Achieving Peace in Ukraine Is More Complicated than Some Would Think

Achieving Peace in Ukraine Is More Complicated than Some Would Think

Does the war in Ukraine mark a turning point in how the community of peace activists responds to wars?


A recent article by Michael Crowley in the New York Times highlights divisions within the community of peace activists over U.S. support for the Ukrainian war effort. Some groups and individuals who have been prominent members of that community, along with political leaders generally sympathetic to their objectives, have backed the Biden administration’s support for the Ukrainian military as a just response to a war of aggression by Russia. But some others have gone into the hearing-disrupting, banner-waving, slogan-shouting mode that became a trademark of antiwar activism in earlier times.

The current divisions—between and sometimes within groups—over the Ukraine war can be called a crisis of the peace activist community. The issues are far less straightforward for that community, and thus more difficult for it to deal with than two decades ago when it was the United States that launched a war of aggression against Iraq. It was during the run-up to that war that groups such as Win Without War and Code Pink—both still prominent parts of the antiwar activist scene—were founded.


Echoes of Vietnam

Probably there should have been more of a sense of crisis, and more complications going through the minds of peace activists, during some other earlier wars than was the case at the time. Baby boomers who in their younger years identified as peace activists won their flower-powered spurs protesting U.S. involvement in the war in Vietnam. There obviously are great differences between the U.S. direct involvement in that war, with its immense costs in American blood as well as treasure in a time of conscription, and the current U.S. backing of the Ukrainians’ fight. Much of the emotionally charged peace activism of the late 1960s and early 1970s was waged in highly simplified terms of “stop the war” and “get out of Vietnam.”

But achieving peace back then was never really that simple. Extracting the United States from a war to which it had committed an army of more than half a million was always going to be complicated—logistically, politically, and diplomatically. Responsible extraction had to consider, among other things, the status and objectives of allies, the possible indirect effects on other U.S. interests, and how the course of the war would affect the willingness of the adversary to make peace.

In other words, achieving peace required careful realist analysis that would consider all the relevant military and political factors, without turning away in disgust from the military ones. Realists might disagree among themselves over the shape of the analysis and the conclusions that ought to be drawn from it, but they would avoid oversimplification that tries to reduce everything to whether one is for or against war.

Oversimplification has been one of the consequences of the moralistic streak that has long characterized much self-declared peace activism. Another consequence has been a self-righteousness that not only inhibits useful debate among different views about policy but also loses sight of how historically self-righteousness has itself been an ingredient in launching many wars.

Another common trait of the peace activist community has been a focus on what might be called an “original sin,” in the sense of what brought about an untoward war in the first place rather than on exactly what needs to be done to get out of the war and to do so with minimum damage to the nation’s interests. This trait certainly was seen during the Vietnam War, when protests exclaiming how bad it was for the United States to have put troops into Vietnam continued long after most Americans had come to perceive the war as a mistake and the administration of the day was pulling forces out. Such a backward-looking perspective led to such phenomena as the lionizing of recently deceased Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg, whose actions gave historians and political scientists an earlier look than they otherwise would have had at a fine study of how the United States got into the war, but did little or nothing to bring about peace sooner. At the time of the leak, the Nixon administration already was more than halfway through the mammoth task of bringing home that half-million-strong force.

The Ukraine Debate

Today, some similar characteristics can be found in discussions and debates about the war in Ukraine. The most dovish participants in that debate have focused attention on the decisions years earlier to expand NATO eastward, as part of the background to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. That is a legitimate topic and one on which prominent realists have had much to say. But that is a different question from what the United States ought to do now about the ongoing war in Ukraine.

An aversion to realist analysis about matters of war and peace has been one of the most unhelpful features of much past vocalizing by antiwar activists. That aversion appears to be based on a mistaken view of realism as a sucking of moral considerations out of matters that, like war, involve life and death. In fact, realism does not add or subtract moral or other values to a nation. It instead entails a careful examination of how all the features of the real world—including the ugly and disagreeable ones—bear upon whatever values, interests, and objectives the nation pursues.

In wartime, the disagreeable features may include the objectives of an adversary and how the war must be shaped to get that adversary to agree to an acceptable peace. That was part of the reality that Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger faced when extracting the United States from the Vietnam War. It is part of the reality that Ukraine and its Western backers face today in dealing with the Russian invaders. I have offered some thoughts about what that reality means for bringing peace to Ukraine. Others will have other thoughts.

Does the war in Ukraine, given the positions described in the Times article, mark a turning point in how the community of peace activists responds to wars? Crowley mentions, as factors that distinguish the current situation from previous episodes such as the war in Iraq, the obvious fact that U.S. forces are not fighting in Ukraine, along with the desire among some left-leaning activists not to make political life difficult for the Biden administration. But there is more to the current responses than that. A group such as Win Without War is to be commended for a position that not only reflects the difference between the United States committing aggression and defense against someone else’s aggression but also shows a nuanced appreciation for the line that the administration is trying to walk by aiding the Ukrainians while limiting U.S. costs and commitments.

Nonetheless, there always will be others in the traditional banner-waving mode. It feels satisfying to simplify things into a matter of peace vs. war, and right vs. wrong, and to see oneself as being on the side of the right.

Paul Pillar retired in 2005 from a twenty-eight-year career in the U.S. intelligence community, in which his last position was as a National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia. Earlier he served in a variety of analytical and managerial positions, including as chief of analytic units at the CIA covering portions of the Near East, the Persian Gulf, and South Asia. Professor Pillar also served in the National Intelligence Council as one of the original members of its Analytic Group. He is also a contributing editor for this publication.

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