Prudence Is a Virtue

Joe Biden has me thinking about Aristotle. 

If that seems odd—and I understand that it does—consider Biden’s much publicized remarks last week at a Democratic fundraiser about “Armageddon.” Referring to Vladimir Putin’s veiled but increasingly strident threats to use “all the means at our disposal” to defend Russian territorial integrity, Biden went full-Cuban missile crisis on the assembled members of the great Democratic ATM: “We have not,” he said, “faced the prospect of Armageddon since Kennedy and the Cuban missile crisis.” 


Are we to infer that Joe Biden is like John F. Kennedy facing down Nikita Khrushchev? You might think that. I couldn’t possibly comment

Granted, the idea is preposterous in about 87 different ways. But perhaps Biden’s speechwriters wanted to plant a seed. Anyway, we are probably meant to keep JFK in the back of our minds. 

Biden did not actually cite the Book of Revelation, which identifies Armageddon as the site of the final battle between good and evil at the end of the world, but I have no doubt that the word “Armageddon” was echoing loudly down the corridors of the Kremlin. That, I am pretty sure, was by design. Did it have Putin polishing the launch apparatus on some of his 6000 nukes? I don’t know.

Probably, though, Putin’s lips were pursed when he heard Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the Ukrainian president and celebrated T-shirt model, call upon NATO to conduct “preventative action” against Russian targets to prevent their use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine.

I thought it was cute that Zelenskyy’s translator first said “preventative strikes” before correcting himself and substituting “preventative action.” 

Another seed planted. Was it deliberate? You tell me.

This is the first of two places that this little pas de deux (or is it trois?) reminded me of Aristotle. 

You don’t have to know much about ye olde Stagirite to know that he had some interesting things to say about the idea of causation. When we ask about the cause of something, he noted, there are several things we might mean. I won’t go into that interesting discussion here but will note that in common parlance, when we ask what causes X, we are asking what brings X about. 

Often, the answer to that question involves several things, some less obvious than others. What caused World War I? German aggression? Unwise alliances and security guarantees in the West? The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand? All of those and more? 

In this sense, when we are thinking about what is happening—and what might happen—in Ukraine, we have an abundance of what Aristotle called “efficient causes.” First of all, there is Vladimir Putin. After all, he invaded Ukraine last winter and so brought about the conflict that is raging there now. 

But as the war has unfolded, we see that there are many other causative agents at work in perpetuating and escalating the conflict. Zelenskyy has contributed his bit. So has NATO by suggesting that anyone, except Russia, might be a good candidate for that boy’s club. And so has the Biden Administration by supplying arms and intelligence to Ukraine to carry on the fight. 

What if that hot war gets hotter? What if Putin continues to suffer setbacks and, taking on board the belligerent rhetoric emanating from the Biden Administration, decides to use nuclear weapons? What if we intervene ourselves with nukes? Who or what will have caused that horrific eventuality

The answer, I think, is not as simple or straightforward as you might think. Sure, if Putin uses nukes, he can be said to have caused the conflagration. But what about statements designed to push Putin to the wall? What role will they have played? 

Consider, to take just one example, the recent column by John Bolton, unhappy chest-beating former national security advisor to Donald Trump and one of the most belligerent senior neocons on the scene today. Bolton said that “There is no long-term prospect for peace and security in Europe without regime change in Russia.” Regime change. And he made it crystal clear that he would be happy for America to go to war to achieve said regime change, i.e., removal of Putin from power.

Like almost all leaders, Vladimir Putin will strenuously resist such efforts. Which is why Scott McKay, in an intelligent column for the American Spectator about Bolton’s saber-rattling effusion, included some sage advice from the venerable Sun Tzu: “Build your opponent a golden bridge to retreat across,” Sun Tzu advised. That is, give Putin an attractive off-ramp. As McKay put it, “A wise American leadership would be building that golden bridge for Putin, not openly plotting his downfall.” Because, as Sun Tzu warned, “an opponent with his feet in the river will fight to the death.” Often, it is worth remembering, to the death of both parties. 

“A wise American leadership.” Is that what we have now? 

That question brings me to my second page from Aristotle. 

At the center of Aristotle’s ethics is the concept of “prudence.” The ethical man is also the prudent man. Is Joe Biden prudent? Was it prudent to talk about the prospect of Armageddon when his relevant audience was not a bunch of Democratic moneybags but an increasingly isolated and jumpy Russian dictator?

This was something that worried Emmanuel Macron, the president of France. “We must,” he said in response to Biden’s talk of Armageddon, “speak with prudence” when we speak of such matters. “I have always refused to engage in political fiction,” Macron continued, “especially . . . when speaking of nuclear weapons.”

Most of the time, I am not part of the French president’s fan club. But I do think that he is 100 percent right in this case. It is good, peace-loving advice. It is a pity that Biden and his handlers seem less and less willing to follow it.

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