Anti-war think tank attacked
Another example of how degraded DC foreign policy discourse is
America’s Top Anti-War Think Tank Is Fracturing Over Ukraine. That’s the headline on a piece that appeared in Mother Jones on Friday, and it’s a somewhat hyperbolic rendering of the actual underlying story. Here’s the story:
Within the space of two weeks, two people at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft resigned over disagreements with others at the think tank about the Ukraine war. One was a board member and one was a non-resident fellow. That’s two people out of 13 board members and 37 non-resident fellows (not to mention a bunch of staffers). If this is a fracture, it’s a hairline fracture.
Still, it’s a valuable fracture, because it illuminates what may be the biggest single challenge to people in the “restrainer” coalition that Quincy embodies—the left-right coalition of people who think America’s foreign policy has for decades been too militaristic (lacking in “restraint”) and should be fundamentally reoriented.
And that biggest single challenge to the restrainer coalition is… the human mind! Human beings have mental tendencies that sometimes make it hard for restrainers to get a fair hearing. These tendencies—which include deep intuitions about blame and responsibility that can lead to misunderstandings about what some restrainers are saying—seem to be part of human nature, built pretty deeply into our brains.
Consider the brain of Joseph Cirincione, the Quincy non-resident fellow whose resignation on Thursday prompted the Mother Jones story. (Disclosure: I’ve known Joe for more than a decade and consider him a friend. As you’ll see, I’m capable of criticizing friends—and also capable of calling them by their last names, a journalistic convention I’ll stick with in this piece, though it feels awkward.)
Cirincione hasn’t made many public statements about his resignation—just a terse tweet announcing it and several subsequent quotes in Mother Jones or Politico. But even these few statements include a number of characterizations of the views of people at Quincy that seem to me seriously misleading. (I don’t think they were intentionally misleading. That’s another thing about the human brain: It’s good at getting us to misrepresent reality without realizing we’re doing that.)
In his original tweet, Cirincione just said, “I have resigned as a Distinguished Non-Resident Fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft over the institute’s position on the Ukraine War.” Elaborating on this, he told Mother Jones that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine “is clearly an unprovoked invasion, and somehow Quincy keeps justifying it.”
That the Quincy Institute “keeps justifying” the Russian invasion is quite an allegation. Is it true?
First of all, Quincy per se—the institution as a whole— hasn’t taken an official position on the war. It did, along with a dozen other NGOs, sign a letter to President Biden that advocated things like a diplomatic solution to the conflict that’s “acceptable to Ukraine.” But since this letter refers to “Russia’s outrageous and illegal invasion” of Ukraine, I doubt it’s what Cirincione has in mind when he says Quincy “keeps justifying” the invasion.
So apparently if we want examples of what Cirincione means by this accusation, we’ll have to look at things individual people at Quincy have said.
In search of such things, I clicked on two links in the Mother Jones piece—the two examples it provided of things Quincy fellows had said that might irritate mainstream Democrats like Cirincione.
One link led to a TV appearance by Anatol Lieven, a senior research fellow at Quincy. Here is something Lieven said during that appearance: “It is entirely correct to help Ukraine defeat and contain Russian aggression in Ukraine.” This was on the show Democracy Now, where he was discussing an Atlantic piece he’d just written that included this line: “US support for Ukraine against Russia’s invasion was entirely justified.”
The second link was to a piece by another Quincy senior research fellow, William Hartung, that included this line: “The administration is right to provide aid to Ukraine to defend itself against the brutal Russian invasion of that nation.”
These two examples are significant.
Lieven, an expert on Russia, has probably been the most prominent Quincy voice on the war. What’s more, Lieven, according to people affiliated with Quincy, had been a primary target of Cirincione’s in-house criticism. Yet there he is, saying things that seem directly at odds with Cirincione’s claim about Quincy “justifying” Russia’s invasion. And on the day of the invasion Lieven had written something even more directly at odds with it in Responsible Statecraft, Quincy’s media outlet: “Nothing can justify this flagrant violation by Russia of international laws and norms to which Russia itself has repeatedly appealed.”
Hartung, an expert on defense spending, is also a prominent Quincy voice on the war. And, notably, his reference to “the brutal Russian invasion” appeared on Quincy’s website—something you might not expect given Cirincione’s assertion, in Politico, that “you cannot find a word on the website or in the analysis about the horrors and crimes that Russia is doing.”
Now, it’s true, as the Mother Jones piece noted, that both Hartung and Lieven were arguing for an early end to the war—which means a negotiated peace that leaves Russia in possession of some Ukrainian territory (and which, as a practical matter, would probably mean using America’s leverage as Ukraine’s biggest arms supplier to encourage that outcome). It’s also true, as Mother Jones says, that this position “has little public backing from prominent Democrats in Washington.”
But Cirincione, in explaining his resignation, doesn’t complain about that position. His claim that Quincy is “justifying” Russia’s invasion seems to be at the core of his concerns, and he makes that claim without citing any evidence to support it—and notwithstanding various pieces of evidence, such as the examples above, that seem to undermine it.
So what is going on in Cirincione’s brain? Here’s one possibility:
A number of people at Quincy have argued that the US has mismanaged its relationship with Russia for decades, pursuing ill-advised policies that increased the chances of an invasion of Ukraine. I think they’re right, and I’ve made this argument myself. It is extremely common (and here I speak from bitter experience) for people to assume that if you make this argument you mean to absolve Putin of blame for the invasion—to “justify” the invasion, as Cirincione puts it.
Cirincione doesn’t come out and say that he’s making this assumption, but he does say some things that make a particular kind of sense when read in that light.
Consider this quote he gave Politico: “They [people at Quincy] excuse Russia’s military threats and actions because they believe that they [the threats and actions] have been provoked by US policies.”
Taken at face value, this sentence doesn’t seem worth bothering with. It’s a proposed explanation of why people at Quincy excuse the invasion—and until Cirincione can give us an example of people at Quincy who actually are excusing the invasion, an explanation of this behavior won’t be something we’re urgently in need of.
But it may be that this sentence has, in addition to its explicit meaning, a second level of significance—as a kind of refracted rendering of the logic that underlies Cirincione’s accusations: He thinks that people who believe unwise American policies made invasion more likely will inevitably believe that Russia is blameless for the invasion—so criticism by people at Quincy of past American policies is both Cirincione’s evidence that they “excuse” Russia for the invasion and his explanation of why they do.
This account of Cirincione’s thinking is just a theory, and a conjectural one at that. One thing that counts against it is that Cirincione himself has been—in the past, at least—critical of some of the US policies toward Russia that people like Lieven complain about (like NATO expansion).
In any event, whether or not Cirincione is thinking this way, lots of people do, and when they do they’re making a logical error. There are various ways to reconcile (a) believing that unwise US policies made invasion more likely with (b) blaming Putin for the invasion. Here’s my own approach:
Those unwise US policies didn’t violate international law, whereas Russia’s invasion did. So Russia is the criminal, and it’s important to punish criminal behavior (though I share the view of some people at Quincy that pushing Russia entirely out of Ukraine probably can’t be done without courting an unacceptable risk of regional or even nuclear war).
There are other ways to reconcile the belief that wiser American policy might have averted this war with the belief that Russia is nonetheless to blame for it. But it’s not shocking to see people overlook these possibilities and fallaciously conflate criticizing American policy with excusing Russia’s behavior. After all, to not make that conflation is to exhibit a kind of nuance that’s rare not just in foreign policy discourse but in discourse about blame and responsibility generally.
As a rule, an argument about the moral responsibility for some calamity is an argument with two sides, advanced by two teams. One team dwells on things Actor A did that led to the calamity, and the other team dwells on things Actor B did that led to the calamity. And the two teams contend, respectively, that Actor B or Actor A deserves all the blame.
The problem with this kind of discourse isn’t just that it’s binary—that it assumes 100 percent of the blame must lie on one side or the other. Another problem—and one more relevant to the Ukraine issue—is that this kind of discourse doesn’t take account of the ambiguity of the word “blame.” Blaming a country for unwise policy isn’t the same as blaming it for violating international norms, let alone blaming it for violating international law.
If I had time and space, I’d argue that the roots of this kind of muddled moral discourse lie in natural selection’s engineering of the human brain. There’s reason to think, for example, that during human evolution it was common for two groups (maybe two families, maybe two larger social coalitions) to have arguments about blame whose outcome was materially consequential—a fact that could have shaped the evolution of the human brain in ways that made it good at winning morally charged arguments but bad at thinking subtly about issues of blame and responsibility.
For now, though, I’ll leave the evolutionary psychology out and just focus on that last part: The human brain does, in various ways, make nuanced discourse difficult. It’s hard to have an honest discussion about America’s foreign policy missteps without getting accused of various things you may not be guilty of—and this grim reality, sadly, can discourage people who agree with you from entering the discourse.
In the end, then, Cirincione’s leveling of serious yet apparently unfounded allegations—that people at Quincy “excuse” the Russian invasion, that Quincy as an institution “keeps justifying” the invasion—may reflect the normal workings of the human brain. Whether that absolves him of moral responsibility for leveling them is a question for another day.
Note: After Cirincione announced his resignation on Twitter and said it was “over the institute’s position on the Ukraine war,” I asked him to elaborate and got no reply (though he did later add a tweet directing people to his quotes in Politico). If he ever does give me substantiation of his allegations I’ll update this piece accordingly. Meanwhile I should emphasize that it’s possible that at some point someone affiliated with Quincy has said something that could reasonably be interpreted as “excusing” or “justifying” Russia’s behavior. Quincy has dozens of non-resident fellows—people scattered across America, at universities and other places, who get no salary from Quincy and say and write a lot of things. (Lieven and Hartung, in contrast, are salaried staff.) But I’m not aware of an example of this, and Cirincione hasn’t given us one—much less the multiple examples it would take to corroborate his assertion that “Quincy keeps justifying” the invasion.
Image from Euronews.