In defence of negotiations


At first glance, the Social Democratic basic values of liberty, justice, and solidarity seem to command one – and only one – obvious course of action regarding the war in Ukraine. The Russian attack is a flagrant violation of everything Social Democracy stands for: liberty is under attack and justice is undermined. Full solidarity is a must – not only through humanitarian aid, but also through military support.

Based on this understanding, German Social Democrats have never doubted that Ukraine deserves unwavering support. In parallel, a self-critical assessment of past Social Democratic positions regarding to Russia has begun. In the process of Zeitenwende, Social Democrats have made it clear time and again that the key to peace in Ukraine ultimately lies where the decision to go to war was made: in Moscow. 

Supporting Ukraine, however, does not absolve progressive voices from looking beyond the present to understand that the ultimate objective of supporting the war effort is to bring an end to the violence. On one level, this apparent paradox is based on the conviction that the implementation of fundamental Social Democratic values is not possible in a global non-system where ‘might’ equals ‘right’. On a second level, however, this notion is based on the obvious fact that Social Democratic values are equally unattainable in a world locked in perpetual conflict – not to speak of a nuclear-devastated planet. A Social Democratic approach must do both: support Ukraine militarily and move beyond the military logic by searching for – and especially not by delegitimising – a negotiated solution.

Without peace, everything is nothing

To search for an exit from military escalation does not mean caving in to aggression, or quietly rewarding the aggressor. Rather, it translates into realpolitik Willy Brandt’s insight “Peace is not everything, but without peace, everything is nothing”.

A broad majority of the German public is in favour of supporting Ukraine. At the same time, however, fear of further military escalation and the global repercussions of further violence is widespread. This duality of public sentiment, however, is rarely reflected in the German media. Here, public concerns are routinely dismissed as foolish or – worse – as deliberately playing into Putin’s hands. In far too many instances, the shrill tone of morality rather than sober analysis reigns supreme. This rigidity may play out well for political commentators, however, for a centre-left Volkspartei – a big tent party –, reflecting on an ambivalence that is widespread among the public is not a sin, but a necessity.

Certainly, Ukraine is entitled to support. But for Social Democrats, solidarity can neither be unconditional nor ignore the wider, potential global repercussions. This is where a political debate exclusively focused on the type, quantity and quality of the next sophisticated weapon system for Ukraine falls dramatically short of incorporating a macro-view.

Not losing sight of other challenges

The abundance of global challenges – from poverty and underdevelopment to climate change and refugee crises – can hardly be addressed as long as the war rages on and global cooperation becomes ever more elusive. Timing-wise, we are at a halfway point in implementing the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Yet, in reality, they are further out of reach than ever. It is for this reason that notable countries of the Global South differ in their perception of the war. Countries in the South realise that their legitimate concerns regarding sustainable development – the eradication of poverty and global crisis management – are unlikely to materialise in a world steeped in never-ending polarisation and military escalation. Not to mention their own experience with the moral double standards of the West. 

Acknowledging such complexities certainly does not justify halting military support for Ukraine and quietly selling out Kyiv in a grand bargain with Moscow. However, they are a reminder that with Western military support comes Western responsibility – as Jürgen Habermas rightly pointed out. Simply outsourcing this debate – and a serious discussion of the war objectives – to Ukraine does not exonerate Western countries from defining the limits of their own role and goals.

Let justice prevail, and let the world perish?

Such a discussion, however, needs to move beyond the notion ‘Let justice prevail, and let the world perish’. Leadership is more than principled insistence. Moreover, looking beyond the battlefield is neither ‘escalation phobia’ nor ‘submission pacifism’ – to recite the stigmatising labels used liberally in the current German debate. Certainly, the question of justice is crucial. But beyond a certain point, escalating in the service of justice can trigger a problematic conflict dynamic of its own – with its own unjust repercussions far beyond Ukraine.

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has recently set the doomsday clock at 90 seconds to midnight, closer to a nuclear catastrophe than ever before. Yet, such statements are regularly rejected as ‘alarmist’. Are the voices who routinely portray the Russian President as an irrational genocidal maniac really so confident that this same president will shrink back from the brink of nuclear escalation? Accepting catastrophe has never been a particularly rational disaster-avoidance strategy, and progressive forces in particular have always understood this. Undoubtedly, the last months have shown that Moscow is deliberately stoking Western public fear of a nuclear response – another taboo ruthlessly shattered by Vladimir Putin. But simply, denying any such risk and hoping for the best in a global game of chicken hardly seems like a responsible way forward. 

Critics of Olaf Scholz and other carefully treading actors accuse them of appeasement. But at what point in a possible escalation would they opt out of further escalation? Or does such a point simply not exist? And if so, do they have a democratic mandate for such ideological rigour?

How much injustice do we accept?

Looking ahead after more than one year of fighting, Western states appear to silently hope that some sort of frozen stalemate will emerge after further inconclusive rounds of fighting. But the real question is how much partial or temporary injustice can be accepted to prevent the universal injustice of an open-ended conflict – or a potentially devastating military escalation. This question is one of the great taboos of the current debate. However, failure to find a conclusive answer to this question is drastically different from preventing the question from being asked. Social Democrats should not support Ukraine to bring about a global triumph over the ‘tyrannical principle‘. Neither should they stand with Ukraine to exorcise the militant chauvinism displayed by the Russian president and his reactionary worldview. The goal is to support a European neighbour against a brutal attack, a return to the status quo ante, and a defence of the most basic rule of international law as enshrined in the Charta of the United Nations.

Given that a negotiated solution is the only conceivable one for the foreseeable future, this support is driven by the hope that Ukraine can enter such negotiations from a position of relative strength. For Social Democrats, standing up for liberty, justice, and solidarity means ensuring Ukraine is able to help itself. In this, military support of Ukraine implies the responsibility to seek and seize every realistic opportunity to negotiate. Ultimately, at a time when passions run high, it is time to remember that Social Democrats must support the war with the primary objective of ending it at the earliest possible time.

This article was first published in German on Vorwärts

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