Benjamin Netanyahu wrote recently in defense of his method of leadership and success, which he brands as “The Iron Triangle of Peace.” In his essay, which occurred in the Wall Street Journal this past week, he states that, “The arc of history may bend towards peace and justice, but it can easily go off in dangerous directions.” He contextualizes this notion as his answer to the never-ending debate over how to project strength on the global stage, that is, through soft power (economic and diplomatic) or hard power (military might).
His essay befits our times as the West struggles to keep Russia in check, struggles to deal with Putin’s energy war on the rest of Europe, struggles to find the right diplomatic and economic formula for dealing with China, and struggles to find its way economically through the entangled dynamics of globalized commerce and trade.
Netanyahu argues persuasively that in these troubled times of pandemics, hunger, war, authoritarianism, mass migrations and economic uncertainties, democratic values by themselves aren’t enough to keep the peace.
For inveterate fans of the fantasy world, Superman seems to agree with Netanyahu as in the “Never Ending Battle of the Justice League,” that peace and justice “can easily go off in dangerous directions.” While Superman can bend steel, we also are led to believe he can bend the arc of justice. In some ways he is the epitome of Netanyahu’s notion of “Iron Triangle of Peace,” that soft power alone isn’t the answer and that the quest for peace and justice is indeed a never-ending quest.
There’s both a domestic and international dimension to these notions of peace and tranquility. Philosophers from Aristotle to Confucius to Whitehead to Gandhi and Martin Luther King, among others, have covered the philosophical spectrum of how to put a thumb on the peace and justice side of the scale. Teddy Roosevelt beat Netanyahu to the “iron triangle” with his “Speak softly but carry a big stick” forewarning. Former Joint Chiefs head and Secretary of State Colin Powell proclaimed the Powell Doctrine, which was to avoid conflicts at all cost, but if necessary to engage with powerful and overwhelming force.
Martin Luther King was the eternal optimist, when speaking mostly of domestic concerns. He believed that “We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long but bends towards justice… (and that) we must come to see that the end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience.” Those words are well worth listening to in America today, but the soft implications might fall on deaf ears for those in Ukraine fighting a ruthless Russian army, whose only resolve at this point is the requisite military might to push back on Vladimir Putin’s genocidal onslaught.
No question in my mind that power both here at home and abroad is distributed unevenly which can lead to gross impositions by power-hungry opportunists. I’m afraid nothing will forever stop power hungry despots in their greedy quests for more power, more territory, or other predations of evil intent. The only check on this kind of ruthless opportunism is the threat of stiff military consequences, overwhelming economic leverage, or masterful diplomacy. I had a mentor once tell me that the art of diplomacy is getting what you want without the opposition realizing it or being offended by it.
Ukraine is a unique situation. Russia preyed upon a much smaller sovereign nation with less military, economic or diplomatic leverage. NATO, the great equalizer in this case, was programmed out of the conflict by treaty technicalities, unable to provide the necessary balance of power. To change this imbalance NATO is supplying the weapons, effecting a proxy war with Russia. Hopefully the West will not waver in its determination to neutralize Putin’s evil objectives.
There are only two aspects of Netanyahu’s prophecy that I take issue with. One is stylistic. He clearly believes he invented this concept and has saved Israel with his valiant if not heroic leadership. The other is in his specific application of this triad of military, economic and diplomatic measures, particularly the third diplomatic leg. His excuses for his friendly diplomatic engagements with Saudi Arabia and Russia don’t pass the commandments of the moral universe.
Human weaknesses and failures are a part of the human condition. Unprincipled and predatory leaders capable of crimes against humanity will always find ways to bloom, just as noxious weeds exist even in the best soil. So, will the arc of the moral universe persist in bending towards peace and justice, not war?
The point is that those who believe in overcoming the barriers to peace and justice whether at home or abroad, cannot just pretend everything will just work out over time. Laissez-faire indifference is the authoritarians’ best hope for success and triumph. It’s time to stiffen our resolve against authoritarianism both at home and abroad. Vladimir Putin needs to feel the “iron” and enduring determination of the U.S. and NATO. Ukraine’s existential circumstance reminds us that there are times when force is required to bend the arc of the moral universe toward righteousness.
At home, we need to avert our populist politicians and their digital bandwagons and resolve to become a society, in the words of MLK, that can “be at peace with itself and that can live with its conscience.”
Bill Sims is a Hillsboro resident, retired president of the Denver Council on Foreign Relations, an author and runs a small farm in Berrysville with his wife. He is a former educator, executive and foundation president.