There are two main schools of “exceptionalism” in the West: the Europe-centered one and the America-centered one. The first sees the future of mankind as bureaucratic and liberal, the second sees it as democratic and, again, liberal. These schools are exceptionalist because they hold others to the West’s own standards: anyone below the high standards of rule of law, gender equality, political freedom, and freedom of speech that the West currently observes is simply inferior in moral authority and civilizational development.
This is why in forums like the United Nations European states try to pass measures to transform the world into a semblance of their own reality and values. It is why the U.S. occasionally feels compelled to intervene abroad to “save lives” and “spread democracy and freedom.” Because much of the current body of international law originated in the West, the West deeply resents having that same law used against it. When the West breaks the law, it believes it is doing so for good reason and tries to legalize its breaches ex post facto. This was the case with Kosovo, when NATO’s intervention was later legalized with a UN resolution, and with humanitarian interventions in general, which the “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine is supposed to justify for the future. In others words, the sovereignty that the West claims is being breached in Ukraine can only be breached on humanitarian grounds—preferably by liberal democratic states.
This helps explain the virulent Western denunciation of false moral equivalence on Russia’s part: Crimea is not Kosovo because in Kosovo an ethnic minority was actually being oppressed and required outside intervention for its protection.
Forbes’s Paul Roderick Gregory put the West’s position eloquently:
We cannot rehash the complicated histories of Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, and Kosovo in a few words, but these enterprises share common features that are notably absent in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
First, in each case, there was no masking or disguising of operations a la Putin. … Second, no Western intervention had territorial ambitions or aimed for annexation of territory, or changes in accepted international boundaries. … Third, in each case, the perceived need to remove, or assist in the removal, of a bad actor or actors, who pose a danger to their own people and beyond their borders, motivated Western military action. … Fourth, in each case, the United States and its allies made every effort, some less successful than others, to attract international partners and the support of international organizations.
While these claims may be generally true, there are exceptions. And they reveal a certain Manichean distinction between good and evil that has less basis in reality than in a number of foreign-policy myths.
First, throughout the Cold War the U.S. did resort to a number of “masked operations,” such as with the Bay of Pigs effort in Cuba or the overthrow of Mossadegh in Iran. After 1989 such practices became unnecessary, but Russia is correct in pointing out that many of the activists who instigated and led the Color Revolutions, and now the overthrow of Yanukovych, were sponsored or trained by Western NGOs. One might ask what the problem is with furthering and teaching democratic/liberal values, but the answer is obvious: Russia doesn’t do the same in the West. What would demonstrations against Western governments during the current economic crisis look like if what Gregory calls “lefties” had financing and education provided by rival foreign governments and NGOs? Indeed, when other governments do provide such financing and education, the West cries foul, as with Saudi-funded Wahhabi/Salafist madrassas across the world.
Second, other countries have indeed annexed territory, or tried to, in recent history, including Egypt, China, Indonesia, India, Armenia, or South Africa. Even Western or Western-backed states such as Turkey, Croatia, Morocco, and Israel have made similar moves—not to mention ongoing disputes between a number of Western states themselves, as for example in the occasional tensions around Gibraltar.
Third, the notion of humanitarian grounds is a bit shaky. While the West always reacts with outrage at any major human-rights violation, the truth remains that it is not always ready to act. If human rights were our primary concern, then recent Western interventions should have occurred primarily not in Europe, Eurasia, and the Middle East but rather in Africa and Asia, where rule of law and humanitarian norms are truly lacking. The International Criminal Court (ICC) has been accused of being an African court because it focuses much more on African war criminals than Western ones. Yet the ICC is guided by a simple principle: “to act where it is most needed.”
The reason why need is not otherwise met proportionately by action is, simply, because the West could never afford it. If the West were to sanction trade with China every time it violates human rights, or stop buying oil from the Middle East every time a sheikhdom muzzles democratic activists, we would soon find ourselves isolated.
However, there is another reason why the West tends to act more vigorously on its own periphery rather than where its efforts are most needed in proportional terms: cultural bias. It is easier for Western elites to identify with people that possess ethnic and ideological profiles similar to themselves. Many of the men and women fighting Vladimir Putin and Arab autocrats are genuine liberals and were educated in Western universities. On the other hand, Asian or African realities are more distant from the ideological radar of North Atlantic normative empathy.
Fourth, it may come as shock to most Westerners to find that Putin is not exactly an outcast in the so-called “international community.” Several nations around the world are ready to support or acquiesce to Russia’s stance on Ukraine, including India, China, and even Turkey. This reveals that Western outrage is not the same as world outrage—indeed, when many commentators refer to the “international community,” they actually mean “Western community.”
The West is concerned that a UN Security Council permanent member goes forth in annexing territory. Fareed Zakaria writes:
I have generally been wary of the calls for U.S. intervention in any and every conflict around the world. But this is different. The crisis in Ukraine is the most significant geopolitical problem since the Cold War. Unlike many of the tragic ethnic and civil wars that have bubbled up over the past three decades, this one involves a great global power, Russia, and thus can and will have far-reaching consequences. And it involves a great global principle: whether national boundaries can be changed by brute force.
Nothing Zakaria says is untrue, but imagine for a second what it would have looked like if, at every breach of international law by the West, the rest of the world had decided to sanction and isolate us: no more raw materials or fossil fuels would have flowed to the West, no more manufactured goods or technology would have been exported to the globe. Why should the “[non-Western] international community” care if one more global power and UN Security Council permanent member violates international law?
There is a clear divide between Western perceptions and global perceptions of Ukraine. Why? Perhaps it can be partly explained by the different interpretations of history at play.
For the West, history is seen as linear. It consists of an inexorable evolution to today’s sophisticated standards from a primitive and violent past. Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History” thesis epitomizes this attitude. Of course, no one in the West wishes to publicly declare themselves superior in any way to the rest of the world other than in material terms. Yet it is obvious from the actions of Westerners that not all democracies are equal—Putin, Yanukovych, and Turkey’s Recep Erdogan were all elected and re-elected—and that some “Europeans” are more “European” than others.
For the rest of the world, history is seen as cyclical and the breach of international norms, while crass, is not a calamity. Unlike in Hegelian progressivism, Asians and Africans don’t find history flowing in any particular direction, they see it as a succession of cycles of prosperity and turmoil. Which is why to them 1945 and 1989 are not crucial dates. There is no acquis intrinsically worthy of being considered sacred or vital to the international system. Reality changes norms, not the opposite.
In 2011, the Malaysian “Kuala Lumpur War Crimes Tribunal” found George W. Bush and Tony Blair guilty of war crimes after trying them in absentia. Obviously the trial was a political stunt, but it serves to show that there is growing resentment of Western normative unilateralism. Russia, being on the immediate periphery of Western efforts to spread democracy and liberal values, feels the same.
Russians feel that they have adapted to everything the West required for civilizational acceptance. They democratized, freed their markets, and even tried in Ukraine to play the election game as best they could, sponsoring and advising a candidate they thought would be more sympathetic to their concerns. They did all this only to find that their democracy and economy are still imperfect by Western standards and that even if they manage to influence elections in Ukraine, their freely and fairly elected partners can simply be pushed aside in breach of both constitutional law and international agreements signed and publicly guaranteed by Western powers. As far as Putin is concerned, there is no longer any point in trying to play the election game by Western rules because the West does not see itself as bound by those same rules. Thus, the smartest course of action in his eyes is to cut his losses and use hard power to secure as much of the Ukrainian polity as possible.
Putin is right about this: the West is profoundly discriminatory in its conduct. There is a sense of entitlement and self-righteousness that derives from cultural autism.
Geert Hostede explains that Western universalism—the belief that Western values apply seamlessly to the other societies—is fundamentally linked to individualism:
individualistic societies emphasize ‘I’ consciousness: autonomy, emotional independence, individual initiative, the right to privacy, pleasure seeking, financial security and the need for specific friendship and universalism. Collective societies stress ‘we’ consciousness: collective identity, emotional inter-dependence, group solidarity, sharing, duties and obligations, the need for stable and predetermined friendships, group decisions and particularism.
The rest of the world, along with Russia, sees in the present controversy only a regional power defending particularist interests in Ukraine. The West, however, sees the gravest, most direct threat to normative liberal universalism since Stalin and Hitler.
Much of the world has realized there is no hope of meeting Western standards because many societies are simply incapable of transforming themselves into new Swedens, regardless of how hard they try. Most have adopted the Western bureaucratic state apparatus and political constitutional system. Yet Muslim countries resent Western criticism of their incompatible societal ethics regarding the treatment of women or the lack of secularism, and many southern countries, strive as they may to tackle corruption, find themselves criticized by State Department reports or discriminated against by Western investors.
Academic and bureaucratic elites in the West are only too aware of the striking sociological similarities between the functioning of Russian society and that of other Eastern European ones. The prominent role of oligarchs is not exclusive to Russia, nor is the endemic corruption of the political system or even the lack of independence of the courts. Putin’s strongman politics and Russia’s many other problems are easy targets for liberal critics, but if these critics were true to their convictions they would not single out Russia but take a look at Ukraine itself, or even some former Warsaw Pact states now integrated into the EU.
The scope of these problems clearly indicates that the problem runs deeper than mere political leadership: just as the removal of Yanukovych will not end corruption in Ukraine, so too Putin’s exit would not end corruption. The subversion of the political system and the weak rule of law traverse nonindividualistic societies because there are multiple competing loyalties between the individual and the state: to family, to social circle, to religion, to ethnic group. As one character in “A Game of Thrones” laments:
So many vows. They make you swear and swear. Defend the King, obey the King, obey your father, protect the innocent, defend the weak. But what if your father despises the King? What if the King massacres the innocent? It’s too much. No matter what you do, you’re forsaking one vow or another.
Scandinavia is perhaps the best example of individualism in the West, for it is there that family has lost its traditional role, where religion has been completely removed from every nonceremonial place, and where states are almost perfectly ethnically homogeneous. It is there where individual rights are strongest and hierarchy the weakest, where society represses ostentation and inequality, where children are taught to be independent from early on rather than dependent on their family for social advancement. On the opposite end of the spectrum, in democratic India, there are still villages where rape is an acceptable form of debt payment. Eastern Europe figures somewhere between the subordination of the individual to the collective in India and the subordination of the collective to the individual in Sweden. Societies aren’t static; values can change. But such a monumental change is not within the reach of any one political leader—it will be carried out by structural forces alone.
It is therefore of extreme importance to hold onto moral equivalence because it is the most important way to contextualize the actions of different actors in the world system. Without moral equivalence one is ideologically blind. Context in the case of Ukraine can reveal that while Russia is consciously breaking international rules, its motives are merely parochial and no grand imperialistic plan is afoot; and while the West is morally disgusted, its own watering down of the rules provided precedents that have furthered the world’s apathy—as was foreseen by figures as different as John Bolton and Lawrence Eagleburger, who jointly wrote:
A reassessment of America’s Kosovo policy is long overdue. We hope a policy that would set a very dangerous international precedent can still be averted if that reassessment begins now. In the meantime, it is imperative that no unwarranted or hasty action be taken that would turn what is now a relatively small problem into a large one.
Miguel Nunes Silva has worked with the International Criminal Court and the European External Action Service, as well as written for such publications as Small Wars Journal and Asia Times. He is currently an analyst for the geostrategy consultancy Wikistrat.