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Democratic states face dilemma over Russia’s invasion

How should democratic states act towards those who do not accept the ground rules of democracy? The Russian invasion of Ukraine presents a dilemma for Western democracies. They do not quite know how to handle this type of conflict as their usual methods of negotiation and respectful bargaining make them look weak in the eyes of undemocratic aggressors. This says Per Bauhn, professor of practical philosophy at Linnaeus University.

Per Bauhn’s area of expertise is questions relating to human rights and political philosophy. Many of the issues he conducts research on are brought to the fore by the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.

To Bauhn, the most important question right now is how Western democracies should deal with states that do not endorse moral and political principles, such as those pertaining to individual freedom, the method of consent, and human rights. The type of aggression shown by Russia presents somewhat of a dilemma for Western democracies, which are used to handling conflicts through negotiation instead of violence. The problem is that references to conventions, the United Nations Charter, and political concessions do not bite on Russia as the country does not play by the same rules, Bauhn explains.

“In the eyes of dictators, such an obliging deference to conventions and agreement signals weakness and motivate them to request more, tighten the screws, and move their positions forward. The challenge is that democracies are not used to the kind of game played by dictators and totalitarian states”, Bauhn continues.

Bauhn argues that democracies must be able to adapt their response based on what opponent they are facing.

“This means that one must be more willing to play rough when things get rough when dealing with aggressive regimes. Every threat of aggression must be met with a trustworthy counterthreat to meet force with force. Democracies tend to rely on the same ideal of equality in international relations as they do on their home stage. Equality before the law is an excellent principle in a state governed by the rule of law. However, all states do not share the belief in human rights typically shared by democracies and, therefore, cannot be dealt with in the same way”, says Bauhn.

Philosophy wants to answer the question of what is important

Thus, the ongoing conflict in Ukraine brings one of the main tasks of philosophy to the fore, to offer a basis for discussions on values. What values are important and should be promoted when we are to make decisions?

“While other disciplines gather facts and develop models for strategic or rational actions, philosophy – and, above all, practical philosophy, or moral philosophy – is tasked with analysing and developing guidelines for arguments and principles relating to values”, Bauhn continues.

“Such questions become important not least in conflict situations. The development in Ukraine means that issues relating to human rights need to be weighed against factors relating to business, trade, and economy; likewise, the autonomy of states and their responsibility for their own citizens’ freedom and safety need to be weighed against their obligation to intervene in international conflicts. When different values are set against each other, we must argue why one is more important than the other”, Bauhn explains.

“In 1979, Vietnam invaded Cambodia and ended the tyranny of the Red Khmers, which had claimed the lives of 1.5 million people. At the time, Vietnam was not a democracy either, but there is little doubt that the regime that was removed was much worse morally. However, the Vietnamese intervention did not have support in international law, which meant that the Red Khmers were still considered the legitimate government of Cambodia by the UN. This is an example of a problem where conventions relating to state rights or international law hinder the protection of human rights”, Bauhn continues.

War, its justification and consequences have been a recurring topic in the history of philosophy. It brings theoretical questions concerning what is important to a head. At the same time, war often means that philosophical ideas of moral rights, individual freedom, freedom of the press, and so on can become increasingly difficult to defend in the heated atmosphere of armed conflict. This was the case at the onset of World War I, when many philosophers came to see themselves primarily as Germans, French or British, and so on, which made it difficult for them to discuss the situation that had arisen from a more distanced and philosophical perspective, Bauhn explains.

“It is, of course, particularly challenging for a philosopher to discuss a war in which one’s own country is involved. This applies here and now as well. As a philosopher, you must always keep in mind that it can be tempting to choose certain principles or perspectives because they benefit the party with which you sympathise, rather than the party that is supported by the best arguments”, says Bauhn.

Stresses the importance of action

However, philosophy is not only about thinking and reasoning. On the contrary, it teaches us the importance of acting based on our beliefs. Also in war and crisis, philosophy reminds us of the importance of fighting for what we think is important.

“Philosophy teaches us that a good life, or at least a meaningful life, also must be a committed life. We must connect with values in order to establish a sense of purpose and direction in our lives. To many people, such commitment is about religion or political ideologies, but philosophers have often been non-believers in religious contexts and relatively uninterested in party politics. However, one can still feel commitment to values like justice, human rights, freedom and wellbeing, and feel a sense of purpose and satisfaction in exploring and defending such values as a philosopher”, Bauhn continues.

Par Bauhn presents three thinkers to whom war has played a key role.

“Ludwig Wittgenstein is often considered one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century. He wrote the book that made him famous, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, while serving as a soldier in the Austrian-Hungarian army during World War I”, says Bauhn.

“The British philosopher Richard Hare was captured by the Japanese during World War II and was kept in slave labour from 1942 until the end of the war. After the war, he became a famous moral philosopher at Oxford University, but he was also marked by his time in captivity. He later wrote an article about slavery in which he provided examples from his own experiences”, Bauhn continues.

“War is a central theme also for the philosopher Michael Walzer, author of the book Just and Unjust Wars (1977). In the book, Walzer explores on what grounds warfare can be considered morally defensible”, Bauhn concludes.

Read more

Read more about Per Bauhn and find a list of his publications here.

Per Bauhn's latest book “Leva fritt och leva väl”, deals with questions relating to, among other things, human rights from a moral philosophy perspective (in Swedish).