Top U.S. Scholars vs. Aid to Ukraine: When Smart People Stake Out Dumb, Immoral Positions

While the world contends with the most terrifying dictator since WWII, prominent academics Jeffrey Sachs, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt promote a strange anti-Ukrainian agenda.

Eyal Winter

Jan 7, 2023

.Pictures of the Week-Global-Photo GalleryRemnants of Russian rockets fired on Kharkiv, Ukraine, this past December. Does anyone believe that Ukraine would have survived as a sovereign country without military aid from the West? Lipkos / AP

From time to time it so happens that the political scale between left and right bends itself into the shape of a circle that brings together its two ends – the radical left and the radical right – to the same point. Recently, this bizarre scenario has featured prominently in the debate over the war in Ukraine. The inclination of the far right (from Viktor Orbán in Hungary to Narendra Modi in India) to support Putin’s Russia and oppose the West’s support for Ukraine is hardly surprising. For the right, values like autocracy, nationalism and power are far more important than those of democracy, human rights and freedom. However, quite surprisingly, the fiercest and loudest opponents of Western support for Ukraine are not people of the radical right, but rather individuals on the left, whose delusional positions regarding the war seep into major media outlets and the liberal press. 

The three central figures promoting a strange anti-Ukrainian agenda are senior academics in the United States: Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs, and the political scientists John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Stephen Walt of Harvard University. Last year, Sachs, who has advised the United Nations secretary general and a number of heads of state worldwide on matters of sustainable development, published an article lamenting the military support provided by the United States and other Western states to Ukraine, as well as the sanctions against Russia. Sachs even went so far as to claim that the American aid that led to the end of Muammar Gadhafi’s regime (2011), the American action against Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own citizens, in Syria, and the military actions taken by the West to stop the ethnic cleansing carried out by Serbia in Bosnia in the early 1990s – were all wrong and unnecessary.

Mearsheimer and Walt, on their side, attribute, without a shred of shame, a certain legitimacy to the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a defensive action; they argue that it could have been prevented had the process of Eastern European countries (such as the Czech Republic and Poland) joining the European Union and NATO stopped at an earlier stage. Mearsheimer has even invented a derogatory term to describe Western involvement in international conflicts: “liberal hegemony.” Such involvement, he claims, is nothing less than an ideological crusade aimed at imposing, by force, such liberal ideas as democracy and human rights on societies that do not want them, and for which these values are unsuitable.

Evidently, Mearsheimer assigns equal status to liberalism and such ideologies as religious fundamentalism, national fascism and plain old tyranny. In his mind, the ideas of democracy and human rights are suitable for Americans, the British and citizens of several other nations in the West, but not for the Russians, Chinese, Syrians or Libyans. Can such views be interpreted as an expression of anything other than blatant racism? 

One may argue that there is no reason for concern. After all, these are only three academics, and though they hold senior positions at leading American universities, why must we care about what they say? Clearly, no academic position can guarantee immunity against political stupidity or moral opacity. However, the most disturbing aspect in the story of these three musketeers is the way in which their delusional views receive disproportionate exposure on important liberal media platforms, including The New York Times, CNN, the BBC, NPR, CNBC, Bloomberg, Der Spiegel and many others. All this is taking place at a time when the free world is having to contend with the most terrifying dictator since World War II. It is quite understandable that these three scholars became stars of the official Russian media, but how could they get so much airtime in Western media outlets that call themselves liberal?

To understand the level of absurdity of Sachs’, Mearsheimer’s and Walt’s claims, it might help to go back in time to medieval Europe, when in many places across the Continent, a brawny man could rob and beat to death a frail, elderly woman in the town square in broad daylight, with no bystander daring to attempt to stop him. This absence of law enforcement is the reason why violence was one the main causes of death in medieval Europe, not unlike cancer as a leading cause of death in our day.

Many towns in Europe, consumed by internal violence, ceased to exist. In contrast, towns that were lucky enough to be ruled by a strong monarch survived. Violence in these towns was dramatically lower, and their economies flourished. In most cases, a powerful king who annexed such a town did not do so out of benevolence or concern for the well-being of its inhabitants, but rather out of greed, and lust for power and honor. Yet despite his ill intentions, life in such towns became much better, simply because a powerful authority had taken on responsibility for their governance; because people’s rights and entitlements were not determined by the height, weight or muscle strength of this or that individual; and because several residents could band together and easily subdue even the strongest thug in town. 

Our global village of today is just like the violent town of the past, left “orphaned,” because no monarch would take charge of it. While the scale is obviously much greater, the rules of the game remain the same – that is to say, the rules of physics, not the rule of law. No policing, no effective courts and no moral standards cover the entire global town. Nevertheless, the reason that civilization still survives is that passersby in the form of leaders of democratic and liberal countries occasionally dare to point a finger at the town bully and say, “Enough is enough!” 

Now, however, along come three reputable academics who warn these passersby to stop sticking their noses into matters that aren’t their concern, then label such assistance as hegemony. They even try to convince us that it’s not the thug but rather the old woman who is to blame for being naive enough to think that she can walk freely around town without being harassed.

Does anyone believe that Ukraine would have survived as a sovereign country last winter without military aid from the West? Does anyone believe that after Ukraine was swallowed up by Russia, and erased as a country, Putin would have been content with this “achievement”? Isn’t it clear as day that without any deterrence from the West, he would continue on toward the Baltic states, and from there to Poland? Is there anyone who believes that Iran will ever voluntarily give up its nuclear program without additional sanctions from the West? Sachs, Mearsheimer and Walt complain about the West’s “unnecessary” involvement in Syria – after Assad committed a brutal act of genocide against his own people, using chemical weapons. What hope do they leave for oppressed peoples around the world who seek a modicum of freedom and human rights? There are many such nations, and there will be ever more in the future. 

The truth is that the requisite liberal and moral position on the war in Ukraine is the complete opposite of the one proposed by the three distinguished professors. Instead of being disbanded or diminished, NATO should be expanded and transformed from a purely geographic alliance into a liberal and democratic one that can be joined by every country on earth that meets certain conditions pertaining to its commitment to democracy and civil rights. Post-Putin Russia could well satisfy these conditions, and in such a case, could be invited to join the alliance. Such an expanded alliance could replace the UN’s impotent peacekeeping force, and provide real deterrence against dictators, even when they threaten countries that are not part of the alliance. This is the appropriate vision for those who believe in human rights and democracy, as opposed to turning our backs on evil.

Russian reservists recruited to support the country's military campaign in Ukraine walk towards a banner with a portrait of President Vladimir Putin during a ceremony before their departure in Omsk, Russia on Friday.
Russian reservists recruited to support the country’s military campaign in Ukraine walk towards a banner with a portrait of President Vladimir Putin during a ceremony before their departure in Omsk, Russia on Friday. ALEXEY MALGAVKO/ REUTERS

The way in which clearly immoral positions are enthusiastically adopted by some who define themselves being of the left is related to the outdated definition of a left-wing position. During the era of the Cold War era, being far left meant adopting the opposite position – on just about any issue – to that held by the West or the United States. This is why, here in Israel in the 1950s, many of my parents’ friends revered Stalin as a hero. Whether he merited such admiration was totally irrelevant for those people: He is considered a criminal by the West, they reasoned, hence he must be a hero for us. It seems like Sachs, Mearsheimer and Walt have adopted a similar attitude to the war in Ukraine, more than 30 years after the end of the Cold War. 

A lot has been said in recent years about the phenomenon of fake news; the phenomenon of fake experts is likely to prove just as dangerous. Sachs, Mearsheimer and Walt do not present their political positions as personal views of ordinary citizens, but as scientific truths resulting from many years of academic research. Unsurprisingly, it turns out that modesty is not a virtue any of them possess. 

As an example, Sachs writes the following about himself on his personal website: “Jeffrey D. Sachs is a world-renowned economics professor, bestselling author, innovative educator, and global leader in sustainable development.” In order to tie his position on the Ukraine war to his field of expertise, Sachs puts forward a far-fetched economic argument. Demagogically, he uses the group of “BRICS” countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) as a reference point. His main claim is that America’s involvement in international affairs is illegitimate because it is not rich enough: Its share of global GDP is a mere 16 percent, while the BRICS countries’ combined share is 41 percent. The reference to a country’s wealth as a source of legitimacy for international involvement is outrageous in itself, yet doubly infuriating when brought up by a person who defines himself as a left-wing economist. From Sachs’ point of view, moral considerations of justice and freedom, of saving human lives, or of putting an end to the suffering of millions, are not part of the equation. 

There is some small comfort to be derived from the story of the professors from Columbia, Chicago and Harvard. They make claims that they had attempted to change their country’s foreign policy, and made great efforts to convince U.S. government officials to listen to their expert advice, but were given the cold shoulder. It’s a wonderful sign! Their expertise cannot contribute anything to the policy they have tried to influence. 

The debate between the opponents of aid for Ukraine and sanctions against Russia, and the majority of the public in the West who support these things, should be conducted not in the realm of facts or political analysis, but rather of values. The opponents are promoting the idea of national selfishness devoid of empathy and compassion, and are easily willing to turn their backs on the suffering of other nations that fall prey to the insolence of unrestrained dictators. Fortunately, most people in the West are not ready to adopt this kind of egoism. 

Eyal Winter is the Silverzweig Professor of Economics at the Hebrew University, and Elizabeth and Brunner Professor of Economics, at Lancaster University, U.K.

5 comments

  1. Sorry, but I do not consider people intelligent who are against Ukraine … an innocent nation that’s been invaded by a murderous, criminal, fascist shithole. Even if mafia land weren’t a murderous, criminal fascist shithole, Ukraine is still the victim here. Such people should burn their degrees. They don’t deserve them.

  2. “While the world contends with the most terrifying dictator since WWII, prominent academics Jeffrey Sachs, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt promote a strange anti-Ukrainian agenda.”

    Don’t be shy Prof Winter! Sachs is a putler shill, likely an agent of the fascist regime. What else could explain his blatant lying? This skanky shitweasel is teeing himself up as the next Noam Chomsky.

  3. “However, quite surprisingly, the fiercest and loudest opponents of Western support for Ukraine are not people of the radical right, but rather individuals on the left, whose delusional positions regarding the war seep into major media outlets and the liberal press.”

    Interesting that morons are on both sides of the political spectrum. Neither extreme has a monopoly on STUPID!!!

  4. Thank you Professor Winter for your erudite analysis and great exposition. We need to support Ukraine with ATACM’s as soon as possible.

  5. Sorry, we can never ignore facts.

    An expanded NATO to replace UN peacekeepers is an interesting idea but, it would fail.

    As is being seen now, the process to gain entry into NATO can be vetoed by anyone, similar to how members of the security council has veto power.

    And how would it not be seen in many places as imperialism 2.0?

    Revamp the UN or replace it, but NATO as structured will not work.

    Facts simply can not be ignored the way these professors suggest. If we define our values as it being important to avoid nuclear war, we might have to ignore the facts of genocide in Ukraine.

    This is just an article by two professors being rivals to other academics. It does little to address the problem of dictators/warlords in many parts of the world who are far away geographically, culturally and historically from NATO.

What is your opinion?