Melting Polar Opposites to Get to Yes

Instead of pondering when Ukraine’s counteroffensive will begin, if it hasn’t already, or when Leopard 2 tanks or F-16s will arrive and tilt the war in Ukraine’s favor, we might think about the very nature of compromise and the mind set needed to reach consensus. How to get seemingly frozen positions to melt should be high on the agenda to end the Ukraine/Russia conflict. And maybe, just maybe, the passage of the Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2023 might serve as an example. Despite all the screaming about U.S. default and its dire consequences for the world’s economies, a deal was finally reached, a deal that included several surprising yes votes.

States, in many ways, act as individuals. The famed Oxford University Professor Hedley Bull argued that relations between states were similar to relations between individuals by what is known as the domestic analogy, “the argument from the experience of individual men in domestic society to the experience of states…”

Using the domestic analogy, there may be lessons to learn about finding a solution to the Ukraine/Russia conflict from the recent U.S. debt ceiling agreement. Here’s how: There were three major positions expressed during the debt ceiling debate. First, on the extreme right, Republican members of Congress were not satisfied. “This ‘deal’ is insanity,” tweeted Rep. Ralph Norman, Republican of South Carolina. “A $4 trillion debt ceiling increase with virtually no cuts is not what we agreed to… The American people deserve better.” Seventy-one Republican members of the House and 36 Republican senators voted against the bill.

Second, on the extreme left, several Democrats found the bill unacceptable. “This is not a deal that upholds progressive values,” declared California Representative Ro Khanna. “It increases spending for defense and limits the pot of money for everything else.”  Forty-six Democrats voted against the bill in the House joined by four in the Senate and the Independent Senator Bernie Sanders.

In the end, a majority of Democrats and Republicans found enough in the bill to satisfy them. Or at least they found enough in the bill to offset the consequences of the bill’s not passing. The final vote was 431-153. There was enough consensus, not enthusiasm, to get the bill passed. A major economic crisis was avoided.

By analogy, the current Ukraine/Russia crisis is bogged down in two extremes. On the one hand, Russia wants Ukraine to be absorbed into Russia. On the other hand, Ukraine wants to remain as an independent sovereign state, including the right to decide if it wants to be a member of a multinational security organization such as the European Union or NATO.

While there is no announced doomsday in the war such as when the U.S. would have defaulted on its debt, the growing loss of lives and territorial destruction should make finding a solution of immediate concern.

But in order to do that, extreme positions will have to be modified. It will never be acceptable to Ukraine or the West to have Ukraine absorbed back into Russia as it was in the former Soviet Union. Nor will it be acceptable to Russia to have Ukraine be an official member of NATO, including respect for Article 5 as well as NATO troops stationed in Ukraine.

Whatever solution is finally reached will have to be some form of compromise. Neither side can “win” this war.

To return to the debt ceiling deal and compromises from both extremes. On the right, several members of the House Freedom Caucus voted for the deal, including Reps. Jim Jordan (R-Oh.), Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Mike Johnson (R-La.). “I speak the truth. Always have,” Greene tweeted and was quoted in the Washington Examiner. “And the truth is: Republicans have huge wins in this fight.”

On the far left, Democrat Representative Ilhan Omar, a member of the progressive Squad, voted for the bill: “We cannot default on our debt,” she said. “We cannot, for the first time in history, send millions of people into poverty, plunge Minnesota and the world into a recession, and risk basic necessities for the people we represent. This bill is far from perfect, but I know that if we fail to act and America fails to pay its bills, my constituents would be far worse off.”

For whatever reason, people on the far right and the far left were able to agree on the bill. A compromise was reached.

By domestic analogy, can we imagine a compromise being reached to end the Ukraine/Russia conflict? Who could have foreseen Illan Omar voting with Marjorie Taylor Greene on any bill? They did. Can we imagine Presidents Zelensky and Putin agreeing on ending the war? That can only happen if the extremes are willing to compromise. If it happened with the Fiscal Responsibility Act, why can’t it happen between Russia and Ukraine?

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.