Why America should not deepen its military involvement in Ukraine

Tom Z. Collina

In his stirring address to Congress on [March 17], President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine asked the United States for more help as his nation defends itself against a brutal and unjustified Russian invasion. Invoking the attacks on Pearl Harbor and the World Trade Center, Mr. Zelensky said simply, “I call on you to do more.”

Given the stakes, the United States can and should do more to end the war and help alleviate human suffering in Ukraine. We were already providing weapons for the Ukrainians to defend themselves, such as Stinger antiaircraft missiles and Javelin antitank missiles, as well as hitting Russia with huge economic sanctions. And soon after Mr. Zelensky’s speech, President Biden announced that the United States would send an additional $800 million in military assistance to Ukraine, as part of a $14-billion support package he had already approved.

But there is a limit to how far we should go. Even as our hearts go out to the brave Ukrainian people, the Biden administration is right to resist calls to deepen American military involvement in Ukraine, because the consequences of a direct confrontation between NATO and Russia could be unimaginably dire. If Mr. Biden bows to public pressure and, for instance, attempts to create a no-fly zone in Ukraine, we could be stepping on the path to nuclear war. As the U.N. secretary general, António Guterres, said this week, “The prospect of nuclear conflict, once unthinkable, is now back within the realm of possibility.”

A product of the Cold War, Mr. Biden well understands that direct U.S.-Russian conflict could escalate to nuclear war. The Soviet Union may have disappeared 30 years ago, but its nuclear weapons did not, and neither did ours. If they are used, the consequences would be horrific — instant death for people in the immediate blast area followed by environmental destruction, possible famine, and more death as the radiation spread. It could mean the end of civilization as we know it.

The Biden administration is keenly aware of the risks. Mr. Biden said on March 11: “We will not fight a war against Russia in Ukraine. Direct conflict between NATO and Russia is World War III, something we must strive to prevent.” The administration has rightly ruled out sending U.S. troops to Ukraine for now, sending them instead to NATO states, which the administration has vowed to defend. And Mr. Biden has wisely refused to consider anything that might provoke direct conflict with Russia, not only rejecting a no-fly zone but also resisting a Polish offer to provide Soviet-era MIG fighter jets to Ukraine.

But as the humanitarian toll in Ukraine increases, so, too, will the pressure to do more. For many here in the United States, it will be deeply frustrating that the threat of nuclear war limits what we do. President Vladimir Putin of Russia warned that “anyone who tries to interfere with us” will suffer “consequences you have never faced in your history.” He is, in effect, using his nuclear arsenal as a terrorist weapon to hold Ukraine hostage and keep other nations out. Is he bluffing? Maybe. But given the potential consequences, we can’t afford to be wrong.

What can we do? First, we must stay the course and end this brutal war. The sanctions that have already been imposed on Russia and the weapons that the Pentagon is sending to Ukraine are meant to raise the cost of the conflict to Mr. Putin, so that he will eventually see the wisdom of a political settlement. Both of those efforts must go on while the White House continues to avoid direct conflict between NATO and Russian troops. The longer the war lasts, the more painful it will become for both sides. As difficult as it may be to watch as Ukraine suffers, escalating the war could make it much worse.

Next, we must change our attitude toward nuclear weapons, understanding that the old ways of thinking are not only outdated but also dangerous. The U.S. nuclear arsenal does nothing for us in this conflict. It did not keep Mr. Putin out of Ukraine. Because he is willing to use the threat of nuclear war to deter intervention in Ukraine, the existence of nuclear weapons, if anything, helped enable him. He is the only one suggesting a willingness to use nukes as a cover to brutalize weaker states. We must continue to stigmatize and limit nuclear weapons to reduce the chances that Russia will do this again.

The Biden administration can help by changing its nuclear policies accordingly. Mr. Putin is threatening to use nuclear weapons first in this conflict. The Biden administration should rule out first use and seek to build an international consensus around the idea that the sole purpose for nuclear weapons is to deter their use by others. Mr. Biden has supported this position for years. In addition, the United States should start now to build international support for the deep reduction and eventual elimination of nuclear weapons so they cannot be used by strongmen and autocrats to enable their atrocities.

We should all want to end this senseless war, protect Ukraine, and avoid nuclear catastrophe. The hard part is striking the right balance. To reduce Russia’s leverage in the future, we must face the fact that nuclear weapons are more useful to Mr. Putin than they are to the West. The bomb is a weapon of terror, pure and simple, and we must do all we can to keep it in check.

Mr. Collina is an expert on nuclear weapons, missile defense and nonproliferation. His article was published in The New York Times, March 18, 2022 and reprinted in PeaceMeal, March/April 2022.

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)


America’s empathy problem — and what to do about it

Herb Cromwell
Baltimore Sun, June 25, 2021

    “Thank you for seeing me
     I feel so less lonely
     Thank you for getting me
     I’m healed by your empathy”

– Alanis Morissette, “Empathy”

A dictionary definition of empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. It’s not the same as sympathy. As memoirist Rebecca O’Donnell puts it, “Empathy is walking a mile in somebody else’s moccasins. Sympathy is being sorry their feet hurt.”

If Americans seem less empathetic that they used to be, the scientific community says that feeling has validity. A 2010 University of Michigan study found that college students then were 40% less empathetic than their counterparts of 1980s and ’90s, as measured by standardized tests of this personality trait. And it seems to have only gotten worse since then.

In 2011, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked presidential candidate Ron Paul what should happen to a 30-year old man who chose not to buy health insurance and then became seriously ill. “Are you saying society should just let him die?” Mr. Blitzer asked. The debate crowd “erupted in cheers and whoops of ‘Yeah,’” Slate reported.

Roughly a decade later, in September 2020, after the shooting of two Los Angeles sheriff’s deputies, a crowd gathered outside the treating hospital shouting “we hope they die” as they tried to block the hospital’s emergency exits, according to the Los Angeles Times. That same month, “The U.S. has an Empathy Deficit” was the headline of an opinion piece in the September 2020 Scientific American.

In America today, immigrants are demonized. Asian Americans are assaulted. Capitol police are beaten with flagpoles. Unarmed African Americans are shot and suffocated by police. Votes are suppressed. Mass shootings take lives regularly.

Even mask wearing amid COVID-19 illustrates our empathy problem. The message “I wear a mask to protect you, you wear a mask to protect me” did not resonate with millions of Americans; neither did the social value of vaccinations. Today’s notion of individual freedom has little room for empathy.

“The death of human empathy is one of the earliest and most telling signs of a culture about to fall into barbarism,” wrote philosopher Hannah Arendt.

So, what can we do to boost our collective empathy level? Empathy — or lack of it — is partially hardwired: A 2018 University of Cambridge study found that 10% of differences in humans’ ability to empathize can be attributed to genetic variations. But that means 90% is explained by non-genetic factors such as socialization and education. That suggests empathy can be taught.

Stanford neuroscientist Jamil Zaki confirms this in his book “The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World.” The book shares research, including experiments from his own lab, showing that empathy can be strengthened through effort.

Author Roman Krznaric, in “Empathy: Why it Matters and How to Get It,” argues that empathy should be taught at a young age. He notes that half of the children who participated in Roots of Empathy, a Canadian nonprofit that teaches school-age children to empathize with each other, were less likely to fight than they were prior to the program.

Here’s one more idea: Administer an empathy test to every candidate for public office.

Prior to filing, every candidate would be required to listen to the old song “I’ll Be Seeing You” by Billie Holiday. They would be asked to imagine a G.I. in a foxhole dreaming about his wife or girlfriend back home, and a young woman stateside wondering if her love would make it back. If by the last line “I’ll be looking at the moon, but I’ll be seeing you” there’s not a tear in the candidate’s eye, he or she wouldn’t be allowed to run. We’d then know that our elected officials had hearts at least capable of empathy.

Henry David Thoreau may have said it best: “Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?”

Steve Martin had a less noble take: “Before you criticize a man, walk a mile in his shoes,” he reportedly said. “That way, when you do criticize him, you’ll be a mile away — and have his shoes.”

But at least you will have done the walk. And the journey of a thousand miles — and to empathy — begins with a single step.

– PeaceMeal, July/August 2021

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)