Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

Will Teaching Aggressors a Lesson Deter Future Wars?

| June 02, 2022

Calls to inflict a decisive defeat on Russia are misguided and won't necessarily prevent Putin or others from using force.

Westerners—such as NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg—who favor ever-greater levels of support for Ukraine sometimes imply that inflicting a decisive defeat on Russia will prevent future wars in other places. If Russia is decisively beaten, or at least denied any significant gains, the West will have shown that "aggression does not pay." Not only will Russian President Vladimir Putin learn his lesson and never try something like this again, but other world leaders who might be contemplating the use of force—such as Chinese President Xi Jinping—will think twice before trying something similar.

Some observers, such as Francis Fukuyama, go even further and suggest a decisive Russian defeat could end the malaise that Western liberalism has experienced in recent years and restore the waning "spirit of 1989."

If Ukraine and the West fail to inflict a crushing defeat on the Russian aggressor, however, and if Kyiv is eventually forced to compromise with Moscow, then illiberal ideals will be partly vindicated, and the risk of future aggression (including new Russian gambits) will increase. As U.S. President Joe Biden wrote in the New York Times: "If Russia does not pay a heavy price for its actions, it will send a message to other would-be aggressors that they too can seize territory and subjugate other countries." More alarmingly, historian Timothy Snyder warns that "the fate of democracies hangs in the balance."

Arguments of this sort have been a staple of hard-line (and especially neoconservative) discourse for decades. Like the domino theory, which refuses to die no matter how often it is disproved, such claims transform the outcome of a single conflict into a struggle for the fate of the entire planet. The choice we are said to face is stark. Down one path: a revitalized liberal order led by a unified alliance of powerful, peace-loving democracies, and a future where war is rare and prosperity reigns. Down the other path: a world of rising autocracy, eroding human rights, and more war. According to this view, Ukraine must win big, or all is lost.

Framing the issue in this way stacks the deck in favor of always doing more and rejecting any sort of compromise, but is the choice as stark as hard-liners make out? Does defeating an aggressor really teach others to behave better? It would be a more benign world if this were the case, but a quick glance at the past century or so suggests otherwise....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:

Walt, Stephen M."Will Teaching Aggressors a Lesson Deter Future Wars?" Foreign Policy, June 2, 2022.

The Author

Stephen Walt