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Money talks, but conscience doesn’t always listen
From the American Civil War to Ukraine
The countries of Western Europe, especially Germany, are in the middle of some difficult decisions regarding the war in Ukraine. Economic sanctions on Russia appear the most likely way, short of direct NATO involvement, to cause Vladimir Putin to pull back. But sanctions threaten the prosperity of the European countries engaged in imposing them. Should the sanctions tighten further, particularly in the energy sector, Germany and its neighbors might well be thrown into recession. At that point they will have to determine how much of their own prosperity they are willing to pay to defend democracy in Ukraine.
Other countries have faced similar questions in the past. At the outbreak of the American Civil War, Confederate leaders confidently believed that Britain would be compelled to assist their effort to break free of the Union. Economic ties between Britain and the Southern states, which supplied most of the cotton to Britain’s booming textile industry, appeared to dictate British collaboration in the secessionist effort. “King Cotton,” the Confederates boasted, would carry all before it.
The British thought long and hard about where their true interest lay in the matter. Despite warnings from Abraham Lincoln and the Union government that recognition of Confederate independence would trigger war with the United States, London declined to disavow that possibility. Nor did the British government prevent private British shipbuilders and other firms from doing business with the Confederacy.
Yet neither did the valuable economic connection to the South dictate British policy. There was a moral question that got in the way. The British government had outlawed slavery within British empire some thirty years earlier, and since then it had worked to end it elsewhere. To some extent this was a matter of economic self-interest; having forsworn slavery for itself, Britain did not want to have to compete with countries that still practiced slavery.
But to a larger degree, abolition had become a cause that resonated with the British public. To support the slave South against the free North would have made Britain appear a great hypocrite. Because of this, Britain withheld its recognition of the Confederacy and any overt assistance.
Lincoln appreciated Britain’s position but knew he couldn't count on it forever. And it was his concern about the British that played a large role in the decision-making that produced the Emancipation Proclamation. For the first year and a half of the war, Lincoln proclaimed that it was not about slavery. It was a dispute over the correct interpretation of the Constitution. He had his reasons for doing so, namely to keep the loyal slave states of the border region within the Union, and to avoid having to ask prospective volunteers to fight to free black people who might become their economic competitors.
But the longer Lincoln delayed making emancipation a war aim, the more he tempted the British to conclude that there was no moral difference between the Union and Confederate causes. With every month he failed to proclaim emancipation, the chances increased that the cotton connection would become decisive in British policy.
Finally, on January 1, 1863, Lincoln took the fateful step. And with that announcement he killed King Cotton for good. There would be no British recognition of the Confederacy, no British assistance like the French assistance that had propelled the United States to victory against Britain in the Revolutionary War.
Lincoln had his own reasons, of course, beyond his reckoning of what the British might do. The promise of emancipation would align the interests of the enslaved men and women more clearly with the Union. Many of the men would fight in the Union army. And Lincoln believed that slavery was fundamentally wrong and corrosive of democracy. The Emancipation Proclamation brought Lincoln’s conception of what he ought to do into line with what he needed to do.
Something similar applies today in the policies of Western countries toward the Ukraine conflict. Many people in these countries believe on moral grounds that they ought to support Ukraine’s struggle for self-government. They are willing to incur certain costs toward that end. They probably can't hold this position forever. But in the meantime it provides guidance and a sense of purpose to their countries' policies. Being democracies themselves, this is no small thing. Indeed, as in the case of Britain and the American Civil War, it might be a very big thing.