Gratitude matters, even in war
Ukraine would be well served by more gratefulness to the West
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Earlier this month, following a stormy NATO summit at which Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky ranted at Western countries for failing to fast-track Ukraine into NATO membership, the British defence minister, Ben Wallace, finally hit back. “Whether we like it or not,” he observed in unscripted remarks, “people want to see gratitude” from Ukrainian leadership for all the support they are receiving. Ukraine, he said, seemed to think that Western moral and military support was a bottomless well, submitting endless lists of weapons they wanted delivered now as if they were placing an Amazon order.
The remarks elicited outrage and mockery in many quarters and may even have helped precipitate Wallace’s sudden announcement of his resignation as Britain’s defence minister a few days later. It’s not hard to see why. After all, when the Ukrainians have been pouring out their blood, tears, toil, and sweat for 16 months to repel a vicious invader, it can’t help but come across as entitled and elitist for a prosperous ally to demand that they start sending more thank-you notes. If Ukraine’s cause is just, if theirs is the cause of freedom and democracy, then shouldn’t all freedom-loving democracies be more than happy to give them all the aid they require and more?
And yet Wallace was simply giving voice to what many Western citizens and leaders have come to feel, though few have been willing to say it out loud. Ukraine is starting to come across like a spoiled and petulant child. According to recent polls, only 40 percent of Americans believe the United States should keep supporting Ukraine “as long as it takes,” and barring dramatic battlefield success (which seems improbable), this number is likely to decline. A year ago, Western audiences were likely to hail Zelensky as a charismatic war hero, but his regular routine of sanctimoniously lecturing parliaments and demanding ever-more-advanced weapons is starting to grate. But should we feel guilty for wanting gratitude? Is it not the duty of Western nations to help a neighbor in need?
We might gain some helpful perspective from an unlikely quarter—an 18th-century Swiss political theorist whose account of nationhood, international law, and rights profoundly shaped the American Founders. In his The Law of Nations (written in 1757), Emer de Vattel argued that nations have moral duties to one another just as individuals do, but these duties are not all of the same kind—for in a world of sin and scarcity, no nation can do all the good that needs doing, any more than an individual can. Thus he says that “Every nation has a perfect right to ask of another that assistance and those kind offices which she conceives herself to stand in need of.” However, “the nation that is applied to has, on the other hand, a right of judging whether the case really demands them, and whether circumstances will allow her to grant them consistently with that regard which she ought to pay to her own safety and interests.”
If, in such a situation, the more powerful nation enters into alliance with the weaker, it should remember that “nothing is more conformable to the law of nature than a generous grant of assistance from the more powerful state, unaccompanied by any demand of a return.” However, the weaker party, for its part, “ought, in his necessity, to accept with gratitude the assistance of the more powerful, and not to refuse him such honours and respect as are flattering to the person who receives them.” On one level, all of this is just common sense. My own children have a different right to my care and support than the neighbor’s children do, even if they are impoverished and suffering. I should do what I can for my neighbors, but if their father starts berating me for my stinginess rather than showing gratitude, I’m liable to pull back.
Why does this common-sense perspective have so little purchase for us today? Why do we tend to react against any mention of “gratitude”? I suspect it has something to do with the conquest of our ethics by “rights” discourse. From this standpoint, gratitude doesn’t make a great deal of sense. If I have a right to something, and you refuse it, you’re doing me a serious wrong. If you give it to me, then you’re just giving me what I’m already owed, so why expect gratitude? This way of thinking represents a gross distortion of the tradition we received from our forebears, which was careful to distinguish between different kinds of rights, and the different duties they created. Some rights—like the right to be helped by a neighbor—are only prima facie rights, and it is up to the neighbor to decide how best to respond. This is a lesson that leaders like Zelensky must re-learn soon, or they are liable to find themselves increasingly shunned by their erstwhile allies.
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