Heikki Patomäki – Non-alignment of Ukraine and the no-harm principle of John Stuart Mill

Ending the war in Ukraine requires negotiations and an agreement, and in these negotiations, it must also be possible to discuss non-alignment.

Heikki Patomäki is Professor of World Politics of the University of Helsinki. He is also a  civic activist and former member of the Board of the Left Alliance in Finland.

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Most wars end in some kind of reciprocal peace agreement. The sooner some such is achieved, the sooner the killing and destruction in Ukraine will end and the lower the risk that the war will continue to escalate – possibly even towards a nuclear war.

If the U.S., NATO, and their advocates and apologists continue to hold that every country has some kind of absolute right to become part of NATO when NATO deems that membership good and regardless of consequences, then it is difficult to explore areas of potential agreement. From this perspective, it is important to consider the normative basis of alliance formation.

NATO enlargement has worsened the relationship between Russia and the West since the 1990s. Over time, this controversy has increasingly revolved around Ukraine’s possible NATO membership. Since 2008, Russia has criticized – often in harsh terms involving warnings or threats of countermeasures – the idea of ​​Ukraine’s future NATO membership.

In the West, Russia’s criticism of NATO enlargement has just as often been condemned as unjust and inappropriate. It is typically argued (or just assumed) that Russia’s official claims are merely misguided attempts at promoting power politics and establishing a sphere of influence.

In 2021, Russia concentrated its forces on the borders of Ukraine and tried to reach a solution through coercive diplomacy. At the end of autumn 2021, the secretary general of NATO Jens Stoltenberg ruled out any agreement that would deny Ukraine the right to join the military alliance, stressing that the decision in this matter belongs solely to Ukraine and 30 NATO countries.

This stance is justified, inter alia, by the fact that the Soviet Union and its successor, Russia, are committed to various OSCE documents expressing the principle that sovereign states are free to choose their security arrangements, i.e. to decide whether or not to ally and with whom.

The no-harm principle of liberalism and military alliances

The “sovereign freedom” of the state is analogous to the negative freedom of individuals in liberalism. Many concepts of international law and politics are based on the theory of liberalism, assuming that states are persons too (in international law, states have legal personality).

John Stuart Mill portrays the individual as “sovereign” in his book On Liberty. In Mill’s theory, individuals are free to do whatever they want, as long as they do not cause harm to other individuals. This limitation is called the no-harm principle. In international law, the principle of no-harm is applied for example in environmental matters. The problem is, on the one hand, to define what “harm” means and, on the other hand, to specify who can define harm. I will return to these questions shortly.

From the point of view of the no-harm principle, military alliances, as well as armaments, could be interpreted as problematic in principle. The essence of military alliances is that they are directed against some states that are not part of the alliance (seen as potential threats). The expansion of the alliance can strengthen the military strength of the alliance in the same way as armaments. If there is a competitive situation between states or unions, it is often described as a prisoner’s dilemma, a game in which actors prepare for the worst and promote their interests at the expense of others – resulting in a worse outcome for all than cooperation.

In such situations, military alliances and their powers to destroy are, by definition, at least potentially harmful to at least some and perhaps many others. Thus, military alliances can be difficult to reconcile with the principle of no-harm (unlike, for example, police forces, which can provide security to a community and its members in a way that serves the generally accepted common good). However, whether this is so depends on actual historical developments and contexts. The question of trust seems to be central in this regard.

The OSCE principle: states are free to choose their own security arrangements

The no-harm principle can be used in analysing the principle adopted by the OSCE that sovereign states are free to choose their own security arrangements. In key documents, this right is presented and framed in a way that suggests that a specification of the no-harm principle is included in the OSCE documents. “The Charter of New Europe”, signed in Paris in 1990, expresses the right of a state to choose its security arrangements as follows:

The unprecedented reduction in armed forces resulting from the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, together with new approaches to security and cooperation within the CSCE process, will lead to a new perception of security in Europe and a new dimension in our relations. In this context we fully recognize the freedom of States to choose their own security arrangements. […]

With the ending of the division of Europe, we will strive for a new quality in our security relations while fully respecting each other’s freedom of choice in that respect. Security is indivisible and the security of every participating State is inseparably linked to that of all the others. We therefore pledge to co-operate in strengthening confidence and security among us and in promoting arms control and disarmament.

The Charter requires full respect for the freedom of everyone to choose. The explicitly specified context, however, is the reduction of the armed forces and new approaches to security (so-called broad security). The principle of no-harm relates in particular to the phrase “security is indivisible and the security of each State party to this Agreement is inextricably linked to the security of all other States”. From the last sentence, it can be concluded that the overall aim is to increase mutual trust and security and promote disarmament.

Although states have the freedom to choose their security arrangements and relations, at least at first sight the enlargement of a single military alliance (possibly against some OSCE countries), and the consequent changes in the relative military power of parties, appear somewhat incompatible with the objectives of the 1990 Paris Charter. That is unless the overall context is conducive to disarmament and strengthening of trust – or the no-harm principle is ignored.

For its part, the document that resulted from the 1999 OSCE Summit in Istanbul sets out the principle of freedom to choose one’s security arrangements as follows:

Each participating State has an equal right to security. We reaffirm the inherent right of each and every participating State to be free to choose or change its security arrangements, including treaties of alliance, as they evolve. Each State also has the right to neutrality. Each participating State will respect the rights of all others in these regards. They will not strengthen their security at the expense of the security of other States. Within the OSCE no State, group of States or organization can have any pre-eminent responsibility for maintaining peace and stability in the OSCE area or can consider any part of the OSCE area as its sphere of influence.

This formulation seems a degree clearer than the 1990 Paris Charter, as the text explicitly refers to the right to conclude alliance agreements. The Americans in particular seem to have been pushing for this wording in the Istanbul document, also with a view to NATO enlargement, while the last sentence, which seems directed against NATO’s possible dominance, probably stemmed from Russian demands. This part of the paragraph characterizes a type of pluralism as a common goal, in which Russia or the U.S., or the EU or NATO, cannot take “primary responsibility for maintaining peace and stability” or keep other countries within their “sphere of interest”.

Despite these contestations and rewordings, the principle of no-harm is still enshrined in the phrase “participating States shall not establish their security at the expense of the security of other States”. Emanuel Lane from the University of Cambridge argues that the OSCE documents mean that “states do not have any uncontested right to strengthen their security when it involves a threat to, or is at the expense of, the security of other states”. “The ‘rights’ of states have to be limited if they undermine other objectives such as peaceful relations between states”. It is also noteworthy that Russian foreign policy-makers have referred to the Istanbul document in this sense.

Although there is a slight difference to the 1990 Paris Charter in terms of the common good (the immediate context of expressing the freedom to choose principle is not confidence-building or disarmament), here too the principle of no-harm determines the right course of action. There is a lot of continuity between documents. The overall context of comprehensive security, disarmament, arms control, and confidence- and security-building measures is the same in both.

The problem of defining harm

The problem is how to understand “harm”? According to the standard Western understanding, NATO enlargement or its armaments will not harm anyone, but of the OSCE countries especially in Russia the matter has been seen rather differently. So what is “harm” and who can define and assess it? In his book On Liberty, Mill put forward a broad interpretation that harmful effects involve all conduct that is contrary to the interests of others or that is likely to cause harm.

However, there are legitimate situations where harming another may be acceptable and also in the public interest (e.g., entrance examinations to a school or university with only a limited number of places; or market competition in terms of certain legitimate rules of the game, as understood according to some theory). This is one of the reasons why attempts have been made to try to limit the kinds of harms that could justify interference by a common authority.

Mill also distinguished between a right and a discretionary consideration: an actor may have the right to do X, yet it may still not be prudent to do X. These distinctions and concepts can be used to provide a reasonable interpretation of how the requirement of non-alignment of Ukraine should be interpreted from the perspective of the principle of no-harm.

Ukraine’s non-alignment and the no-harm principle

Neither of the formulations in the OSCE documents discussed above seems to imply an absolute right to ally militarily or, for that matter, to enlarge NATO. In the 1990 Paris Document, security is represented as common and the aim is to disarm and build confidence. The enlargement of NATO towards Russia’s borders and related changes in terms of relative power or armaments, in a situation where it has been made clear that Russia will stay outside NATO and where confidence between Russia and NATO has begun to erode, can be interpreted as causing harm.

With regard to the Istanbul 1999 document, the conclusion may be less clear. In it, the right to form military alliances or take part in them is articulated explicitly, but the principle of no-harm is still involved. The crucial question is how to interpret “do not strengthen security at the expense of the security of other states”. Can an alliance – which the OSCE-countries are entitled to join – undermine the security of others? The stated intentions alone are not enough to resolve the issue. Every country has a defense force and a defense ministry; in the 21st-century world, there is no country or military alliance that would say it intends to attack other countries.

On the basis of the democratic peace hypothesis, one could presume that democracies are more peaceful than other countries and do not threaten anyone, but in fact the hypothesis concerns only the relationships between established liberal democracies, not their relations with others. The U.S., which leads NATO, has waged more wars since World War II than any other country, and Britain and France, for example, have also been involved in several wars.

Trust and harm in international politics

To undermine the security of X, is it enough to simply increase the size and power of an alliance? What about placing weapons systems close to X’s borders or to some strategic points in relation to a possible future war with X? How would it be possible to establish one’s defensive intentions?

In International Relations, there is a general perception that it is not easy to distinguish between offensive and defensive weapons in a way that would be of great practical or theoretical significance. If trust between the parties begins to decline, skepticism about the expansion or new armaments of the other party will increase. The further the process goes, the more threatening the other’s behavior is likely to look. Trust and confidence, or lack thereof would seem to be the main determinants of whether an alliance expansion is likely to cause harm.

Moreover, applying Mill’s concepts to this case, it is also possible to argue that even if the principle of no-harm does not preclude the de jure right to take part in military alliances, in many contexts such moves may not be prudent or in line with the generic OSCE objectives.

There is nothing in the OSCE documents that would prevent the country from committing itself to non-alignment or neutrality. On the contrary, a military alliance can commit itself to not admitting any more new members – or it may even decide to dissolve itself. If actions along these lines have confidence-building and disarmament-enhancing effects, they will better realise the purpose and principles of the OSCE than new treaties of alliance or the expansion of a military alliance.


Based on my analysis, it is not true that the decision on Ukraine’s membership in NATO belongs solely to Ukraine and 30 NATO countries. The interpretation of the no-harm principle contained in the OSCE documents concerns the world community more broadly, as defined by the OSCE and, possibly, the UN. The problem is that neither the OSCE nor the UN does have a body empowered to assess whether a military alliance is causing harm to other member-states.

Due to the nature of international law, the interpretation of the law is generally left to the States concerned, although the views of international organizations and courts are relevant. The traditional way of thinking about checks and balances in world politics is based on the principle of balance of power, which can be complemented by forms of cooperation and planning. A better approach is to fully apply the rule of law, but this requires new and more democratic global institutions.

It is clear, of course, that by attacking Ukraine, Russia is now, in Spring 2022, trying to advance its security and other goals at the expense of others. At the same time, Russia has violated several other rules and principles of international law. To top it all off, it seems evident that Russian soldiers have committed war crimes in Ukraine, although this needs to be investigated thoroughly.

Nevertheless, the question of the non-alignment of Ukraine or any other country – including Finland – remains relevant in the 2020s. Mere “sovereign freedom” without a binding principle of no-harm or some such can easily lead to a Hobbesian state of nature where the threat of violence and war is acutely present. My analysis of the OSCE texts shows that although states have the freedom to choose whether to ally or not and with whom, an alliance can depending on the context, cause harm. Joining a military alliance cannot, therefore, be an absolute or “subjective” right.

As the issue of Ukraine’s membership in NATO concerns the world community more broadly, negotiations and compromises in this regard must be possible and desirable. Wise diplomacy is about being able to see things objectively from the perspective of others as well, and being willing to negotiate and compromise on all things except those that are vital to oneself.

Ending the war in Ukraine requires negotiations and an agreement, and in these negotiations, it must also be possible to discuss non-alignment. Even if political changes take place in Russia and President Putin and other key decision-makers, who have caused the war-catastrophe, either resign or are eventually ousted from office in one way or another, the question of the legitimacy of a military alliance will remain central. Concerns about the enlargement of Western military alliances and their effects are widely shared not only in Russia but also in the global East and South.

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