the principles of international law so its occupation of Hong Kong region should not have been recognized as lawful.”

These revisions have been in the making for some time and have been roundly criticized by the Professional Teachers’ Union in Hong Kong as “political censorship.” The Bureau, however, rejoined that the changes will “help students develop positive values.”

This push for a new narrative generates a crucial moment for pro-democracy advocates inside and out of China.

One desired effect of this new narrative is that Hong Kong has never been apart from China, so there is no historical basis on which to claim that Hong Kong should continue to be independently and democratically run.

This isn’t the case, however, and would renege on an historic obligation. As Tiffany May writes for The New York Times, “Under the terms of the 1997 handover negotiated with Britain, China had agreed that the social and economic systems of the territory would remain unchanged for 50 years after resuming sovereignty.” Another desired effect of the narrative is that the future generation will be raised patriotic, loyal to China. Indeed, to enforce such “positive values,” students (potentially as young as kindergarteners) will be taught of a new law that permits authorities to deliver prison sentences to those who oppose Beijing.

There are several issues at stake with the question of whether China (that is, Beijing) should rewrite Hong Kong’s history.

In general, to discuss whether something morally should or ought to happen, there is a first question of whether something is morally permissible. If some action isn’t morally permissible, then we ought not to do it; however, even though an action is morally permissible, it does not follow that we ought to do the action. For example, if we conclude that limiting free speech is morally permissible in a certain circumstance, it doesn’t necessarily follow that we ought to limit free speech in that circumstance. Of course, if something ought to happen, this presupposes and requires that whatever ought to happen is morally permissible.

In asking particularly whether Beijing should re-write Hong Kong’s history, one relevant question is whether there are any permissible limitations of freedom of speech, and if so, whether this case is justified.

Part of the new laws permit severe punishment for criticism of or dissent from Beijing. Some in favor of the new laws and textbooks have argued that freedom comes with certain obligations and responsibilities, such as the primary obligation to one’s country. Those in opposition might argue that, while there are certain obligations to one country, these obligations are not relevant in this case. For the obligation to support one’s country is not exclusive of criticizing its present political/societal/economic structure. In fact, criticism might be a sign of an individual’s loyalty in that the individual may desire to change the present situation for the better. In terms of permissibility, then, a special obligation to a nation does not make it impermissible to critique that nation. Indeed, the opposite seems to be the case.

Closely related to the topic of free speech is the question of whether limiting freedom of thought is ever permissible. The issues of freedom of speech and thought certainly overlap: the latter necessarily affects the ability to speak on certain topics, and the former would inevitably affect the ability to think on certain topics. And the revision of textbooks, including the elimination of information and not solely the addition of a perspective, seems to classify at least as a limitation on thought.

As George Orwell’s novel 1984 has instructed us, the revision of history practically inhibits the future generations (and perhaps present generations) from discussing and knowing history. It is unclear whether this is ever permissible, though it clearly is impermissible in the case that it is factually inaccurate. In the case of Beijing denying Hong Kong’s former status as a colony, this certainly seems to be the case. Of course, it is another matter whether it was morally correct for Britain to have occupied Hong Kong.

While I only suggested some provisional answers to the above questions, it is imperative to answer these questions to understand some of the relevant moral landscape in rewriting history.

The Politics of Earth’s Climate

photograph of COP26 banner

This past weekend marked the end of COP26, an annual event started in 1995 to bring countries together to discuss climate change. All eyes fell on the leaders of the world’s highest-carbon emitting countries. With each passing year, the future looks more and more dire as the planet continues warming.

Shortly before the commencement of the COP26, a summit was held in Rome involving many of those same world leaders. The topic of climate change was merely brushed over. A photo of the leaders tossing a coin into the Trevi Fountain quickly went viral on social media. The smiling faces and picturesque background made it seem as if these leaders were mere tourists partaking in a common ritual, rather than meeting to discuss the future of life on Earth. With such little progress made and such little attention paid to climate change at the summit, the photo suggests a carefree attitude: devastating climate disasters happen in other, far less wealthy countries.

The COP26 conference, in Glasgow, however, offered hope that global warming would be treated like the crisis it is, with serious and extensive discussions resulting in real and measurable action. Along with one of the warmest years in history, within the warmest decade in history, 2020 brought the most expensive year of weather disasters ever, carrying a $50 billion price tag. With all the money spent on disasters like earthquakes, wildfires, and flooding, you’d think world leaders would make addressing the climate crisis a priority.

The conference brought some encouraging news: COP26 represented the biggest climate meeting in history. Almost 200 world leaders managed to agree upon the Glasgow Climate Pact, which is meant to keep the Earth’s climate warming below the 1.5 degrees Celsius through multiple strategies like decreasing carbon emissions. This commitment to this new, lower threshold is encouraging. The previous Paris Accord from 2015 had settled on a 2-degree target. However, this would mean the complete sinking of coastal countries and cities, encompassing millions of people. Currently, the world is on track to reach a warming of 2.7 degrees Celsius within this century, which almost ensures catastrophic climate disasters for every country on the globe. In order to reach the 1.5 goal, the world needs to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030.

Leaders at COP26 discussed decreasing some of the most polluting activities in the world, such as fossil fuel production, deforestation, and methane emissions in order to work towards the 2030 goal. The world may have just witnessed an amount of global cooperation and delegation that hasn’t been seen in decades, and certainly never with the context of climate change. This does not mean, however, that world leaders were truly able to set aside politics, even in the face of a worldwide threat indifferent to human conditions.

One of the biggest weaknesses of these arrangements is that they depend solely on the word of dozens of world leaders. The agreements lack any sort of enforcement mechanisms to ensure that countries will actually put into action the pledges they agree to on paper. Given the grave stakes and the necessity of cooperation in achieving our goals, having no sort of penalty for defection or inaction may spell disaster. The countries who signed on to the 2015 Paris Agreement are not even close to hitting those targets. The global coordination that is needed to actually take meaningful action on climate change has never been witnessed before (with consequences that are life-changing for every person on Earth), yet world leaders have refused to hold each other accountable.

This lack of enforcement sheds light on one of the biggest disparities that exists in climate change: the countries who contribute the most pollution and the countries who have felt the worst of climate change so far. Just 12% of the global population (living in wealthy countries) are responsible for 50% of the global greenhouse gas emissions from the beginning of the industrial revolution. This fact has long been discussed, and in 2009 wealthy countries even pledged to help shoulder the costs of the climate disasters in countries that struggle financially with the impacts. Unsurprisingly, this funding had no sort of enforcement, so in the Glasgow Agreement it was noted

with deep regret that the goal of developed country Parties to mobilize jointly USD 100 billion per year by 2020 in the context of meaningful mitigation actions and transparency on implementation has not yet been met.”

This time around, the pact encourages wealthy countries to voluntarily help fund lesser developed countries with the high costs of climate change that they have barely contributed to in comparison to countries like the U.S., England, China, and Russia. While the COP26 certainly resulted in world leaders making strict goals towards climate change in a way that we have never seen them commit to before, there seems to be plenty of both historical and scientific evidence to believe these goals to be made in blind optimism.

Another glaring issue at the COP26 was who was actually in attendance, or at least who was able to get there. For decades, oil company executives have had plenty of seats at the table of climate change discussions, knowing that it is their business that was going to take a hit if the world ever transitions away from fossil fuels. This conference was no different with over 500 people in attendance all from countries with major oil and gas companies or lobbying organizations in support of the fossil fuel industry. This allows the very industries that have helped bring the climate to catastrophic warming, all the while denying the impact of climate change for decades, to have a significant say in the future of a world without the need for their business. At the same time, young activists whose homelands are directly threatened by climate change struggled to afford the costs of attending the conference. These activists bring first-hand knowledge of the impacts of climate change to their lands. Unfortunately, they’ve found that their experience and perspective is not welcomed at a conference specifically committed to helping these very lands and people.

Yet another issue of access was revealed when the energy minister for Israel, Karine Elharrar, was unable to attend the conference as she could not find a transportation that was wheel-chair friendly. Another disability and climate activist, Jason Boberg, could not get in because the accessibility entrance was closed and pointed out the exclusion was bigger than the conference: “We know that disabled people are left behind in climate disasters, floods and fires, and now we are left out of the conference that is supposedly meant to address that.” The field of attendees illustrates that there are ethical issues not just in what decisions are being made at the conference, but who is able to influence, discuss, and witness these decisions. The conference was meant to be full of diverse conversations across the topic of climate change, but even these conversations were limited.

Ultimately, COP26 was illustrative of just how complicated the issue of climate change really is. In a world that is more globally connected than ever before, climate disasters will affect not just one country, but spread beyond national borders. Additionally, just as greenhouse gas emissions are not being released equally, they are not impacting countries equally. There are very serious ethical concerns in how countries that have the capability and finances to assume responsibility for their own pollution are refusing to do so. Despite the various pledges they make, nations continue to allow captains of industry, actively working against progress on climate change, to sit at the head of the table. Politicians may have been able to agree upon extensive plans for climate mitigation under the watchful eye of activists and millions of onlookers, but only time will tell whether these new pronouncements will be anything more than empty promises.

Under Discussion: The Moral Necessity of International Agreements

photograph of national flags from all over the world flying

This piece is part of an Under Discussion series. To read more about this week’s topic and see more pieces from this series visit Under Discussion: Combating Climate Change.

On his first day in office, newly elected President Joe Biden signed an executive order officially rejoining the United States to the 2015 Paris Agreement. President Obama initially joined the treaty during the end of his second term. However, one of Donald Trump’s first acts as president was to withdraw the U.S.’s pledge, and this process took over 3 years, only technically going into effect just before he lost the 2020 election.

The Paris Agreement is by no means the first international environmental treaty. Many prominent international environmental treaties followed the 1972 Stockholm Declaration. These international environmental agreements have tackled everything from acid rain to whaling. One of the most famous international environmental efforts was the 1987 Montreal Protocol in which countries pledged to drastically decrease their CFC consumption in order to preserve the ozone layer. While the context might be different, the essential function of the Montreal Protocol and the Paris Agreement are essentially the same: sideline national interests in order to address a pressing global environmental problem. In fact, the issues are so similar, that these two agreements have been compared.

There are many moral considerations when assessing whether or not international agreements are the most efficient and fair method for addressing environmental problems. Below are some to consider.

Are international agreements which impose differing standards across nations fair and equitable?

Then-President Trump cited many reasons for pulling out of the Paris Agreement, but chief among them was the assertion that the agreement was unfair to the United States. Trump was technically correct in his assertion that there were different mitigation expectations across participating nations. For example, under the Paris Agreement, Europe and the United States are responsible for cutting a larger part of their emissions compared to higher emission countries such as China. However, Trump’s criticism fails to recognize two major considerations of this arrangement which make it more equitable.

Climate change is an environmental problem which has its origins in over a century of industrial pollution. Though China may currently be emitting more greenhouse gases than the United States, the majority of the existing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere were emitted by the United States and European countries. For this reason, the United States and Europe might be fairly expected to reduce their emissions by more because they technically share a larger portion of the responsibility for the current crisis.

Additionally, imposing larger restrictions on Europe and the U.S. fairly acknowledges the economic privileges which countries in the West and Global North hold. Historically, international environmental agreements have acknowledged the tension between the history of colonialism, economic development, and environmental protection. The modern recognition of this tension is due in large part to a 1967 declaration to the United Nations by the Group of 77 (G77), a coalition of countries in the Global South, which demanded that the United Nations recognize the positionality of their environmental issues compared to those of powerful, former-colonizer, industrialized countries. The G77 were largely successful in pushing for economic considerations to be included in international environmental agreements.

Though Trump’s criticisms of the Paris Agreement may be unfounded, there are those who criticize the content of the agreement for not going far enough – either in terms of equity or addressing climate change. The Paris Agreement has been criticized as not aggressive enough by environmental activists. Some might also point out that “developed countries” are still not obliged to carry their historical and population-weighted burden in the Paris Climate Agreement. Outside of these valid content-driven criticisms, is there something more to critique about the Paris Agreement from a procedural perspective?

Do international agreements present an irresolvable conflict between national and international interests?

Many prominent Republicans have painted the Paris Agreement as a pledge to put the well-being of the citizens of foreign nations before those within the United States. Senator Ted Cruz tweeted, “By rejoining the Paris Agreement, President Biden indicates he’s more interested in the views of the citizens of Paris than in the jobs of the citizens of Pittsburgh.” Ignoring the questionable analogy drawn by that statement, is Cruz correct that this international climate agreement unethically sacrifices the interests of the United States’ citizens?

While there might be other types of environmental damage which provide a more unbalanced benefit/detriment scheme in terms of aggressors to victims, a pretty fundamental aspect of climate change is that it will affect climate across the globe. Though some geographical areas will experience more intense changes in climate compared to others, the United States stands to suffer largely from climate change. Climate projections for the next 50 years predict that the United States will have to change the way people farm in the Midwest, the way people use water in the West, and where people live relative to the coasts. These changes, and more, will likely usher a social and economic crisis without mitigation of greenhouse emissions and adaptation to the changing climate. Ted Cruz’s assertion that joining the Paris Agreement forsakes national interests in the name of internationalism is evidently untrue. The United States stands to gain a lot from promoting a cooperative effort in which all nations pledge to reduce their carbon emissions.

Does the nature of climate change necessitate international agreements to actualize solutions?

Setting aside the half-century’s worth of international cooperation in reference to environmental issues, can one still make the case for the importance of an international agreement to address climate change specifically? The function of international agreements is to not only declare and acknowledge, as a world, that certain issues are worthy of our effort and attention, but also to create incentive to actively and cooperatively address major environmental catastrophes. Technically, all nations within the Paris Agreement can perform any of the actions within their pledge without joining the agreement itself. So why go to all the trouble to structure, debate, and sign the treaty? International agreements address both the moral and practical considerations raised by climate change and other international environmental catastrophes. Practically, cooperation is a more effective method for combating problems for which there is no clear and direct cause and effect, a conundrum common in collective moral harms. To collectively combat climate change, countries must share resources, technology, and scientific data. Without an organized structure in which to participate, climate change would likely be impossible to efficiently address. Another reason why international agreements play an important role is that climate change requires moral obligations staked in cooperation in order to effectively and fairly tackle the issue. Without international agreements, countries which contribute the most to climate change could simply choose to do nothing – a track the United States appeared to be on during the Trump presidency. The stark injustice, geographically, economically, and racially, which climate change threatens to unleash, morally demands a widespread cooperative effort to combat.

Do nations have an individual moral obligation to prevent harm to other nations?

Putting aside practical and justice-based concerns, is there a moral obligation on an individual basis for countries to limit their contributions to climate change? Generally, the principle of do no harm is recognized in international environmental law quite frequently. This principle is so fundamental to international environmental cooperation, it appeared in the first international environmental agreement, Principle 21 of the Stockholm Convention. Principle 21 strikes the balance between national interest and moral imperative and has since been referenced by modern international environmental treaties. Aside from the consistent international recognition of this moral principle, it is also quite intuitive.

It is clear at this point that the emission of greenhouse gasses causes harm in the form of climate change – both to human beings and to the environment. Based on this consideration alone, there is arguably a moral imperative as a nation to do everything within our power to prevent our contribution to climate change. Joining the Paris Climate Agreement is an important step in this process, as it holds the United States accountable within the context of our collective obligation to prevent climate change.

COVID-19 to Climate Change: Who Can Act?

photograph of national flags flying at UN

Many parts of the world have been isolating for months. These measures have caused a drastic reduction in the processes that represent individual’s impacts on the environment, including gasoline consumption related to commutes and transportation to visit loved ones and eating out. Airlines and cruise ships have not been able to make port calls in the US and have largely cancelled vacations for months. The unprecedented human isolation has led to a number of reports about how cities are “returning to nature,” running the gamut of dubious to reliable (no, dolphins weren’t returning to the canals of Venice, but some penguins and goats hopefully had a fun time exploring their local cities free of humans noisily lugging ourselves about).

However, a number of expert trackers report that all of these different and dramatic behaviors on our part have made only a slight impact on the climate efforts that nations have been pushing for in the recent decades. If this were true, we could be dispirited – even with this much change in our behavior, perhaps there is no hope in fixing or altering our climate reality. Luckily, environmental ethics have been framing this question for decades with this very assumption in place.

There are two issues related to individual impact on climate change: empirical issues and normative ones.

The empirical question is whether individuals contribute to the current issues we are seeing affecting the environment? This question gets at the sort of behaviors that are making changes for flora, fauna, and climatic conditions on our planet. For instance, we see plastics in the ocean killing turtles and altering their habitat. We see the Great Pacific Garbage patch, making a huge impact on untold oceanic conditions. We see the deep sea fishing trawlers disturbing seabeds that make up habitats of a great number of creatures and disturb the water conditions that go on to impact many more.

When we look at these issues from the lens of individual behaviors, we think that to help the number of plastics in the ocean killing sea turtles, for instance, we should use sustainable straws; to help the Great Pacific Garbage patch, we should recycle and create less waste. To reduce the impact of deep-sea fishing, we should be mindful of our seafood consumption. The underlying assumption there is that individual behaviors contribute to the current conditions, and therefore altering them can make a difference to them. However, evidence is mounting that individuals will not resolve the climate issues we are facing. Individuals recycling and reducing plastic use will not make a sufficient dent in plastic pollution, for instance. According to Ted A. Warfield in “Eating Dead Animals,” the individual choice to refrain from consuming or purchasing meat will not make a significant difference in the damages of the meat industry.

These adjustments have largely been hypotheticalit’s hard to get masses of people to change their habits. Let’s turn to the current impact of isolationone of the most drastic mass adjustments to individual behaviors in this generation. Consider the amount that carbon emissions have actually dropped since isolation measures began in the US: they are down approximately 6% according to some sources, a feat that regulations and treaties have failed to accomplish. Significantly, this drop in emissions seems to be the result almost solely of individual behavior shifts. However, it is important to note that this drop is STILL lower than the goals set by the Paris Climate Agreement, and according to the UN we need to cut emissions by 7.6% every year to stand a chance of avoiding the catastrophic heating of our planet. As Guardian correspondent George Manbiot says, “The lockdown exposes the limits of individual action. Travelling less helps, but not enough. To make the necessary cuts we need structural change.”

The second, normative, issue related to the individual impact on climate change is the extent to which individuals are responsible or the ones at fault for the current issues we are seeing affecting the environment. Walter Sinnott-Armstrong argues that it is not the responsibility of the individual to reduce the impact humans are having on climate change. Because climate change is a global challenge, groups that exist at the global level hold the responsibility for addressing it: governments. The way that governments can address climate change include enforcing regulations on corporations and industries that have high carbon emissions (airline and cruise companies), that create waste that harms biomes (chemical, paper, and paint manufacturing), and whose practices inhibit the healthy functioning of habitats (deep sea fishing, intensive animal farming).

When governments fail to address these global, shared problems, the responsibility for fixing them does not necessarily disseminate to individuals. Problems that exist that require more than individual efforts to solve, like repairing bridges and tunnels, and building roads, create group responsibilities. The fault for not addressing climate change is at the level of governments and members of international communities that are in a position to regulate the operation of corporations and industries that are causing damage to our collective resources.

Thus, the implication of the empirical issue is that the contribution of individual behaviors to mitigate or reverse climate change is minimal. The implication of the normative issue is that it is the responsibility of governments and international organizations to mitigate or reverse climate change. Hopefully, one of the results of this time of international crisis can be the realization that it is not just pandemics that require the development of international will and coordination in times of global need.

US Exceptionalism, Foreign and Domestic

photograph of American flag painted on side of brick wall with barb wire strung on top

The Trump administration continues to reduce the US’s participation in cooperation and coordination schemes at home and abroad. Pursuing collective interests often satisfies private interests, especially in cases where what happens to someone else will have an impact on the interests of all individuals in the collective. That is the case with highly contagious and dangerous viruses like COVID-19. But coordinated action by the federal government has been in line with the American exceptionalism that has defined Trump’s presidency. During this crisis, however, it has been directed inward rather than outward.

During his tenure, Trump has removed human rights oversight from the UN despite clearly voiced concerns over the treatment of many groups of people under government care and jurisdiction. His administration has removed the country from treaties aimed to avoid military escalation with nations like Iran that we have historically tense relations with, and imposed sanctions that, during the current health crisis, have clearly caused more unnecessary suffering. He has also removed the US from agreements that represent the best chance of saving our planet from devastating environmental collapse.

The United States has now cut funding to the WHO during a global pandemic. Many analysts are attributing this move as a strategy for redirecting blame for horrible outcomes after months of federal inaction.

There are times that collaboration is necessary to improve individual well-being, but this fact is lost on the Trump administration. By having treaties, agreements, and collective procedures that may restrict individual latitude in decision-making for particular areas of life and government, this not only raises the welfare of the worst off, but ensures the welfare of the best off as well. In other words, collective bargaining is not charity. It is not supported merely by liberal principles of justice. We can see that it is in the best interest of all, as the suffering of the pandemic and the stakes of these other exceptionalist policies brings out.

Consider arms treaties. The US can consider it in our own best interests to pursue dangerous weaponry and balk at the constraints of collective treaties that curtail our production and economic interests that result. However, our interests are in fact undermined by avoiding such treaties because now we have created an arms race where everyone is put in more danger.

Further, we may balk at restrictions like international agreements that limit behavior causing damage to the environment. However, in pursuing our conception of our private interests, we actually are undermining the good that comes from the collective action – by having a common agreement, we recognize that the actions of all individuals do, in fact, affect each other: we are all jointly affected by the environment on earth. The air in Morocco doesn’t stay in Morocco. The water in the North Atlantic doesn’t stay in the North Atlantic. All of our interests are served by joint commitments to restrictions.

A final example is space exploration. An individual country may consider their best interests to go it alone and take advantage of the private or corporate pursuit of gathering resources or claiming land. Trump in fact issued an executive order to this effect on April 7th: “Americans should have the right to engage in commercial exploration, recovery, and use of resources in outer space.” However, conceiving of space exploration in single-country terms is impractical and undermines the individual state’s interests. The Center for Strategic and International Studies and NASA both argue that international cooperation is crucial for pursuing space exploration. As one expert states, “When there’s a hurricane, earthquake or other disaster, […] multiple countries with remote-sensing satellites — including the U.S., Japan, South Africa, Russia and the European Union — are part of a disaster charter. Whomever had a satellite passing over the disaster-ridden region before, after and during the event has agreed to share data to mitigate damage, saving lives and property.” Thus it is in the interest of each individual state to cooperate with the many.

In the last few years, Trump has removed federal regulations in a variety of domains that have effects in social welfare such as the EPA, education, and civil rights protections.

By distancing the federal government from regulating standards for environmental protection, this allows varying interventions depending on more local government interests and resources. The same goes for states. This results in public goods such as health and education—cornerstones of a democratic country that lead to democratic legitimacy—being denied to some and ensured to others. Democracy is served by a healthy and educated electorate. Social mobility is possible when residents are educated and healthy, and this promotes the welfare of everyone, not just the underserved. Trump’s removal of these different restrictions has made it unclear how we are distributing public resources, an ominous forecast of the mishandling of the pandemic now.

There are now three consortiums of states that are coordinating the pursuit of medical supplies and their strategies for policies regarding isolation and lifting of isolation policies. These groups make up about half of the population of the country, with one comprising the three West Coast states, one in the Northeast, and one in the Midwest. The impetus for these groups of states being formed was the obstruction that the federal government introduced to the “free market” for necessary lifesaving medical supplies. Governors found themselves bidding against each other, effectively driving up the price during a period when time and money were at a premium with lives at stake. The groups have coordinated to various degrees regarding developing criteria for when and how to lift isolation measures, given the lack of leadership from the federal government. Having consistent measures in place under the conditions of a medical crisis that is contagious has clear benefits. If, in one state, movement is unrestricted and businesses are widely open, the next state over is impacted.

Trump has actively promoted “liberating” the states with stay-at-home policies, despite all medical and expert advice. Actually, to the point of possibly inciting insurrections in some cases.  We could interpret this as a lack of value for human life because of the complacency being shown to the dire situations the states find themselves in. The administration has been willing to sacrifice millions of people for the nebulous “economic” value of folks returning to work (without acknowledging the impact on the economy of the millions of people impacted by the spread of disease). The brute neglect or rejection of the estimates of death and severe illness by medical experts will have lasting effects on the public health and faith in government long after the isolation policies are lifted.

Transactionalism in U.S. Foreign Policy

image of world map with flags indiciating national boundaries

Since House Speaker Pelosi announced the start of the formal impeachment inquiry in the light of the new allegations against President Trump, the news cycle has seen abundant questions about the likelihood of impeachment, details of the process, and questioning whether there is a basis for the impeachment. The reasons for the start of the proceeding was a controversial call with Ukrainian President Zelinsky during which the president conditioned U.S. aid to Ukraine upon information about presidential candidate Biden and his son. As a result, Trump has been accused of engaging in a quid pro quo agreement, as he asked a foreign government to investigate a political rival. Yet, what goes easily unnoticed is the shift from humanitarianism to transactionalism in U.S. foreign policy that appears as a consequence of President Trump’s actions. Making U.S. foreign aid straightforwardly contingent upon political gains represents a sharp shift in the U.S. foreign policy doctrine. What are the consequences of this transactional approach?

Transactionalism is defined by Nikolas Gvosdev as “an effort to shift the basis of U.S. engagement and to define a series of quid pro quos for U.S. involvement.” This approach is meant to put tangible benefits above abstract values, and thus represents a transformation in the way the U.S. approaches assistance and aid. Until now, the U.S. has most commonly used humanitarian pretext to justify aid, but the current administration has indicated that it is not willing to continue the practice as it sees aid and financial assistance as a political tool instead.

There are several ethical questions raised by the U.S.’s new transactional approach:

First, is it morally permissible to prioritize aid to allies rather than to those who truly need it? If humans are suffering and we need to react instantly, is it morally acceptable to turn our backs on countries who do not share our values and ideologies? What obligation do we have to donate funds to causes which might frustrate our interests? Consider President Trump’s justification for constraining aid when Hurricane Dorian threatened Puerto Rico. Trump’s claim that “Puerto Rico is one of the most corrupt places on earth” was meant to justify a lack of willingness to approve further funding needed to rebuild. Is the potential misuse of federal funds, as the president has claimed, a morally justifiable reason to deny further assistance?

Second, the transactional approach has the potential of leading to crises across the globe, bringing us back to the pre-UN world order. U.S. foreign policy appears to be putting aside its long-held belief that, alongside military action, it ought to promote its values across the world and cherish alliances based on a common vision of the world. But if diplomacy turns transactional, we risk the well-established world order by prioritizing relationships of benefit.  Just recently, the U.S. changed its approach toward Syria, as President Trump decided to withdraw U.S. troops and abandon Kurdish allies. In doing so, President Trump articulated a new vision for policy based on national interest and likelihood of victory, rather than the protection of hard-won allegiances. This shift led many of the President’s supporters to openly criticize the fact that he abandoned Kurdish people who have been paramount for U.S. efforts in Syria.

Third, does the U.S. have a responsibility to the global community as its leader? This question continues to trouble academics and policymakers alike as they try to decipher what role the U.S. should play on the world stage, especially in light of the rise of other great powers. If the leader of the free world is seen as conducting foreign affairs on a quid pro quo basis, what message does this send to the rest of the world?

The ongoing conversation regarding the president’s request that a foreign power intervene in domestic politics needs to center on more than just talk about the breaking of norms and statues. Democratic interference is a real worry with its own moral concerns and weight, but just as pressing is the question about the U.S.’s foreign policy transformation and the U.S.’s shifting role in global politics. The Trump-Ukraine scandal merely marks the most recent, noteworthy event in the movement of U.S. policy from participatory to more self-interested. We should not overlook this shift in the U.S. foreign policy doctrine towards transactionalism, a shift that might have grave consequences for the U.S. as well as the larger political world.

Is It Wrong to Be a Nationalist?

photograph of Trump hugging flag on stage

When President Trump declared himself a “nationalist” last autumn, some wondered if that was good or bad for the country. One writer pointed out that “for many Americans, mention of the word summons up visions of Hitler and Nazism.” Michael McFaul, the ambassador to Russia during the Obama administration, tweeted: “Does Trump know the historical baggage associated with this word, or is he ignorant?” Shortly after Trump’s declaration, President Macron of France warned against “chaos and death,” calling nationalism “the betrayal of patriotism.” 

The largely negative reaction to President Trump’s self-identification as a nationalist presents an opportunity to examine timely ethical questions: What does it mean to be a nationalist in 2019? Is being a nationalist morally wrong? Is nationalism inherently noxious and inevitably violent or is it merely warped and twisted to justify noxious and violent acts?  The distinction is important in uncovering whether the political force should be condemned outright or tolerated and even supported. 

Examples of nationalism’s marriage with racism, ethnic cleansing, and genocide punctuated the last century. Ethnonationalism, and its entanglement with religion, plagued the Balkans, most recently in the 90s when Yugoslavia splintered under the pressure of civil war. A desire for Hutu ethnic supremacy in Rwanda led to the mass murder of hundreds of thousands of Tutsi Rwandans. The extreme, racialized fascism espoused by the Nazis resulted in the Holocaust. Sensitivity to the ‘nationalist’ label is understandable. 

Opponents of President Trump’s hugging embrace of nationalism may be nobly motivated to prevent those moral evils from recurring. But to conclude that the mere expression of nationalism entails the tolerance of or advocacy for such evils is wrongfully anticipatory. To automatically conflate nationalism with the acts it has dubiously been used to justify neglects the intellectual complexity of the concept. The fundamental question is: Can nationalism exist without the violence with which it is so often associated? Or does the prioritization of a nation’s interests at the expense of all others represent incitement?

To answer this question, one must define nationalism and parse through its different varieties. The “nation” has been called “an imagined community” of strangers because most individuals will never know the majority of their fellow compatriots. When using this definition of nation, it is clear that a strong force is required to bind these strangers and foster a sense of shared community. 

Ethnicity is often used as this binding force. Ethnic nationalism is based on promoting a singular culture, religion, and language and securing its dominance in defining national identity. The potential for violence is obvious: preferring one culture over all others leads to the relegation or exclusion of others and can sour into the aforementioned evils of the 20th-century. It points to homogeneity, and establishes clear in-groups and out-groups.

Civic nationalism, on the other hand, avoids cultural preferences–and the potential of violence–and bases national identity on shared liberal, democratic values. One example of this form of nationalism is Scottish Nationalist Party, whose raison d’etre is independence for Scotland, defines the country’s national identity not by race or ethnicity but rather democracy and self-determination. The United States of America, lacking any formal endorsement of a national religion or language, is another prominent example of civic nationalism, even if some may endeavor to define the country’s identity through a racial or cultural lens. Merely the existence of these different forms of nationalism suggests that it can indeed exist without violence. 

But even if the concerns about the historical baggage associated with the term “nationalist” are assuaged, there remains other reasons to be critical of it. Placing the question of nationalism within the context of globalization and an increasingly interconnected world reveals as much. President Macron, who has called for strengthening the powers of the EU, characterized nationalism as “our interests first, who cares about others.” While his condemnation appears unconditional, he demonstrates the threat it poses specifically to a globalized world. 

Rising nationalism and populism in Europe has been reflected in the elections of anti-establishment parties, support for Eurosceptic leaders, and, most notably, Brexit. And it is perhaps the erosion of commercial borders caused by globalization and the cessation of governance to more distant political bodies that has led to this resurgence of nationalism; a resurgence driven by a fear of “losing” one’s country.

If the goal is to further the interdependence of countries, to strengthen international bodies, and to encourage the free movement of people and goods, and with them, culture, nationalism is certainly an obstacle. But if the goal is to support localized governance and ensure nations retain their sovereignty, nationalism is inevitable.

It is important to recognize then that to criticize nationalists is to criticize the concept of the nation, too. For those who oppose nationalism, the only possible implication of their opposition is that the nation is not worth supporting with such fervor or pride, a lost cause running counter to the progress of a globalized world. But for as long as the nation exists and is the predominant base upon which the modern state is structured, promotion and prioritization of one’s nation should strike no one as inherently wrong.

A Call for the Reform of Diplomatic Immunity

Embassies in Washington, DC

Codified through international law at the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations in 1961, diplomatic immunity grants foreign diplomats legal immunity to ensure safe passage and prevent lawsuit or prosecution based on the host country’s laws. The tradition behind diplomatic immunity dates back thousands of years, traced through Indian epics and accounts by Roman and Greek officials. Despite this, the invocation of diplomatic immunity has not been constrained by many governments and has allowed cases of rape, sexual exploitation, human trafficking, driving while under the influence, and many other crimes to go without prosecution.  This calls into question whether or not the international community should consider constraints on when diplomatic immunity—or diplomatic protection as an extent—can be invoked in certain crimes.

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Should the United States Invade Venezuela?

A landscape image of Caracas, Venezuela

Harvard’s Ricardo Hausmann has recently written a column claiming Venezuela is approaching D-Day: options are running out in the solution of the South American country’s crisis, and the only remaining solution, according to him, is the participation of a coalition of regional forces. Hausmann is quite explicit arguing that such a coalition should be led by the US.

Hausmann does not use these phrases in his article, but he is clearly thinking of “humanitarian intervention” and “responsibility to protect” (R2P). Both concepts are now common parlance in security studies and international law, yet they give rise to heated debates.

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In the Iran Nuclear Deal, Decoupling Human Rights and International Security

Two gloved hands holding a circular plate of uranium.

Following a January 2 tweet by the President of the United States, the world has turned its attention once again to Iran. Recent weeks have been marked by increasing anti-government and pro-government protests clashing on the streets of Tehran. The celebration of the Iran nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration and European allies now seems like a distant past. Seemingly, these two events are not strongly intertwined, but when we dig deeper, one might be surprised by the influence of the protests on the outcomes and success of the nuclear deal. This raises the question: is it possible to isolate the current protests from the security benefits that the nuclear deal provides to the international community, and would this mean giving in to the Iran regime’s treatment of its own people?

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The Risks We Take When We Move Towards Isolationism

A photo of Donald Trump speaking at a conference

What do we risk when we take a quasi-protectionist/isolationist role in global politics? What are the unintended ramifications globally? In the face of increasing violence against ethnic minorities worldwide, it is hard for many human rights activists to digest President Trump’s foreign policy stance without addressing the clear violations of human rights in many regions around the world. For example, violence against the Muslim-majority Rohingya population in Myanmar has increased dramatically in past weeks. Despite this, no statements concerning crimes against humanity or ethnic cleansing, which are both violations of the Responsibility to Protect UN doctrine, have been released by the White House.

In addition, a withdrawal from global promises like the Paris Agreement on climate change passes a terrifying tone for global security, signaling a passive foreign policy stance to issues outside the US’ immediate national interests. By reverting our foreign and economic policies to the pre-WWI status of protectionism and isolationism, we risk a retreat of our influence on global affairs, and eventually will have to accept that our importance as a global player will diminish.

To fully understand Trump’s foreign policies, his global economic policies, which reflect a form of protectionism, needs examination. Protectionism, widely defined as an economic policy aiming to benefit the producers, workers, and businesses against foreign competitors, largely shifts economic importance onto the host country. To accomplish the goal of protectionism, states use methods like tariffs on imported goods, restrictive quotas on foreign goods, and other forms of regulatory initiatives. Despite most economists’ belief that protectionism hurts businesses and consumers within the practicing state, Trump has largely shifted his economic and foreign policies to reflect the goals of protectionism, including his goal of withdrawing the US from the North American Free Trade Act, or NAFTA. NAFTA’s target is to reduce trade barriers between Mexico, Canada, and the US to create a comprehensive North American trading bloc, progressively benefiting each economy in the region.

Furthermore, economic protectionism can be accompanied by isolationism. Isolationism focuses on moving a state’s concentration away from a global level of analysis back into issues of national interest. This includes retreating from foreign conflicts and staying out of global issues. By focusing on domestic issues, some believe that the state’s overall health is improved. Despite these beliefs, in an increasingly globalized world where foreign affairs are deeply interconnected into nearly all lives, a foreign policy like isolationism sets a dangerous precedent because of its aftereffects on other countries. Moving towards a foreign policy like isolationism would revert back on decades of increased globalization and US hegemony, allowing many of the human rights goals attained in our post-WWII society challenged by competing rising powers, like Russia, China, and many others.  

Essentially, Trump’s foreign policy, often described as isolationist and protectionist, is focused on reducing influence in regions of minimal importance to the economic and global standing of the U.S. By taking this foreign policy stance, Trump (whether intentionally or inadvertently) fails to recognize certain atrocities against mankind, such as the conflict in Myanmar. Furthermore, he sets a tone that disregards maintaining the well-being of the global order by effectively saying that matters concerning issues like human rights and climate change have little importance to US interests, and are grounds for other countries to exercise whatever influence they want in those areas of security. By taking such stances, the US’s global influence begins to withdraw, allowing other countries to effectively carve their own stories into the post-WWII liberal order created by the US.

As a nation, if we continue with these types of foreign affairs and economic philosophies, we must inherently recognize that our influence worldwide will not reflect the kind of global power held since WWII. We will need to accept that many of the rising powers challenging our influence will eventually succeed us in certain spheres of influence. This will arise as a result of our inability to assert ourselves in global affairs. Although that is the route that our current president has decided to take, this does not mean that total global US influence will decrease within this presidential term. Changes within Congress in the midterm elections and the will of the people to actively voice their opinions on these philosophies have the ability to challenge the quasi-protectionist/isolationist moves made by the current administration.

What Did Mexico’s Politicians Gain from Trump’s Visit?

Mexico’s Finance Minister, Luis Videgaray, recently resigned. The reason seems to be the events of last Wednesday, September 31st, when Republican Presidential Nominee Donald Trump visited Mexico. The visit was not well received by the Mexican population. Due to their discontent, Videgaray seems to have been forced to resign; he is attributed to have been one of the main supporters and architects of Trump’s visit. Shortly after Videgaray’s resignation, Trump deemed his visit a success since he was able to influence the composition of the Mexican president’s cabinet. Success or failure, these are the events as they unfolded:

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On Syria: The Border Dilemma

The current crisis in Syria differs from other conflicts. It exists in a power vacuum in the space between two fractured national boundaries.  To the West, Bashar al-Assad, with the support of Iran and Russia, makes use of barrel bombs and brutality to pound back opposition forces.  To the East, the Islamic State continues to resist the Iraqi army and free Kurdish forces attempting to take back territory.  

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Syria’s “Devil’s Gambit”

With no clear end in sight, the Syrian Civil War continues to ravage the country, sparking a refugee crisis that has displayed large divisions within the member states of the European Union. The outcome of this conflict is unforseeable, as there are several factions vying for power, each representing different view and interests (for a run through of the conflict click on this link). In his article for The Atlantic, Dominic Tierney outlines a scenario which he calls “the devil’s gambit”: a pragmatic approach by the Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad, to create a binary conflict by empowering ISIS to remove both of their opponents.

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