CREDIT: Galyna Lunina (Pexels)

Jul 10, 2023 Article

Ethical Tensions of Track Two Dialogues and Cluster Munitions

This past week, political leaders were forced to confront ethical dilemmas around two aspects of the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine—both of which expose the tension between the ethics of an action versus the intended impact of the action. The first concerns the propriety of former U.S. government officials meeting with Russian officials in the context of a Track Two dialogue. The second concerns the ethics of the U.S. supplying cluster munitions to Ukraine, even though most countries around the world ban their use.

Track Two Dialogues: Do the Benefits Outweigh the Risks?

News reports revealed that earlier this year, a group of former senior U.S. officials traveled to Moscow to hold what is known as a Track Two dialogue—meetings where former officials and experts can dialogue about contentious issues and explore possible solutions without committing their governments to any formal actions. The Track Two meetings subsequently became “Track 1.5” when the U.S. delegation met with current Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and other sitting Russian government figures. Subsequently, U.S. government officials were also briefed on the talks.

When governments are unable to engage in direct, frank diplomatic dialogue (or do not have relations), Track Two meetings can create the space for discussion and move beyond a recitation of official talking points. But concerns were immediately raised as to whether even a Track Two dialogue between U.S. and Russian interlocutors in Moscow undermined support for Ukraine, and whether such a meeting was an effort to explore a settlement that would fall short of declared U.S. (and certainly Ukrainian) objectives and conditions, especially around the question of Russian control of territory universally recognized to fall within Ukraine’s internationally recognized borders. The question of whether Americans should be meeting with officials of a government engaged in aggression against a neighbor, and where charges of war crimes have been made, also featured in the criticism.

Defenders of the Track Two meetings note that the American participants made clear that they were attending in personal, private capacities, and were not negotiating on behalf of the U.S. government. Instead, they would provide the results of their conversations to the Biden administration which would then decide whether any initiatives merited further discussion. But critics argue that holding even unofficial backchannel meetings undercuts stated U.S. positions and encourages Moscow to think that things that the U.S. says are non-negotiable are, in fact, negotiable.

Yet, if the U.S. and its allies are unable or unwilling to provide everything Ukraine needs for achieving those objectives—or feels that other competing imperatives—including avoiding escalation—are potentially at risk—then having talks to see if the fighting can be brought to a close and other areas of tension reduced is worth the ethical cost of having the meetings in the first place. This follows Winston Churchill’s precept that “Meeting jaw to jaw is better than war.”

Cluster Munitions: Battlefield Value but Severe Consequences

Similarly, the decision to supply cluster munitions to Ukraine requires weighing the use of a weapons system that is known to leave behind unexploded ordnance that threatens the civil population, sometimes for years after a conflict has ended, versus the use of such munitions as a war-shortening or even war-terminating weapon, to reduce the overall number of losses and destruction.

Several U.S. legislators have argued that cluster munitions, “because of the indiscriminate harm they cause, including mass civilian injury and death,” cannot be used, even in the service of helping Ukraine defend itself from attack—and recommend other replacement measures. Other U.S. officials, while acknowledging the risks, see the Russian invasion as posing a much greater risk to Ukrainian civilians and that “using these weapons now will save more lives.”

Proponents of the Track Two dialogues, and supporters of the decision to supply cluster munitions to Ukraine, both take an ethical approach that the purpose and intent of the action matters more than the ethical nature of the action itself. If a Track Two dialogue with Russia or a steady supply of cluster munitions brings the invasion—and with it the death and destruction that has come in its wake—to an end, then the actions should be seen as justified. Others raise concerns about whether these measures will be effectual—and whether the breaking of norms—on supplying weapons or allowing for back-channel dialogues—is worth the cost.

Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs is an independent and nonpartisan nonprofit. The views expressed within this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Carnegie Council.

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