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A duty to resist geopolitical evil

Just war moral reasoning underlines U.S. support for Ukraine

A Ukrainian woman visits the grave of her son—a soldier killed in the war with Russia—in Bucha, Ukraine, on July 18. Associated Press/Photo by Jae C. Hong

A duty to resist geopolitical evil
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There are those in the West—and notably in the United States—who strongly question our involvement in the war in Ukraine. After all, it is thought, this is a nation 5,000 miles away of barely over 40 million people in which the United States has seemingly no direct interest; nor is it thought to be a vital U.S. security concern. In addition, it is broadly assumed that Western nations and the United States should not prolong a war that, up to this point, appears to be a defensive stalemate.

For those who argue against American involvement in the war, several governing assumptions are at work. Chief among these are that Ukraine appears unlikely to defeat Russia and that the war’s costs are horrendous, with no end to the conflict in sight. Further, they argue that prolonging the war risks expansion and the direct involvement of the United States.

While aggressive, autocratic regimes such as present-day Russia reject the universal canons of justice that inform international law, it is incumbent upon relatively democratic nations to draw from the moral resources comprising the Christian tradition of “just war.” This tradition represents a 2,000-year-long conversation, at least in the broader Western cultural heritage, about what conditions constitute grounds for justified war and coercive force. Lodged at the heart of this tradition are “primary” as well as “secondary” conditions that inform moral decision-making. Among the primary considerations of whether or not to go to war are just cause, legitimate authority, and right intention, all of which are interlocking. Among the secondary or prudential considerations are likelihood of success, last resort, and declaration of intention.

Given the barbarism of the 2022 Russian invasion—an invasion that by any and all moral measurement was unjust—the West’s present involvement in Ukraine is called for if we consider the relationship of just war criteria to the Allies’ supreme dilemma in the face of German Nazi atrocities both before and during the Second World War. The assumption that there must be some (stated) concept of a just and sustainable peace being established by the war, while plausible, invites qualification. While the Allies surely intuited what a “just and sustainable peace” should look like, there was a zero percent probability of success against the German juggernaut as Hitler rolled from Czechoslovakia to Poland, then through the low countries, and finally to France in the summer of 1940. In short order, London was being bombed, and surely nothing seemed likely to inhibit the totalitarian threat. What, in the face of the impossible, was “a reasonable probability of success,” and that a full four to five years before the formal end of the conflict?

In the case of Ukraine, the primary just war criteria have been overwhelmingly fulfilled due to the utter outrage of what Putin’s Russian forces have perpetrated.

This illustrates why authentic (and therefore responsible) just war thinking will begin neither with “last resort” nor with “probability of success,” as is often the case. To illustrate, as Michael Walzer observed in Just and Unjust Wars, there will always be another resort—another recourse to diplomacy, another nonlethal measure to undertake—in order to stave off the moral necessity of confronting evil head-on. But that cannot go on forever. Alas, at some point, evil must be confronted.

In the case of Ukraine, the primary just war criteria have been overwhelmingly fulfilled due to the utter outrage of what Putin’s Russian forces have perpetrated. It is astonishing, in our day and age, that virtually all heads of state around the globe in the free world and even most senior officials in the Biden administration (with all of its failings) are certain that the West must support Ukraine. Even in a decadent and self-absorbed West, it is abundantly clear that terrorism, war crimes, and the violation of a nation’s territorial integrity call for a response by the international community.

Perhaps we in the United States need to be reminded of the proportions of obscenity and atrocity committed by Russian troops over the last 16 months—proportions that include roughly 500,000 dead or wounded, war crimes and endless crimes against humanity, millions of refugees and displaced persons, billions of dollars in damage to Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure, and tens of thousands of Ukrainian children taken from their parents and deported to Russian territory.

Virtually no accounts of the war as it is currently being reported acknowledge the reality of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, by which four nations—Russia (strangely), Ukraine, the United Kingdom, and the United States—guaranteed Ukraine’s “sovereignty” and “territorial integrity.” What has relieved us of this moral-political commitment? And what does justice require, particularly for the BM signatories?

It is surely true that neither the United States nor any nation or society on earth can police the world, for such is an utter impossibility. But in coalition with other nations that are committed to resisting geopolitical evil—and China is watching, with Taiwan the next challenge to the West’s moral slumber—the United States can, and indeed must, contribute to peace and justice in the international order.

Much is at stake in the war in Ukraine, even when many Americans are oblivious to its global significance. To whom much has been given, much will be required. And much surely will be required of the United States in the face of totalitarianism’s stunning global expansion.

J. Daryl Charles

J. Daryl Charles, a fellow of the John Jay Institute and contributing editor of Providence: A Journal of Christianity and American Foreign Policy, is author or co-author of Between Pacifism and Jihad (IVP, 2005), The Just War Tradition: An Introduction (ISI Books, 2012), and War, Peace, and Christianity: Questions and Answers from a Just-War Perspective (Crossway, 2010), and co-editor of Just War and Christian Traditions (University of Notre Dame Press, 2022).

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