Since the early days of Putin’s brutal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, we have heard the reporters, pundits, world leaders, and other members of the global community decry Putin’s war crimes and the need to hold him accountable for the unabashed murder and brutality Russian soldiers have inflicted on the Ukrainian civilian population and the country itself.
But we also hear—and can certainly observe—how the wheels of international justice turn with agonizing sluggishness or simply don’t move at all, to the point of being, to be most frank, practically inconsequential.
Unlike the proverbial tortoise whose slow and steady pace eventually overtakes the blithely overconfident and undisciplined hare to win the race, the international system of justice at work in our supposedly global community does not seem to advance even at a slow and steady pace; And even if it did, it would not be able at all to declare any kind of victory, or serve any consequential justice, on behalf of the Ukrainian people and their sovereign nation.
We hear all the hemming and hawing about the need to document atrocities properly, collect evidence, build a proper case, blablabla. Meanwhile, the bodies pile up and the homes of Ukrainians and the nation’s infrastructure are bombed to bits.
But even all of this legalese and bureaucratic mumbling cannot blur the reality we witness every day on the news of what just recently President Biden and now Canadian lawmakers have come to term a genocide against the Ukrainian people, finally validating what President Volodymyr Zelensky and other Ukrainian leaders have been saying for some time.
As I wrote some weeks ago in the pages of PoliticusUSA, identifying Putin’s barbarity as “genocide” and not “war” can potentially be hugely important precisely because the term “genocide” is supposed to command—trigger–substantial international intervention.
Indeed, in her 2002 book “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide, Samantha Power analyzes how one of the ways the US has avoided intervening in the myriad genocides of the twentieth century has been by avoiding using the term “genocide” to describe mass murders committed by state actors. Bureaucratic processes and language have served as kind of a moral fig leaf or salve for the US as it devises and carries out its foreign policy, which has historically mustered little to no will to address or move to eliminate halts in action.
Recently Ross Douthat, in an insightful column titled “Why Biden saying ‘genocide’ doesn’t matter,” argued that history teaches us that even when genocide has been called out, often the international community has done little to intervene or exact any kind of justice. He points to the genocide on the Uyghur minority in China, which the US declared a genocide in 2021, and the genocide against the Rohinga in Myanmar, which elicited no US military response.
While Douthat’s historical analysis rings sadly true, still the term “genocide” has force, both in its accuracy when applied to Putin’s murderous violence against the Ukrainians and its ability to provoke and justify direct military intervention.
So far, though, the world’s democracies have been slow to respond, even while providing military aid and equipment to Ukraine.
Despite the fact that we hear that global democracy hangs in the balance with Putin’s gambit to eliminate the Ukrainian people and their culture from the face of the earth and to colonize their sovereign territory, still, the international community sees resisting Putin’s aggression as a fight for the Ukrainians themselves.
In terms of actual military personnel, the Ukrainians are going it alone while each day more civilians die and are displaced and more of the country is reduced to rubble.
Do the bureaucratic deferrals of justice to some future fantasy moment when Putin is put on trial ease the international conscience and justify non-intervention? Does our constant cheerleading and heroicizing of the Ukrainian people delude us into thinking they got this covered—again, even as they suffer without reason and endure what multiple nations have agreed is genocide?
I hear people say that not intervening is a way of avoiding World War III.
But let me ask, what has to happen to justify World War III? What does a singular world leader have to do to provoke international intervention? What if, as Hitler advanced through Europe on his genocidal mission, the US and other nations had said, well, we want to avoid World War II, so we’re not going to do anything?
And what is the end game if somehow actually ends up victorious Putin in this campaign? What then?
In playing the tortoise to Putin’s hare, the international community is putting global democracy at risk and certainly not showing the way to create a global community characterized by mutual responsibility and aid.
Those nations seeking to sustain global democracy would be better served to stand up now and say no to Putin in thunder, whatever the risks of a larger war maybe.
First, I find it hard to believe Putin would have eager allies with much to gain by supporting his ill-conceived genocidal venture.
Second, the best way to avoid World War III–and IV and V–is for the international community to stand up aggressively and immediately to rebuff Putin, thus sending the message that any time an authoritarian leader moves against a sovereign democratic nation, the response will be swift and determining from the world’s democratic nations.
I can think of no greater deterrent, especially when we remember that Putin in this case was emboldened by his occupation of Crimea, by his war crimes in Syria, and so on, when the world did nothing, really.
Authoritarian leaders need to know that sovereign democratic nations will stand in solidarity to protect global democracy.
Democratic leaders around the globe need to be steady, for sure, in their support for democratic nations, but they need to be swift as well in responding to threats to, and aggressions against, global democracy.
Tim Libretti is a professor of US literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.