An open letter to the presidents of France and China, who may be able to prevent escalation in Ukraine.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron stand in front of Chinese and E.U. flags at a signing ceremony inside the Great Hall of the People on November 6, 2019 in Beijing, China. (Photo by Jason Lee – Pool/Getty Images)
Dear President Macron and President Xi,
I am writing you out of despair over the lack of wisdom of the political leaders of my country. They, for what they feel to be the most idealistic and pure motives, are leading the United States and the West to a military confrontation with Russia over Ukraine, a confrontation that seems fated to escalate, perhaps into nuclear war. I now believe that nothing less than dramatic public rhetorical intervention from the two of you, acting in concert and thus impossible to ignore, is the best chance to push the United States and the Western alliance off this disastrous course before it is too late.
The French and Chinese intelligence services probably have a more accurate reading than I about who makes foreign policy decisions in the United States. I assume that President Biden is now more guided than leading, but what forces and individuals are guiding him is a topic almost entirely unexplored in the American press. In any case, his Ukraine policies are supported by virtually the entire American foreign policy establishment, including an American media, which with the rarest of exceptions has dissented only by chiding Biden for excessive caution about confronting Russia.
There is in the United States an eerie political unanimity, redolent of the period after 9/11, when George W. Bush had massive approval ratings and was preparing the Iraq invasion. We Americans have constructed for ourselves a world in which Vladimir Putin and Russia now constitute a form of absolute evil. That view has necessarily intensified as the war in Ukraine has ground on, fueled by the suffering of innocent Ukrainians and the crimes against civilians which accompany all wars in the modern era.
Perhaps 5 percent of the elected members of Congress share these worries. There has been no serious pushback to the statements made by the parade of top American officials to Kiev, where they now promise not the defense of Ukraine but “victory,” defined by American Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin as leaving Russia so weakened that it can never again threaten its neighbors. It is not clear whether Austin was aware of the obvious precedent for such an ambitious goal: Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau’s proposal at the end of the Second World War to reduce Germany to a permanently incapacitated state, a policy America rejected in favor of the Marshall Plan.
American efforts to end the war though diplomacy, seeking a mutually acceptable balance between Ukraine’s needs and Russia’s, have ceased completely, assuming they ever existed. Questions such as why Russia was willing to go to war, with all the obvious financial and human losses that entailed are never asked. Professors and journalists and retired diplomats have been willing to point out that virtually every wise person inside or outside the American foreign policy conversation, from Henry Kissinger to Noam Chomsky and dozens in between (George Kennan, Daniel Moynihan, Robert Gates, William Burns, etc.), warned that efforts to bring Ukraine into NATO—a goal which has never been disavowed—or to make it a de facto NATO member, which have been happening for years and have intensified since Biden took office, would be viewed as a dire provocation and a more or less existential threat by Russia. But on the American political conversation these warnings have had no evident impact.
The two of you lead ancient nations unsurpassed in their contribution to world culture. Both of you know an escalation of the Ukraine war into nuclear confrontation between Russia and NATO would have fatal consequences for your people. As was widely understood during the Cold War, a large-scale nuclear exchange would have environmental consequences deadly to humanity as a whole, not sparing nations which were not targeted. As Jonathan Schell noted in The Fate of the Earth, a hugely popular book at a time when the American leaders and public took the danger of nuclear war seriously, there are several possible levels of destruction: the end of the belligerent nations, the destruction of human civilization, the extinction of mankind (and of most fish and mammals), or the actual extinction of life on earth.
Schell’s book is of course profoundly depressing, going into painstaking detail about nuclear blasts and immediate fallout, long-term fallout, electromagnetic pulses, the environmental effects on plant and animal life. For those living in a belligerent nation, Russia or the NATO countries, including France, these outcomes are mostly interchangeable. But in any serious exchange of nuclear weapons, the ecological damage would be sufficient to cause the collapse of Chinese society as well. I write the two of you because you have, in different ways, displayed understanding of the Ukraine crisis more nuanced than that found anywhere in the American establishment.
President Xi, China’s foreign ministry has from the beginning of the crisis taken note of the role of NATO expansion in precipitating it. On the eve of Russia’s invasion, your foreign affairs spokesperson Hua Chunying asked, “When the U.S. drove five waves of NATO expansion eastward all the way to Russia’s doorstep and deployed advanced strategic weapons in breach of its assurances to Russia, did it ever think about the consequences of pushing a big country to the wall?” It is not obvious which would be the more reassuring answer: that the United States did not think through the consequences, or that it did. American diplomats certainly made clear without ambiguity that Moscow’s request to take Ukraine off the NATO path was a “non-starter.”
President Macron, you had numerous conversations with President Putin prior to the invasion, in person and by telephone, and if there is to be a history written of this war (that is, if there are still historians and their readers), then the record of what was said will be studied passionately. We know your effort to stave off war failed, but in the aftermath you have made clear Russia could not and should not be excluded from Europe. This is a view often expressed by members of the French political establishment, as it never is in the United States.
Right now, there is no diplomatic track. One scans the press in vain for any sign of an American diplomatic effort to seek a resolution that both Ukraine and Russia could live with. The reports from the battlefield are invariably murky, but it is clear that the Russian invasion has mostly failed, its troops stymied in their efforts to overthrow the Zelensky government, but failing also to make enough progress to consolidate their gains in eastern Ukraine. They are hampered by poor morale, training, and leadership and by the success of motivated Ukrainians forces in successfully deploying modern American weapons. But had this not been the case, it was never clear what a Russian victory might have looked like; does anyone now consider Hungary’s capitulation to Russia in 1956 a victory for Russia and a defeat for Hungary? Did they ever? This was the “victory” the West allowed when Eisenhower rejected the counsel of those who wanted to involve the United States in a war to liberate Eastern Europe.
Similarly, we don’t know what a defeat for Russia will entail. The Russian foreign ministry, from the very onset of the crisis, has warned that defeat is unthinkable, and made clear its nuclear forces are ready to prevent one. If the war goes worse for Russia this threat resembles a “Samson option,” the use of nuclear weapons to ensure that if Russia is defeated the loss won’t be Russia’s alone. In a reverse of the situation during the Cold War, when American doctrine posited the first use of nuclear weapons if its conventional forces were overwhelmed, Russia strategists now talk of various ways to “de-escalate by escalating,” meaning the use of nuclear weapons, either in a demonstration blast over the Black Sea or on the battlefield, to proclaim in the most dramatic possible terms that defeat will not happen and a negotiated settlement is necessary.
If you listen to a nuclear expert like Joe Cirincione, the U.S. military has a response prepared at every level, and would probably not resort to nuclear weapons as soon as Russia did. In his telling, NATO’s conventional firepower could destroy whatever base a Russian nuclear strike came from. But to listen to him—and he is a relatively dovish, arms control oriented member of the liberal establishment—is to learn that the U.S. intention is to meet every level of Russian escalation in such a way that America still “wins the war.” There is no room, no consideration, for the idea of backing down and acknowledging that perhaps Russia has a larger interest in Ukraine than Washington does. When Cirincione walks through the scenarios, it’s well thought out game of escalation and counter-escalation, as weapons are deployed in the theater, first in Ukraine, then Russia, and Europe. But “all bets are off” once a Russian weapon goes off on American soil.
This is the one of the curious and somewhat unanticipated aspects of the Ukraine crisis, how the American establishment came to believe that Ukraine was so important to it. For decades now America’s liberal establishment have sought to suppress their own nationalist sentiments, and to portray those who insist on expressing them as depraved right-wingers or fascists. But when in Zelensky they saw a man who clearly wanted to fight for his country, the establishment’s admiration was visceral and intense. It swooned. It was apparently permitted, among those compelled by ideology to treat their own nationalism as suspect, to embrace someone else’s. The Freudian concept of sublimation seems pertinent.
In any case, the situation now appears dismal. There are no serious diplomatic overtures. American politicians and officials (and British ones) are traveling to Ukraine and talking not about any kind of peaceful resolution but about victory, regime change, war crimes trials. Russian diplomats have responded in kind, noting, accurately enough, that by supplying Ukraine with heavy weaponry, NATO is waging a proxy war against Russia. There was a moment a month ago when Russians and Ukrainians were talking, and Zelensky said that a neutral non-aligned Ukraine was on the table; he received no encouragement from the United States and has apparently dropped the idea. It is not obvious what will change this; it seems that if the fighting in Donbas goes badly for Russia, they will take greater risks in attacking Ukraine’s pipeline of modern weapons, which puts direct Russia-NATO confrontation clearly on the table. Russia’s idea of “escalate to de-escalate” is a known part of Moscow military doctrine, just as NATO’s readiness for first use of nuclear weapons was for much of the Cold War. It is not clear what brakes there are in the process.
There is no one in the United States with the stature to change the course. I can’t imagine that the American statesmen of the Cold War era would have let things get this far. All of them were shaped by the horrors of the Second World War and deeply conscious the horrors of nuclear weapons. One doesn’t have the sense of anything comparable from the current leaders, who came of age in an era of unmatched American military supremacy. Which is why I have turned to the two of you. Meet, please, in public, in Paris or Beijing.
Tell the world that the dangers to world civilization have grown too intense, and are far more important than whatever concessions would be necessary to give Russia an off ramp, a referendum over who owns the Donbas, whose Russian speaking citizens are thoroughly despised by Ukrainian nationalists, or a definitive halt to Ukrainian aspirations to become a NATO base. Offer to mediate. Demand to be allowed to mediate. Make yourselves the diplomatic equivalent of nuclear warning shot, the gesture which cannot be ignored.
A frightened world would hang on your every word, and powerful voices would emerge, even in the United States, to support you. For France this would be a kind of break in NATO solidarity that would encourage others to speak out, would shatter the illusion that the entire West thinks Biden’s course is wise. For China it would represent a definitive entrance onto the great power stage. The two of you stand at the height of political prestige, in your own nations and the world. Now is the time to put that prestige to use. The world needs you.
about the author
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative and the author of Ex-Neocon: Dispatches From the Post-9/11 Ideological Wars. Follow him on Twitter at @ScottMcConnell9.