“War is not the answer.”
These five words were true when Martin Luther King Jr. said them in his 1967 speech against the Vietnam War.
These words were also true when members of a Quaker Meeting in Atlanta, Georgia, adopted the proclamation and put it on yard signs to oppose the Bush Administration’s planned invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq in response to 9/11.
And, as we as a nation look for answers to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the humanitarian crisis it is leaving in its wake, it bears repeating again: “War is not the answer.”
This slogan quickly became the centerpiece of a campaign to end the post-9/11 wars by the Quaker lobby in Washington, the Friends Committee on National Legislation, where I worked from 2006 to 2010. I found in the slogan “War is Not the Answer” a powerful double meaning. It was an expression of Quaker faith, most famously exemplified by the declaration of members of the founding generation of Friends to King Charles II of England in 1660 “that the spirit of Christ, which leads us into all Truth, will never move us to fight and war against any man with outward weapons, neither for the kingdom of Christ, nor for the kingdoms of this world.”
But, “War is Not the Answer” was also an assertion of hard-headed political analysis, of shrewd policy advocacy tailored to the world as it is, not as faith would like it to be. The argument was that responding to the attacks of 9/11 by occupying Afghanistan, rather than concentrating on quickly bringing to justice those directly responsible, was a mistake certain to cause new human suffering and more likely to increase violent Islamic extremism than reduce it. And the invasion of Iraq, a country that had nothing to do with 9/11, was far worse and more likely to have (and did have) catastrophic results.
Many Americans would agree now that the costs and the results of our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were horrific and entirely unacceptable. But, we are now faced with a war not of our own making. Do Friends, whose advocacy has sometimes proven prescient in the past, have anything to say to our fellow citizens in this new and deadly situation created by Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, a conflict that some have termed the most dangerous international conflict since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis?
In the case of Russia and Ukraine my listening begins with the late George Kennan, the U.S. State Department Russia expert who invented the policy of “containment” of the Soviet Union that the U.S. pursued throughout the Cold War. Kennan wrote in a New York Times op-ed in February 1997, as President Bill Clinton was preparing to bring the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland into NATO, that “expanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold-war era. Such a decision may be expected to inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion; to have an adverse effect on the development of Russian democracy; to restore the atmosphere of the cold war to East-West relations, and to impel Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking.”
Vladimir Putin looks like the fulfillment of Kennan’s prophecy.
Kennan was not alone in his judgment. Clinton’s own Secretary of State, Madeline Albright, wrote in her memoirs that Russian President Boris Yeltsin “and his countrymen were strongly opposed to enlargement, seeing it as a strategy for exploiting their vulnerability and moving Europe’s dividing line to the east, leaving them isolated.”
Others have warned of the consequences as the U.S. proceeded to move NATO closer to Russia.
At the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest, President George W. Bush pressed to admit Georgia and Ukraine as members, but France and Germany objected. U.S. intelligence agencies also opposed admitting the two countries bordering Russia, according to former U.S. National Security Council staffer Fiona Hill. But Britain brokered a compromise reflected in the final summit communique declaring that the two countries would eventually become members. Carl Bildt, a former Swedish prime minister and foreign minister, called the Bucharest compromise “the worst of both worlds. It created expectations that were not fulfilled and fears that are grossly exaggerated.”
Robert Gates, who served as secretary of defense to both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, wrote in his 2014 memoir that “trying to bring Georgia and Ukraine into NATO was truly overreaching.” It was, he said, a case of “recklessly ignoring what the Russians considered their own vital national interests.”
We are witnessing the worst results of the U.S. policy of steadily advancing NATO to Russia’s borders now with the brutal war on Ukraine, but only four months after the Bucharest summit, Russia invaded Georgia and recognized the “independence” of two Georgian provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Then, in February 2014 when street protests led to the ouster of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych (with behind the scenes efforts by the Obama Administration as well as Russia to influence the outcome), Russia invaded and annexed Crimea and began aiding Ukrainian separatists in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.
However you may wish to categorize it, as well-intentioned, foolish, principled, or aggressive, it is clear that U.S. policy toward the countries bordering Russia has failed. It has done more to provoke than protect.
What now can be done to staunch the bleeding? I think most Friends, and much common sense, would say ‘end the war asap and mitigate its effects as much as possible; don’t escalate, and don’t encourage a fight to the last Ukrainian.’
Ukraine and Russia have maintained diplomatic contact throughout the conflict, one promising and unusual step for countries at war. Ukrainian President Zelenskyy has declared that Ukraine is willing to accept neutral status and forego membership in NATO, while President Putin has outlined to Turkish intermediaries terms of a settlement that amount to Ukrainian recognition of the status quo on the ground before the invasion. (Putin’s floating of peace terms received prominent coverage by the BBC but little attention in U.S. media.) All this suggests a negotiated solution is possible. The sooner the better.
The most important thing the U.S. can do to promote a diplomatic solution—after refraining from escalating the war with a no-fly zone or other direct intervention—is to declare that U.S. sanctions are aimed at ending the war, not removing Vladimir Putin from power, and will be lifted when Ukraine and Russia reach an agreement. Then the task will be to help build a new security structure in Europe that prevents future wars.
A prolonged or wider war is not the answer.
Bucks County’s James Fine is a former Quaker International Affairs Representative and humanitarian worker and lobbyist with the Friends Committee on National Legislation. Visit https://tinyurl.com/mt5sdphe to register and watch James speak at Wednesday’s Ukraine Crisis Forum, which will also feature Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick.