Nuclear Fears Clouding Thinking on UkraineRoundup
tags: nuclear weapons, Russia, Ukraine
Snyder is an American historian of Europe and a public intellectual on both continents. Among his books are On Tyranny and Bloodlands, which appear in new editions in 2022.
That's been a problem in the discussion of the Russian invasion. Media get your attention by writing of escalation! Not to mention: nuclear threats! And: nuclear war! There is a profit motive at work here, one that Russian propagandists exploit by their references to nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, the atmospherics of what should be a sober conversation are brought more by a counting of dollars than by a reckoning of risks.
That is one reason why we should be ashamed of our discussion of nuclear war, but not the main one. Our nuclear talk is a way to claim victimhood, and then to blame the actual victims. Once we turn our attention to a hypothetical exchange of missiles, we get to imagine that we are the victims. Suddenly the actual war no longer seems to matter, since our lives (we imagine) are at risk. And the Ukrainians seem to be at fault. If only they would stop fighting, then we could all be safe. This, of course, is exactly how Russian propagandists want us to reason. And it is wrong.
Not just morally wrong, though of course it is that. Actual Ukrainians are actually fighting and dying in a war that serves our security in countless ways -- including by reducing the risk of nuclear war, as I'll discuss below. And we spend our time imagining our own victimhood?
Yielding to Russian nuclear talk is also wrong, and embarrassingly so, as strategic thinking. It is an example of a narcissistic fantasy that looms over discussions of American foreign policy: the fantasy of omnipotent submission. This is the notion, birthed in American exceptionalism and impatience, that since America is the power behind everything, all will be well if America does nothing. If we do what the Russian propagandists want, and do nothing for Ukraine, then (in this fantasy) there will be no nuclear war.
In the fantasy of omnipotent submission, America has the magical power, by way of complete inaction, to restore a peaceful status quo where we could all sleep soundly. But America has no such power. And there is no way to do nothing. American policymakers have to act within a certain setting, formed by many actors in complex interactions, in which doing nothing will always have consequences, just as doing something will always have consequences. Doing nothing, in fact, always amounts to doing something, and usually (as in the case of Russian invasion) it is the wrong something! In this case, doing nothing (to support Ukraine) would increase the risk of nuclear war. By doing something specific, by supplying arms to Ukraine, the United States has assisted the Ukrainians in decreasing the chances of nuclear war.
I can only make this argument if you will follow me into the realm of strategic thinking. We have to do this step by step. The fantasy of omnipotent submission builds and releases anxiety. Someone in Russia issues a threat; feckless commentators and propagandists amplify it; and then we seek a quick way to release the fear. Or: the United States send weapons; feckless commentators and propagandists speak of escalation!; and, again, we seek a quick way to release the fear. When this becomes a habit, it takes the place of thinking about the risks and benefits policy.
In psychological terms, the fantasy of omnipotent submission is understandable. So let us understand it as psychology -- and also understand that the Russians deploy it as psychology. The fantasy is used against us. We need to be thoughtful about it in order to resist it. And as we try to work our way out from under it, we must realize that it is there to prevent strategic thinking.
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