Proportionality, Defensive Alliance Formation, and Mearsheimer on Ukraine

Etikk I Praksis - Nordic Journal of Applied Ethics 2:69-82 (2023)
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In this article, I consider the permissibility of forming defensive alliances, which is a neglected topic in the contemporary literature on the ethics of war and peace. Drawing on the jus ad bellum criterion of proportionality in just war theory, I argue that if permissible defensive force requires that its expected harms must be counterbalanced by its expected goods, then, permissible defensive alliance formation seems to also require that its expected harms must be counterbalanced by its expected goods, as the latter can result in much the same consequences as the former. Moreover, due to the incommensurability of values in play when making proportionality judgments, I argue for a value pluralist understanding of the criterion. On this view, defensive alliance formation is proportionate if the expected gains in certain values (goods) intuitively justify the expected losses in others (harms) when compared to the alternative expected value trade-offs of not allying. To explore the implications of my theoretical claims I consider them in relation to John Mearsheimer’s influential account of the causes of the Russo-Ukrainian War. On this account, the West’s strategy to assimilate Ukraine and Ukraine’s pursuit of NATO membership post-annexation of Crimea were disproportionate because the expected harms were unjustified when compared to the alternative expected goods and harms of forgoing Ukrainian membership of NATO. This does not imply that Russia’s aggression is just, but it does imply that the West and Ukraine are partially responsible for the war and that they acted impermissibly in attempting to expand/join NATO.

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Benjamin D. King
Rangsit University


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