Saturday, March 19, 2022

Musings on Military Legitimacy in a Post-American Era

By Rudy Barnes, Jr., March 19, 2022 

Fareed Zakaria has observed that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine marked the beginning of a post-American era.  It calls for a new containment strategy, but one without the nuclear deterrent of mutually assured destruction (MAD).  Putin has rendered MAD irrelevant and risked a nuclear holocaust with his threat to use nuclear weapons against any intervention to defend Ukraine.

President Biden’s policy “to avoid WW III” echoes Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler in 1938.  Putin is following Hitler’s playbook to restore the old Soviet Union through unprovoked aggression, and Biden has yet to acknowledge that Putin started a world war when he threatened to use nuclear weapons to prevent the defense of Ukrainian democracy.

General Clausewitz once famously said, War is an extension of politics by other means.  Military legitimacy is a strategic concept derived from political legitimacy that defines the legal and moral standards of warfare--and the strategic ground just shifted.  The standards of military legitimacy must be realistic, since only the winners of wars make the rules of war.

America’s first priority is to make sure that Putin’s unprovoked aggression doesn’t win the war in Ukraine.  That will require America and NATO to revise their strategies to include options to intervene in Ukraine if economic sanctions don’t work.  The free world cannot continue to be held hostage by Putin’s threat of a nuclear deterrent.

Military legitimacy is based on the premise that strategic political objectives require public support based on perceptions that military operations are legitimate.  The battle for legitimacy is ultimately a contest for hearts and minds, and concepts of legitimacy vary based on cultural differences, as both Russia and America learned in Afghanistan.

Russians and Ukrainians share the same ethnic background, but they see Putin’s war through the different lenses of democracy and autocracy.  Putin’s autocratic regime controls its media and falsely reports the war to cover up Putin’s atrocities.  It reveals how perceptions of legitimacy are distorted by the fake news of corrupt regimes that lack a free press.                        

The justification for going to war, the proportional use of force, and discrimination in targeting provide standards that determine the legitimacy of military operations and war crimes.  Now that Putin has negated MAD by asserting that he will use nuclear weapons to accomplish the objectives of his aggression, military strategies will have to be reconsidered.

As a retired military lawyer, I never expected to see MAD refuted as a primary standard of military legitimacy and strategy.  I underestimated the depravity of those world leaders who have nuclear weapons.  Perhaps a defense against nuclear weapons will be discovered that’s not just a bigger nuclear weapon.  If not, we had better start digging deeper bomb shelters.           


Fareed Zakaria has described Russia’s  invasion of Ukraine as “a seismic event, perhaps the most significant one in international life since the fall of the Berlin Wall. This war marks the end of an age. But what can we say about the new one we are entering? Most important, it is marked by the triumph of politics over economics. For the past three decades, most countries have acted with one lodestar in mind: economic growth. But today, countries around the world that took security for granted — from   Canada to Germany to Japan — are thinking anew about their defense postures and forces. Military security is only one part of the way in which politics is trumping economics. Countries are searching   for greater national security in their supply chains and economies more broadly, a trend that began some years ago. From Brexit to “Buy American,” the policies being adopted by many free-market countries are animated more by populist nationalism than market economics.  We may be seeing the reversal of 30 years of globalization.      Over those three decades, McDonald’s   built a large business in Russia, cultivating a network of farmers and suppliers, opening about  850 restaurants, and creating a sizable customer base. All that has been placed on hold and could be shut down permanently. Aeroflot, the Russian airline, had  rebuilt itself after its post-Soviet breakup. Now, with Boeing and Airbus refusing to sell it spare parts or do maintenance on its planes, the company might have to stop flying altogether. These kinds of measures, which place security and self-sufficiency over efficiency, will surely have the effect of raising prices everywhere. As countries search for resilience and move away from excessive dependence on foreign countries, inflation could become a more permanent feature of the new world even if the supply shocks caused by the war are temporary.

We are also likely facing a new world of energy — one in which the prices of   oil and natural gas remain high. That means that countries that produce hydrocarbons are going to have lots of cash — trillions of dollars — over the next decade. (It also highlights why it is crucial to cut off Vladimir Putin’s chief source of revenue: his oil and gas industry.) 

One of the defining features of the new era is that it is post-American. The Pax Americana of the past three decades is over. You can see signs of this everywhere. Consider the fact that the leaders of the  UAE and Saudi Arabia — two countries that have depended on Washington for their security for decades — refused to even take phone calls from the U.S. president, according to the Wall Street Journal. Consider as well that Israel (initially) and India have refused to describe Putin’s actions as an invasion, and that all four countries have made it clear they will continue to do business with Russia.

The United States remains the world’s leading power, still stronger than all the rest by far. 

The greatest strategic opportunity lies with Europe, which could stop being the passive international actor it has been for decades. Europeans are ready to end the era of free security by raising defense spending and securing NATO’s eastern border. Germany’s remarkable turnaround is a start. If Europe becomes a strategic player on the world stage, that could be the biggest geopolitical shift to emerge from this war. A United States joined by a focused and unified Europe would be a super-alliance in support of liberal values. But for the West to become newly united and powerful, there is one essential condition: It must succeed in Ukraine. That is why the urgent necessity of the moment is to do what it takes — bearing costs and risks — to ensure that Putin does not prevail.  See

Putin’s unprovoked aggression in Ukraine confirmed that Putin’s Russia is incompatible with libertarian democracy, and that a new strategic containment policy is needed.  It recalls President Truman’s policy of containment in the Cold War announced on March 12, 1947.  See  Also


Joe Sacarborough has opined that The War in Ukraine is moving into a new phase.  Biden and the West had better get ready.  Scarborough chided President Biden for emphasis on what America and NATO won’t do in Ukraine rather than what they will do if Putin does not cease his unprovoked aggression. See

Max Boot has opined that We can’t let Putin’s threats deter us from supplying Ukranians with fighter planes.  “Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has plunged the world into its worst military crisis since the end of the Cold War. From the U.S. standpoint, the war carries two opposing dangers: We could underreact, and thus let Russia get away with unprovoked aggression that will destroy the world order. Or we can overreact, allowing the conflict to spiral out of control. Put another way: We can’t afford to start a larger war, but we also can’t afford to let Russia win. As long as U.S. personnel are not firing on Russians, Ukraine is still a proxy war — and not a precursor to World War III.”  See  On a personal note, Max Boot has noted that Putin is Sovietizing Russia.  It is becoming the country my family fled in 1976.  See

Neville Chamberlain was prime minister of the United Kingdom from 1937 to 1940. He is best known for his role in the Munich Agreement of 1938 which ceded parts of Czechoslovakia to Hitler and is now the most popular example of the foreign policy known as appeasement. See

On previous commentary on the need for America to have a containment foreign policy (related to the Islamist terrorist threat in the Middle East), see  A Containment Strategy and Military Legitimacy (8/27/2016) at  Also, The Legitimacy of Engagement and Containment National Security Strategies (9/2/2017) at 


Generally on military legitimacy, see Barnes, Military Legitimacy: Might and Right in the New Millennium (Frank Cass, 1996); manuscript posted at

Of particular relevance are chapter one, Might and Right, Past and Present, with historic examples; chapter 3, which covers the requirements and principles of Military Legitimacy; chapter 4, Democracy, Human Rights and the Rule of Law; and chapter 6, Lessons Learned in Legitimacy and Leadership.        

On how conflicting standards of legitimacy can turn military victories into political defeat as they did for both Russia and America in Afghanistan, see What the Afghanistan Fiasco Teaches Us About Religion, Legitimacy and Politics (8/21/2021) see

See also, (9/4/21): Musings on How Religion and Culture Caused the Afghanistan Debacle 9/4/2021) at

On Russia, the Ukraine and Nuclear War (2/26/22), see  See also,

Musings on a New World Order Based on Reconciliation, not Conflict (3/5/22) at,  and

Musings on Defending Democracy from the Tyranny of a Nuclear Autocracy (3/12/22), at

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