Go right ahead and judge. Photographer: Harry Engels/Getty Images
Go right ahead and judge. Photographer: Harry Engels/Getty Images

In one of those peculiar ironies of our self-involvement in the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Crimea, it is the moral authority of the U.S. that is evidently in play. “U.S. Lacks Moral Authority to Criticize Russia for Intervening in Ukraine,” reads the headline on a recent blog post at the Scientific American. Adds Eugene Robinson in the Washington Post: “The United States, frankly, has limited standing to insist on absolute respect for the territorial integrity of sovereign states.”

Standoff in Ukraine

These critics, along with others from all points on the political spectrum, share a common analytical error: They assume that moral authority comes in but a single variety. Moral authority can take many forms. At the same time, its importance in international affairs is probably very small.

Let’s begin by trying to understand what the critics are talking about. They argue that U.S. leaders are poorly placed to judge another nation for doing what this nation has also done.

“And even as we condemn Moscow for its outrageous aggression, we reserve the right to fire deadly missiles into Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and who knows where else," Robinson writes. A libertarian observer goes further: Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion “is not much different than how the U.S. has acted in the Western Hemisphere many times over the past 200 years.”

To understand why these critics are mistaken, it is useful to take a moment to consider exactly what moral authority consists of, and why one needs it in order to offer moral judgments about the actions of others.

The nature of moral authority has occupied the attention of philosophers and social scientists for decades, even centuries. One can abstract from their work three different understandings of the concept: formal, reputational and rhetorical.

Formal moral authority is derived from an institutional status or position. A parent has moral authority over a child: When a mother says “Don’t,” the child knows to stop. A religious leader might have moral authority -- meaning not that the congregation is always bound by the leader’s teaching, but that the congregation ought to listen when he speaks. For some philosophers, the law itself possesses moral authority, and that formal moral authority is the reason we owe the law our obedience.

Reputational moral authority is the authority that we gain through showing wisdom over time. Gandhi began with little moral authority, but through the decades he gained a worldwide following: People came to see that his counsel was often right, and they therefore sought more of it. Of course, one’s reputational authority can also be lost -- as happens, for example, with religious leaders who are caught in the wrong beds.

Rhetorical moral authority is the form we tend to overlook. It arises because someone makes a good case. It is persuasive, and it therefore relies on an appeal to the rational faculty rather than an appeal to authority itself. Because our politics rely so heavily on slogan and emotional appeal, we tend to forget that argument is possible.

Commentators who question the standing of the U.S. to judge Putin’s plan to annex Crimea are referring only to reputation. But the Western response has involved all three forms of moral authority. For example, when Pope Francis, in a comment seemingly directed at the crisis in Ukraine, called for Christians “to combat evil with the weapons of prayer, fasting and mercy,” he was speaking, at least within the Catholic community, with formal moral authority. The detailed arguments offered by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, President Barack Obama and others represent efforts to rally support through rhetorical moral authority.

Besides, the argument that the U.S., due to its own actions, lacks moral authority winds up proving too much. The identical case was made against President John Kennedy’s right to protest Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s installation of offensive nuclear missiles in Cuba in 1962: The U.S. had missiles near the borders of the Soviet Union, the sentiment ran, and therefore it should not criticize the Soviets for responding in kind. The government of South Africa also raised the argument during the apartheid era, insisting that the West in general, and the U.S. in particular, had no business lecturing anybody else on mistreating people of color.

But perhaps the entire debate about moral authority is misguided. The foreign-policy realists who surround Obama might turn out to be as wrong as the idealists who surrounded his predecessor. Perhaps moral authority is irrelevant to international influence.

After the furor over Khrushchev’s execution in 1958 of Imre Nagy and other leaders of the Hungarian revolution, the British journalist (and former spy) Edward Crankshaw had this to say: “We have to assume that he did foresee our reaction and did not care -- or rather, that he thought the positive effects of this announcement within the Soviet bloc were more important than the negative effects outside it.”

In the same column, Crankshaw addressed the subject of moral authority: “Any pretensions to moral authority that Mr. Khrushchev may have aspired to are now gone. Russia is still the place where anything can happen and the worst is probable.”

The point is that Putin, like Khrushchev before him, is a hard-eyed realist, more than willing to trade an evanescent moral authority for the reality of actual authority. His bet is that the West is made of words. For the second time in six years, Putin’s Russia has snipped off a chunk of a neighbor to suit its national convenience. If we tie ourselves in knots over our right even to criticize what he’s done, his bet will turn out to be right.

(Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist and a professor of law at Yale University. He is the author of “The Violence of Peace: America’s Wars in the Age of Obama” and the novel “The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln.” Follow him on Twitter at @StepCarter.)

To contact the writer of this article:
Stephen L. Carter at stephen.carter@yale.edu.

To contact the editor responsible for this article:
Michael Newman at +1-202-654-7385 or mnewman43@bloomberg.net.