Respectful Disagreement About Sanctioning Russia

Respectful Disagreement About Sanctioning Russia

I’ve written two blog entries over the last two weeks (here and here) arguing in favour of the business community imposing sanctions on Russia, in response to Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine.

I think the reasons in favour of such sanctions are powerful: Putin is a serious and unique threat both to Eastern Europe and to the world as a whole, and it is essential that every possible step be taken both to denounce him and to hobble him. The international community agrees, and the international business community, in general, agrees too.

But not everyone. Some major brands have resisted pulling out, as have some lesser-known ones. And while I disagree with the conclusions arrived at by the persons responsible for those brands, I have to admit that I think the reasons they put forward in defence of their conclusions merit consideration.

Among those reasons:

“We don’t want to hurt innocent Russians.” Economic sanctions are hurting Russian citizens, including those who hate Putin and who don’t support his war. Myself, I think such collateral damage pales in comparison to the loss of life and limb being suffered by the people of Ukraine. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a good point: innocent people being hurt always matters, even if you think something else matters more.

“We have obligations to our local employees.” For some companies, ceasing to do business in Russia might mean as little as turning off a digital tap, so to speak. For some, it means laying off (permanently?) relatively large numbers of people. Again, we might think that this concern is outweighed, but it’s still a legitimate concern. We generally want corporations to think of themselves as having obligations of this kind to employees.

“Sanctions won’t work.” The point here is that we don’t (do we?) have good historical evidence that sanctions of this kind work. Putin is effectively a dictator, and he really doesn’t have to listen to what the Russian people think, and so squeezing Russians to get them to squeeze Putin is liable to fail. Myself, I’m willing to grasp at options the success of which is unlikely, in the hopes that success is possible. But still, it’s a concern worth listening to.

“Sanctions could backfire.” The worry here is that if we in the West make life difficult for Russian citizens, then they could start to see us as the enemy — certainly Putin will try to make that case. And if that happens, support for Putin and his war could well go up as a result of sanctions.

That’s a few of the reasons. There are others.

On balance, I think the arguments in the other direction are stronger. I think Putin is uniquely dangerous, and we need to use every tool available to us, even those that might not work, and even those that might have unpleasant side-effects.

However — and this is crucial — I don’t think that people who disagree with me are bad, and I don’t think they are foolish, and I refuse automatically to think less of them.

It doesn’t help, of course that the folks making the arguments above are who they are. Some of them are speaking in defence of big companies. The motives of big companies are often thought of as suspect, and so claims of good intentions (“We don’t want to hurt innocent Russians!” or “We must support our employees!”) tend to get written off as self-serving rationalizations. Then there’s the specific case of the Koch brothers, and the companies they own or control. They’ve announced that they’re going to continue doing business in Russia. And the Koch brothers are widely hated by many on the left who think of them as right-wing American plutocrats. (Fewer realize that while the Koch brothers have supported right-wing causes, they’ve also supported prison reform and immigration reform in the US, and are arguably better categorized as libertarians. Anyway…)

My point is this: The fact that you mistrust, or outright dislike, the people making the argument isn’t sufficient grounds for rejecting the argument. That’s called an ad hominem attack. Some people’s track records, of course, are sufficient to ground a certain mistrust, which can be reason to take a careful look at their arguments, but that’s quite different from writing them off out of hand.

We ought, in other words — in this case and in others — to be able to distinguish between points of view we disagree with, on one hand, and points of view that are beyond the pale. Points of view we merely disagree with are ones where we can see and appreciate the other side’s reasoning, and where we can understand how they got to their conclusion, even though that conclusion is not the one we reach ourselves, all things considered. Points of view that are beyond the pale are ones in support of which there could be nothing but self-serving rationalization. Putin’s purported defence of his attack on the Ukraine is one such view. Any excuse he gives for a violent attack on a peaceful neighbour is so incoherent that it can only be thought of as the result either of disordered thinking, or a smokescreen. But not so for companies, or pundits, that think maybe pulling out of Russia isn’t, on balance, the best idea. They have some good reasons on their side, even if, in the end, I think their conclusion is wrong.

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