Sáb. Jun 15th, 2024

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Ben Cohen wasn’t talking about ice cream. He was talking about American militarism.

At 72, the co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream is bald and bespectacled. He looks fit, cherubic even, but when he got going on what it was like to grow up during the Cold War, his tone became less playful and more assertive — almost defiant. 

“I had this image of these two countries facing each other, and each one had this huge pile of shiny, state-of-the-art weapons in front of them,” he said, his arms waving above his head. “And behind them are the people in their countries that are suffering from lack of health care, not enough to eat, not enough housing.”

“It’s just crazy,” he added. “Approaching relationships with other countries based on threats of annihilating them, it’s just a pretty stupid way to go.”

It wasn’t a new subject for the famously socially conscious ice cream mogul; Cohen has been leading a crusade against what he sees as Washington’s bellicosity for decades. It’s just that with the war in Ukraine, his position has taken on a new — morally questionable — relevance.

Cohen, who no longer sits on the board of Ben & Jerry’s, isn’t just one of the most successful marketers of the last century. He’s a leading figure in a small but vocal part of the American left that has stood steadfast in opposition to the United States’ involvement in the war in Ukraine.

When Russian President Vladimir Putin sent tanks rolling on Kyiv, Cohen didn’t focus his ire on the Kremlin; a group he funds published a full-page ad in the New York Times blaming the act of aggression on “deliberate provocations” by the U.S. and NATO.

Following months of Russian missile strikes on residential apartment blocks, and after evidence of street executions by Russian troops in the Ukrainian city of Bucha, he funded a 2022 journalism prize that praised its winner for reporting on “Washington’s true objectives in the Ukraine war, such as urging regime change in Russia.”

In May, Cohen tweeted approvingly of an op-ed by the academic Jeffrey Sachs that argued “the war in Ukraine was provoked” and called for “negotiations based on Ukraine’s neutrality and NATO non-enlargement.”

Ben Cohen outside the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington this month, before getting arrested | Win McNamee/Getty Images

I set up a video call with Cohen not because I can’t sympathize with his mistrust of U.S. adventurism, nor because I couldn’t follow the argument that U.S. foreign policy spurred Russia to attack. I called to try to understand how he has maintained his stance even as the Kremlin abducts children, tortures and kills Ukrainians and sends thousands of Russian troops to their deaths in human wave attacks.

It’s one thing to warn of NATO expansion in peacetime, or to call for a negotiated settlement that leaves Ukrainian citizens safe from further aggression. It’s another to ignore one party’s atrocities and agitate for an outcome that would almost certainly leave millions of people at the mercy of a regime that has demonstrated callousness and cruelty.

Given the scale of Russia’s brutality in Ukraine, I wanted to understand: How does one justify focusing one’s energies on stopping the efforts to bring it to a halt?

Masters of war

Cohen’s political awakening took place against the background of the Cold War and the political upheaval caused by Washington’s involvement in Vietnam.

He was 11 during the Cuban missile crisis that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. Part of the reason he enrolled in college was to avoid being drafted and sent to the jungle to fight the Viet Cong.

When I asked how he first became interested in politics, he cited Bob Dylan’s 1963 protest song “Masters of War,” which takes aim at the political leaders and weapons makers who benefit from conflicts and culminates with the singer standing over their graves until he’s sure they’re dead.

“That was kind of a revelation to me,” Cohen said. Behind him, the sun filtered past a cardboard Ben & Jerry’s sign propped against a window. “I hadn’t understood that, you know, there were these masters of war — essentially I guess what we would now call the military-industrial-congressional complex — that profit from war.”

Cohen saw people from his high school get drafted and never come back from a war that “wasn’t justified.” As he graduated in the summer of 1969, around half a million U.S. troops were stationed in ‘Nam. Later that year, hundreds of thousands of protesters marched on Washington, D.C. to demand peace.

It was only much later, while doing “a lot of research” into the “tradeoffs between military spending and spending for human needs,” that Cohen came across a 1953 speech by Dwight D. Eisenhower, which foreshadowed the U.S. president’s 1961 farewell address in which he coined the phrase “military-industrial complex.”

A Republican president who had served as the supreme allied commander in Europe during World War II, Eisenhower warned against tumbling into an arms race. “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed,” he said.

“That is a foundational thing for me, very inspiring for me, and captures the essence of what I believe,” Cohen said. 

“If we weren’t wasting all of our money on preparing to kill people, we would actually be able to save and help a lot of people,” he added with a chuckle. “That goes for how we approach the world internationally as well,” he added — including the war in Ukraine. 

Pierre Ferrari, a former Ben & Jerry’s board member who was with the company from 1997 to 2020, said Cohen’s view of the world was shaped by the events of his youth.

“We were brought up at a time when the military, the government was just completely out of control,” he said. “We’re both children of the sixties, the Vietnam War and the new futility of war and the way war is used by the military-industrial complex and politics,” Ferrari added, pointing to the peace symbol he wore around his neck.

Jeff Furman, who has known Cohen for nearly 50 years and once served as Ben & Jerry’s in-house legal counsel, acknowledged that his generation’s views on Ukraine were informed by America’s misadventures in Vietnam.

“There’s a history of why this war is happening that’s a little bit more complex than who Putin is,” he said. “When you’ve been misled so many times in the past, you have to take this into consideration when you think about it, and really, really try to know what’s happening.”

Ice-cold activism

Politics has been a part of the Ben & Jerry’s brand since Cohen and his partner Jerry Greenfield started selling ice cream out of an abandoned gas station in 1978.

The company’s look and ethos were pure 1960s; they named one of their early flavors, Cherry Garcia, after the lead guitarist of the Grateful Dead, Jerry Garcia, whose psychedelic riffs formed the soundtrack of the hippy counterculture.

Social justice was one of the duo’s secret ingredients. For the first-year anniversary of the gas station shop’s opening, they gave away free ice cream for a day. On the flyers printed to promote the event was a quote from Cohen: “Business has a responsibility to give back to the community from which it draws its support.”

In 1985, after the company went public, they used some of the shares to endow a foundation working for progressive social change and committed Ben & Jerry’s to spend 7.5 percent of its pretax profits on philanthropy.

In the early years, the company instituted a five-to-one cap on the ratio between the salary of the highest-earning executive and its lowest-paid worker, dropping it only when Cohen was about to step down as CEO in the mid-1990s and they were struggling to find a successor willing to work for what they were offering.

Most companies try to separate politics and business. Cohen and Greenfield cheerfully mixed them up and served them in a tub of creamy deliciousness (the company’s rich, fatty flavors were in part driven by Cohen’s sinus problems, which dulls his taste).

In 1988, Cohen founded 1% for Peace, a nonprofit organization seeking to “redirect one percent of the national defense budget to fund peace-promoting activities and projects.” The project was funded in part through sales of a vanilla and dark-chocolate popsicle they called the Peace Pop.

It was around this time that Cohen opened Ben & Jerry’s in Russia, as “an effort to build a bridge between Communism and capitalism with locally produced Cherry Garcia,” according to a write-up in the New York Times. After years of planning, the outlet opened in the northwestern city of Petrozavodsk in 1992. (The company shut the shop down five years later to prioritize growth in the U.S., and also because of the involvement of local mobsters, said Furman, who was involved in the project.)

Cohen, with co-founder Jerry Greenfield, actress Jane Fonda and other climate activists, in front of the Capitol in 2019 | Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images

Even after Ben & Jerry’s was bought by Unilever in 2000, there were few progressive causes the company wasn’t eager to wade into with a campaign or a fancy new flavor.

The ice cream maker has marketed “Rainforest Crunch” in defense of the Amazon forest, sold “Empower Mint” to combat voter suppression, promoted “Pecan Resist” in opposition to then-U.S. President Donald Trump and launched “Change the Whirled” in partnership with Colin Kaepernick, the American football quarterback whose sports career ended after he started taking a knee during the national anthem in protest of police brutality.

More recently, however, the relationship between Cohen, Greenfield and Unilever has been rockier. In 2021, Ben & Jerry’s announced it would stop doing business in the Palestinian territories. Cohen and Greenfield, who are Jewish, defended the company’s decision in an op-ed in the New York Times.

After the move sparked political backlash, Unilever transferred its license to a local producer, only to be sued by Ben & Jerry’s. In December 2022, Unilever announced in a one-sentence statement that its litigation with its subsidiary “has been resolved.” Ben & Jerry’s ice cream continues to be sold throughout Israel and the West Bank, according to a Unilever spokesperson.

Cohen himself is no stranger to activism: Earlier this month, he was arrested and detained for a few hours for taking part in a sit-in in front of the U.S. Department of Justice, where he was protesting the prosecution of the activist and WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange.

Unilever declined to comment on Cohen’s views. “Ben Cohen no longer has an operational role in Ben & Jerry’s, and his comments are made in a personal capacity,” a spokesperson said.

Ben & Jerry’s did not respond to a request for comment.

The world according to Ben

For Cohen, the war in Ukraine wasn’t just a tragedy. It was, in a sense, a vindication. In 1998, a group he created called Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities published a full-page ad in the New York Times titled “Hey, let’s scare the Russians.”

The target of the ad was a proposal to expand NATO “toward Russia’s very borders,” with the inclusion of Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic. Doing so, the ad asserted, would provide Russians with “the same feeling of peace and security Americans would have if Russia were in a military alliance with Canada and Mexico, armed to the teeth.”

Cohen is by no means alone in this view of recent history. The American scholar John Mearsheimer, a prominent expert in international relations, has argued that the “trouble over Ukraine” started after the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest when the alliance opened the door to membership for Ukraine and Georgia.

In the U.S., this point has been echoed by progressive outlets and thinkers, such as Jeffrey Sachs, the linguist Noam Chomsky, or most recently by the American philosopher, activist and longest-of-long-shots, third-party presidential candidate Cornel West.

“We told them after they disbanded the Warsaw Pact that we could not expand NATO, not one inch. And we did that, we lied,” said Dennis Fritz, a retired U.S. Air Force official and the head of the Eisenhower Media Network — which describes itself as a group of “National Security Veteran experts, who’ve been there, done that and have an independent, alternative story to tell.” 

It was Fritz’s organization that argued in a May 2023 ad in the New York Times that although the “immediate cause” of the “disastrous” war in Ukraine was Russia’s invasion, “the plans and actions to expand NATO to Russia’s borders served to provoke Russian fears.” 

The ad noted that American foreign policy heavyweights, including Robert Gates and Henry Kissinger, had warned of the dangers of NATO expansion. “Why did the U.S. persist in expanding NATO despite such warnings?” it asked. “Profit from weapons sales was a major factor.”

Cohen and Greenfield announce a new flavor, Justice Remix’d, in 2019 | Win McNamee/Getty Images

When I spoke to Cohen, the group’s primary donor, according to Fritz, he echoed the ad’s key points, saying U.S. arms manufacturers saw NATO’s expansion as a “financial bonanza.”

“In the end, money won,” he said with a resigned tone. “And today, not only are they providing weapons to all the new NATO countries, but they’re providing weapons to Ukraine.”

I told Cohen I could understand his opposition to the war and follow his critique of U.S. foreign policy, but I couldn’t grasp how he could take a position that put him in the same corner as a government that is bombing civilians. He refused to be drawn in.

“I’m not supporting Russia, I’m not supporting Ukraine,” he said. “I’m supporting negotiations to end the war instead of providing more weapons to continue the war.” 

The Grayzone

I tried to get a better answer when I spoke to Aaron Maté, the Canadian-born journalist who won the award for “defense reporting and analysis” that Cohen was instrumental in funding.

Named after the late Pierre Sprey, a defense analyst who campaigned against the development of F-35 fighter jets as overly complex and expensive, the award recognized Maté’s “continued work dissecting establishment propaganda on issues such as Russian interference in U.S. politics, or the war in Syria.”

Maté, who was photographed with Cohen’s arm around his shoulders at the awards ceremony in March, writes for the Grayzone, a far-left website that has acquired a reputation for publishing stories backing the narratives of authoritarian regimes like Putin’s Russia or Bashar al-Assad’s Syria. His reports deny the use of chemical weapons against civilians in Syria, and he has briefed the U.N. Security Council at Moscow’s invitation.

When I spoke to Maté, he was friendly but guarded. (The Pierre Sprey award noted that “his empiricist reporting give the lie to the charge of ‘disinformation’ routinely leveled by those whose nostrums he challenges.”)

He was happy however to walk me through his claims that, based on statements by U.S. officials since the start of the war, Washington is using Kyiv to wage a “proxy war” against Moscow. Much of his information, he said, came from Western journalism. “I point out examples where, buried at the bottom of articles, sometimes the truth is admitted,” he explained.

He declined to be described as pro-Putin. “That kind of ‘guilt-by-association’ reasoning is not serious thinking,” he said. “It’s not how adults think about things.” When I asked if he believed that Russia had committed war crimes in Ukraine, he answered: “I’m sure they have. I’ve never heard of a war where war crimes are not committed.”

Still, he said, the U.S. was responsible for “prolonging” the war and “sabotaging the diplomacy that could have ended it.”

‘Come to Ukraine’

The best answer I got to my question came not from Cohen or others in his circle but from a fellow traveler who hasn’t chosen to follow critics of NATO on their latest journey.

A self-described “radical anti-imperialist,” Gilbert Achcar is a professor of development studies and international relations at SOAS University of London. He has described the expansion of NATO in the 1990s as a decision that “laid the ground for a new cold war” pitting the West against Russia and China.

But while he sees the war in Ukraine as the latest chapter in this showdown, he has warned against calls for a rush to the negotiating table. Instead, he has advocated for the complete withdrawal of Russia from Ukraine and “the delivery of defensive weapons to the victims of aggression with no strings attached.”

“To give those who are fighting a just war the means to fight against a much more powerful aggressor is an elementary internationalist duty,” he wrote three days after Russia launched its attack on Kyiv, comparing the invasion to the U.S.’s intervention in Vietnam. 

Achcar said he understood the conclusions being drawn by people like Cohen about Washington’s interventions in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. But, he said, “it leads a lot of people on the left into … [a] knee-jerk opposition to anything the United States does.” 

What they fail to account for, however, is the Ukrainian people.

“In a way, part of the Western left is ethnocentric,” said Achcar, who was born in Senegal and grew up in Lebanon. “They look at the whole world just by their opposition to their own government and therefore forget about other people’s rights.”

Cohen, with late-night TV host Jimmy Fallon in 2011 | Mike Coppola/Getty Images for Ben & Jerry’s

His point was echoed in the last conversation I had when researching this article, with Tymofiy Mylovanov, president of the Kyiv School of Economics and a former economy minister.

It doesn’t really matter who promised what to whom in the 1990s,Mylovanov said. “What matters is that there was Mariupol and Bucha, where tens of thousands of people were killed.”

Mylovanov taught economics at the University of Pittsburgh until he returned to Ukraine four days before Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

“Things like war are difficult to understand unless you experience them,” he said. “This is very easy to get confused when you are sitting, you know, somewhere far from the facts and you have surrounded yourself by an echo chamber of people and sources that you agree with.”

“In that sense,” he added. “I invite these people to come to Ukraine and judge for themselves what the truth is.”