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Amidst a war involving the world’s foremost nuclear powers, Pope Francis has been a lonely voice for peace. For his pains, he has been criticized by commenters on left and right and by leaders in both Russia and Ukraine. Yet he has continued to speak. There is a great deal at stake in whether the world heeds his words—not just countless lives, but the fate of a deeply humane way of thinking about the nature of war and peace.

Francis has decried “the violent aggression against Ukraine,” exclaiming, “there is no justification for this!” He regularly asks for prayers for the country’s “martyred people” and has called on Vladimir Putin to end the “spiral of violence and death.” He has backed up his words with deeds. At the behest of Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, the pope has sought to arrange the return of Ukrainian children who have been taken to Russia from occupied ­territory—the sort of sensitive mission in which the Vatican has a record of success. He has launched a secretive peace effort that, whatever its prospects, shows his laudable commitment to ending the war.

Why then has Francis been so widely criticized? Unlike almost every other European leader, Francis has consistently called for negotiation to end the conflict in Ukraine. Standing behind these calls are his horror at the human suffering ­unleashed by war and his belief that nuclear escalation may lead to “­uncontrollable and catastrophic consequences on the world level.” Many observers claim that acknowledging any logic behind Russia’s actions is tantamount to justifying them. Instead of seeking to understand Russia’s motivations, these people have described Putin as a “madman” (or in Boris Johnson’s more polite phrasing, an “irrational actor”), and otherwise spoken as if there were no possible grounds for a diplomatic settlement. Francis has challenged these assumptions by stating that Russia’s invasion may have been “provoked” by NATO’s “barking at Russia’s door.” He has described the Ukraine conflict as a confrontation between opposing imperial powers: “There are imperial interests there, not just of the Russian empire, but of the empires of other sides.”

Francis’s claims may be impolitic, but they are not ­incorrect. Though it is now all but mandatory to describe Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as “­unprovoked,” the invasion can’t be understood apart from two fateful choices made by the United States. The first was the decision, beginning in the George W. Bush administration, to support Ukraine’s accession to ­NATO. In 2008, ­Vladimir Putin warned that Russia would regard such a move as a “direct threat.” But the same warning had been made long before. In a 1997 column for the New York Times, George ­Kennan, the eminent diplomat, warned that eastward expansion of NATO would prove “the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post–cold-war era.” It would inflame Russian nationalism, encourage the country to adopt an anti-­Western foreign policy, and start a new Cold War. On each of these points, ­Kennan was right. In fact, he anticipated the flash point of the future conflict. In a private letter to Strobe Talbott, Clinton’s adviser on Russian affairs, ­Kennan warned that forcing Eastern ­European states to choose between ­NATO membership and good relations with Russia would have particularly “fateful consequences” in Ukraine.

U.S. support for the Maidan Revolution, and for the anti-Russian government formed in its wake, was the second fateful step taken by the U.S. in the run-up to Russia’s invasion. In February 2014, Viktor ­Yanukovych, Ukraine’s elected leader, was overthrown. Yanukovych’s removal was the culmination of a months-long protest movement held in Kiev’s Maidan Square in response to Yanukovych’s pro-Russian policies. Though the Maidan protests were “generally non-­violent,” as one scholar puts it, they succeeded only after the protestors’ use of force increased. Some of the protestors were motivated by a desire for a less corrupt and more tolerant society. Others were members of hard-edged nationalist groups. This variegated movement enjoyed the enthusiastic backing of the United States, symbolized by a high-profile visit by John McCain. In a leaked phone call, Victoria Nuland, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, was overheard planning the composition of Ukraine’s post-revolution government. As Francis observed, there has been more than one imperial interest at work in Ukraine.

Some, pointing out that Francis is from the Global South, have argued that his view of Ukraine reflects a mere disagreement over geopolitics. But the debate has exposed a much deeper divide, one separating two fundamentally opposed understandings of the morality of war. On one side is a view that tends to reject ­negotiation with the enemy as an accommodation of evil. Its logic leads to the demand for unconditional surrender and the prosecution of total war. On the other side is a ­belief—associated with the tradition of just war theory—that war must be restricted in its methods and aims. Without supposing that diplomacy will ever be simple or easy, it insists on negotiation whenever possible in order to avoid total war.

In order to understand the difference, it is helpful to turn to Mr. ­Truman’s Degree, a pamphlet written by Elizabeth Anscombe in 1956 to protest the decision by the University of Oxford, where she taught philosophy, to award an honorary degree to Harry Truman. Anscombe believed that the intentional killing of innocents was wrong, and so those waging war must distinguish between combatants and civilians. Uncontroversial as this belief seems, it led her to the profoundly unpopular view that Harry Truman had been wrong to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Even if the bomb had helped to save the lives of American and Japanese combatants, that fact could not justify the intentional mass killing of civilians.

It would not have seemed necessary to drop the bomb, argued ­Anscombe, had the U.S. not required Japan to surrender unconditionally. Informed that their options were to win the war or lose all their rights and claims within their own land, the Japanese were motivated to fight to the last man. “It was the insistence on unconditional surrender that was the root of all evil,” Anscombe wrote. Refusal to negotiate led to the prosecution of total war.

Anscombe resisted the erasure of the distinction between combatant and civilian. At the outbreak of the war, Franklin D. Roosevelt had asked all belligerents to refrain from the “inhuman barbarism” of targeting civilians, but this plea was soon forgotten. As Anscombe noted, the “court chaplains of democracy” adopted a theory of “collective responsibility” under which every citizen was understood as engaged in the prosecution of war. Under this view, it was “senseless to draw any line between legitimate and ­illegitimate objects of attack.” Such theories justified the carpet-­bombing of German cities as well as the deployment of the atom bomb.

Today it is striking how little has changed. Once again, we find the “court chaplains of democracy” denying the distinction between combatants and civilians. And once again we see the rejection of negotiation opening the door to total war. Francis has been aware of these dangers, and his public statements become intelligible when one keeps them in view. For example, he was widely criticized for protesting the car-bombing that killed Darya Dugina, a Russian journalist known for her support of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “I think of that poor girl blown up by a bomb under her car seat in Moscow,” Francis said. “The innocent pay for war, the ­innocent!” Ukraine’s ambassador to the Vatican rebuked the pope for these comments: “How is it possible to mention one of the ideologists of Russian imperialism as an innocent victim?” His response to the pope was echoed across the West. Not ­many seemed to have considered that, by the same logic, journalists who support American military ventures should be viewed as combatants.

Western commentators commonly speak of Russian collective guilt. Michael McFaul, who served as ambassador to Russia under Barack Obama, said after the war’s outbreak, “There are no more ‘innocent’ ‘neutral’ Russians anymore.” Garry Kasparov, the Russian dissident, has likewise declared, “Russians cannot escape collective guilt.” These arguments have gained traction even in religious circles, including Catholic ones where the principles of just war should hold sway. The Ukrainian Catholic University published on its website an article calling for “constant emphasis on the collective guilt of Russians for the crimes of Putin’s regime.” Claims that Russians bear collective guilt are usually based on the idea that the Russian people should be rising up against their government. They also gain strength from notions of popular sovereignty. As Anscombe hinted, it may be especially hard to preserve the distinction between combatant and noncombatant in the age of democracy. But it remains necessary.

Those prosecuting the war in Ukraine have increasingly embraced the demand for Russia’s unconditional surrender. Zelensky initially sought to negotiate with Russia but reportedly was dissuaded after Boris Johnson conveyed to him the West’s view that Putin is a war criminal who could not be negotiated with. Zelensky has now offered a ten-point peace plan, which includes a demand that Russian leaders be prosecuted for war crimes. The plan’s terms are, as the scholar Eugene ­Rumer observes, “nothing short of demands for an unconditional surrender.” Andriy Melnyk, Ukraine’s deputy foreign minister, stated that the war can end only with Russia’s “unconditional surrender” and denazification: “­Russia must experience what the Germans went through in May 1945.” Zelensky has echoed this sentiment, vowing that Russia “will be defeated just as Nazism was.” Writing in The Atlantic, Anne Applebaum and Jeffrey ­Goldberg argue that Russia must suffer the sort of defeat that brings about a fundamental change in the country’s political life. They conclude: “Even the worst ­successor imaginable, even the bloodiest ­general or most rabid propagandist, will immediately be preferable to­ ­Putin, because he will be weaker than ­Putin.” Of course, the successor may be so weak that Russia descends into chaos.

Diplomacy has gradually been displaced as scholars, pundits, and heads of state become more eager to employ the terms “war crime,” “terrorism,” and “genocide.” It is a process similar to the one that has played out in the domestic sphere, where the expansion of notions of human rights have turned contested issues into all-or-nothing matters of right and wrong, removing them from the realm of political debate and compromise. Francis rightly resists this erosion of diplomacy, understanding that the widespread embrace of morally freighted terminology may produce what it seeks to prevent, as countries escalate conflicts against opponents with whom they are unwilling to negotiate. For this reason, Francis has tried to avoid condemning Russia in terms that might make diplomacy impossible.

If the West rejects Francis’s call for negotiations, it faces unsavory alternatives. Offered the choice of fighting or being ousted like ­Muammar Gaddafi, Russian leaders will choose to fight. Michael ­Rubin, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, has said that “the threat that Russia might use tactical nuclear weapons is increasingly a likelihood.” To counter this threat, Rubin says, the U.S. should announce its readiness to deploy tactical nuclear weapons to Ukraine “without any controls on where and how Ukraine might use them.” Rubin’s views are not yet widely accepted, but they clarify where the logic of the Western position leads.

The West’s dangerous rhetoric finds a mirror in Russia. Like the West, Russia conceives of its fight in Ukraine as a war against Nazis. Highly placed Russians likewise speak of the need for ­unconditional surrender and blur the distinction between combatants and civilians. In one regard, however, the West has distinguished itself from its Russian adversary. Whereas Patriarch Kirill of Moscow has spoken approvingly of the Russian invasion, Francis has refused to play a similar role in the West. It is a grim irony that those who criticize Kirill for his uncritical support of the Russian state seem to want Francis to serve as the chaplain of NATO.

Perhaps the best way to understand how Francis thinks about war is through a comment he made in an interview this spring with La Nacion. “War has a series of ethical rules,” he said. He then related a story his Italian grandfather had told him about fighting the ­Austrians in World War I. The fighting would stop at six o’clock, Francis said, and at that hour the Italians and the Austrians would cross ­into the no man’s land and exchange cigarettes. Both sides “had orders from their immediate superiors, not from the generals, to shoot over the heads of the enemy. And, sometimes, during their meetings with the enemy they would say, ‘A general is coming ­tomorrow—be in the trenches, because we are going to have to shoot straight.’” Whatever historians might say of this story, it expresses eloquently Francis’s understanding of war: It must remain as limited as possible in its means, and those who fight must remain open to talking with the enemy. Even in Ukraine, where Western leaders have promised to do “whatever it takes,” limits must be observed. Pressing for what amounts to unconditional surrender is gravely irresponsible, because it forecloses negotiation and makes a nuclear exchange more likely.

It is wrong to suggest that by working for peace Pope Francis has compromised the Church’s moral authority. On the contrary, he has served as a witness to the Christian understanding of war and peace. Over the years, critics have faulted the pope for chasing popularity and deviating from Catholic doctrine. They should pause to note that, in what may turn out to be the last days of his pontificate, he has taken a deeply unfashionable stance in defense of the Church’s teaching. At a decisive moment, Pope Francis has emerged as the leader not only of the Catholic faithful, but of all those who seek to limit the horrors of war. 

Matthew Schmitz is a founder and editor of Compact.

Image by Annett_Klingner licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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