Double Standards

In a previous post, I defended the practice of whataboutism. Its success, I think, owes a lot to a widespread belief that Western states are hypocritical and abide by double standards, condemning others for things that they do themselves.

This week the Turks shot down a Russian airplane over Syria. The facts are disputed. Turkey claims that the Russian plane violated Turkish airspace for 17 seconds, and that it was given multiple warnings before being shot down. The Russians deny entering Turkish airspace, and the rescued navigator of the plane says that no warnings were given.

I can’t say who is telling the truth, but if it is the Turks, then they, and their NATO allies, are guilty of double standards. After the Syrians shot down a Turkish plane which had violated Syrian airspace in 2012, Turkish president Abdullah Gul complained that, ‘it is routine for jet fighters to sometimes fly in and out over [national] borders’, and the then Turkish Prime Minister (now President), Recep Tayyip Erdogan, remarked that, ‘a short term border violation can never be a pretext for an attack.’ NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen agreed that, ‘It is another example of the Syrian authorities’ disregard for international norms.’ According to the BBC, ‘in a letter to the UN Security Council, Turkey described the shooting down of its reconnaissance plane as a “hostile act” and “a serious threat to peace and security in the region”.’ Yet, this week, Turkey and NATO took a very different line. It was the very short term violation of Turkish airspace by the Russians which was the ‘hostile act’, and the Turkish action which was entirely justified. ‘We stand in solidarity with Turkey and support the territorial integrity of our NATO Ally, Turkey,’ said Secretary General Rasmussen.

This double standard should not surprise us. Nowadays, it is quite routine. The question I want to pose is whether it can somehow be justified. Many Western human rights activists and philosophers think that the answer is yes. For the past 20 years, the intellectual movement in the West has been away from an international order based on equal, sovereign nations and towards one in which states which are deemed liberal democracies (by us in the West, of course), or are friendly to the West, enjoy greater rights than those who are deemed otherwise. Not all nations are equal.

Take the views of Canadian philosopher Brian Orend, a prominent just war theorist. In his book The Morality of War, Orend argues that states do not exist for themselves, but to safeguard and promote the rights of their citizens. ‘Minimally just states’, which manage to do so to at least some degree, merit full sovereign rights. But those which are not ‘minimally just’ have no rights at all. They forfeit the right not to be attacked. Apply this to the Syrian airplane cases, and you can see how the one shooting was seen as justified and the other was not. Syria, in the eyes of its critics, is not a ‘minimally just state’. As such, it has no sovereign rights, and so is not entitled to shoot down aircraft which violate its airspace. Turkey, by contrast, is at least ‘minimally just’, and so does have a right to self-defence. A double standard exists, because a double standard should exist.

This is, I believe, very dangerous logic. Orend, like most human rights thinkers, imagines that there is a universal moral law which defines what is ‘minimally just’. The problem is that not everybody agrees. The ideologues of the Islamic State, for instance, imagine that their system is more just than ours. If being ‘minimally just’ gives you latitude to do things which others cannot, then everybody gets that latitude, because everybody thinks that they are just. The only way that we can restrain action in war, and in international affairs more generally, is to treat all as equal.

Moreover, those who promote double standards seem to imagine that states and peoples who are deemed not to have full rights will simply accept their inferior status without protest. This is not the case. People notice hypocrisy. They resent double standards. They are likely not to submit, but to resist, just as Russia is currently refusing to accept the double standards of the West and is striking back in an effort to restore a system based on sovereign equality. Ultimately, an order based upon inequality cannot be a stable or peaceful order. Western states have ignored this fact for too long, and are now paying the price.

In short, if the Syrians were wrong to shoot down a Turkish plane which flew over Syria for several minutes, the Turks were wrong to shoot down a Russian plane which flew over Turkey for 17 seconds.

24 thoughts on “Double Standards”

  1. There is a major difference – Syria admitted to having shot down the Turkish plane with air defense weaponry, and Erdogan even claimed initially that Syria had apologized for it, although his memory grew cloudy on that score later. Turkey initially denied shooting down the Russian aircraft and pretended to be confused – initial reporting was quite confident it had fallen to ground fire. Later we were told that Erdogan had personally given the order to fire; I bet he regrets that detail getting out. Then the highly suspicious business of immediately running to NATO with the news, almost as if they had been waiting for it.

    Under a system such as that described, there would be no function for international law such as that exercised by the UN, to advocate for the weak and defenseless; those not considered “just states” by a set of parameters doubtless established by consent of those who claimed to be “just states” could expect to be attacked (unless, presumably, they cleaned up their act and became just states). Although such a system is plainly flawed in that it provides for no impartial external authority, I would argue it is very like the system which currently prevails. International law exists, but is only considered to be binding in any way when it suits the foreign policy objectives of the dominant western powers, the United States and the UK. Legal prohibition upon something these powers wish to do is regarded as merely a suggestion which can be disregarded or circumvented without penalty or censure.

    If Erdogan was persuaded into a provocation, he will pay dearly for it. Russian bombing missions will now be escorted by CAP, and any motion toward Russian strike elements will bring an immediate response from air superiority fighters that are far out of the class of anything the Turks can put into the air. A heavy missile cruiser has moved in near the coast, with an additional and very capable air defense suite as well as an advanced air defense radar which could be used for local air control. Russia has announced it will deploy the S-400 in Syria. Some say they doubt it will ever happened, but recent history suggests it may be unwise to doubt that Russia will do as it says it will do. There will be an air defense wall at the real Turkish border – never mind this bogus arbitrary 5-mile “buffer zone” Turkey claims in Syrian airspace – and it will be a brave or foolhardy pilot indeed who dares approach it. None will dare to cross it. So what did Erdogan accomplish? Nothing that was likely to advance Turkish goals in the region, and he may have significantly advanced ISIS’s defeat.


    1. After Russia admitted one violation in October “due to bad weather” (which was not bad) they said they will never do that again. They repeated the violations almost daily since then. So that’s all about “Russia does what it says”. Now, Turkey downed their jet do you think Russian jets will continue to violate their airspace?


      1. 1) Source for “not that bad weather”
        2) Source for Russians claimimg that their “violaton” happened due to bad weather and that they willl “cease and desist” fututre “violations”
        3) Source for “repeated violations almost daily”

        Or I call bullshit.


      2. “Минобороны объяснило нарушение воздушного пространства Турции”,, 5 October 2015

        For weather just Google “Antakya Historical Weather”. For “daily moderations” I have just posted a full list of incidents in October with URLs, let’s see if it goes through moderation.


  2. To me, lying/spinning government officials is nothing remarkable. This is basically their job.

    But what about the media, what the fuck? The presumably ‘free’ capitalist media? I don’t know the exact mechanism, and I don’t think Manufacturing Consent explains *this* degree of media consolidation with the political class.

    Has it always been like this and I’m only noticing now? Or is this something new? Have we reached the full-blown 1984-Orwellian mode of operation?


  3. This time it was no way a “short term violation”. Russian jets were periodically violating Turkish airspace since beginning of October and even in Russian news it was reported almost daily (obvioulsy with denials) for most of October, with Russia actually admitting one violation around mid-October. On 17th Turkey was so pissed off that they openly stated they will shoot down any jets continuing to do so. And then they downed Russian drone on their own territory. And then contined warnings for another few weeks. And only then downed that Su-24.

    It is also false that Turkey “initially denied” anything. It was Turkey to first report downing that Su-24 and published radar pictures, while Russia was saying “it wast most likely downed from the ground”, waiting for whatever Putin decides. Then they admitted it was downed by Turkey and – on the DoD conference – presented two contradictory maps. One was a paper topographic map with hand-drawn red line showing the jet carefully avoiding even coming close to the Turkish border. Second was a low quality radar image showing… the same jet flying straight into the Yayladagi province.

    As for the “unknown jet” statement of Turkey, I suspect the only reason why they used this phrase was that the Russian jet was playing dumb and not responding to any radio calls (as they frequently violating EU air space). I wouldn’t be also surprised if it had it markings and insignia removed, because this is what they frequently do.

    So if anything, it was not double standards but rather the “we’re from Russia and we don’t give a f… because no-one will touch us” attitude that resulted in the incident. And I’m pretty sure you will not see any Russian jets violating Turkish airspace anymore. It’s a pity they had to learn it the hard way.


    1. “Russian jets were periodically violating Turkish airspace since beginning of October”

      Could you provide some evidence, please? I’m aware of the alleged violation on October 5, and this incident, but nothing in between.



      1. Yes, I can. And only Russian media so it’s all very reliable and surely true:

        3-4 Oct (violation, ignored)
        5 Oct (violation admitted and apologized)
        6 Oct (violation, ignored)
        7 Oct (Turkey warning)
        8 Oct (NATO warning)
        15 Oct (Turkey warning)
        16 Oct (drone shot down)
        17 Oct (Turkey warning)
        …and so it continued.

        Plus, if you look at the Turkish radar photo it looks likethe Russian pilot actually made TWO circles through the Turkish territory and was only shot during the second one.

        If this wasn’t an idiotic, childish showing-off by quite young pilot of the “greatest army in the world” then I don’t know how to call it…


      2. I checked a few of your links, and most of them don’t say anything relevant, just some Pentagon pronouncements. Some other are identical links. Some are about the unidentified drone.

        What are the dates of alleged violations by Russian jets?


    2. I would also insist that Turkey of all countries is in absolutly no position to accuse anyone of violating its airspace, since it probably is number 1 in terms of air space violations worldwide.

      They have also signed binding agreements to not shoot down Russian Jets without following through the escalation ladder.


    3. “Russian jets were periodically violating Turkish airspace since beginning of October and even in Russian news it was reported almost daily”

      There were 2 (two) reported “violations” since that. I guess that you, Sir, are bloody biased against Russia. Ergo – that you are Russophobe.


      1. If being irritated by immature idiots playing “who’s got bigger dick” and their commanders who allow that then yes, you can call me Russophobe. But then when I was equally pissed off by USAF idiot killing twenty people in Cavalese in 1998, how would you call me?


      1. At a minimum, Turkey’s own behaviour indicates these sorts of minimal, non-hostile incursions into other states’ airspace are pretty common, not requiring a maximal, disproportionate response which, in this case, resulted in the killing of two Russian servicemen, one pilot and one rescuer. (Incidentally, wiith one of them being paraded by jihadi lunatics … can you imagine what would’ve have happened if this was an American pilot’s body being kicked around over gloating and shouting of Allah-u-akbar?)


    4. And I’m pretty sure you will not see any Russian jets violating Turkish airspace anymore. It’s a pity they had to learn it the hard way.

      Dear Cortez:
      You write like a defense laywer making some very technical points, you post links purporting to prove a technical case against Russia. You are trying to justify what Erdogan did, when he ordered the plane to be shot down. And you are thumping your chest: “We showed the Russians. They learned a lesson they won’t soon forget.”

      But the fact is: Your technical arguments don’t matter, they don’t even count any more. The situation has gone WAY beyond that. Russia is going to go after EVERYBODY that was involved in this. That’s the lesson that Russia learned.
      Let’s even stipulate that Russian aircraft might have skimmed through Turkish airspace 3 or 4 times. (The incident with the drone doesn’t count, the implication there being that it is an American drone.)
      Putting aside, that Turkey claims as its airspace a swath which other countries don’t recognize as Turkish, let’s just stipulate that some violations have occurred, just as Turkey has repeatedly violated the airspace of other nations, including Syria and Greece.

      So what?
      Russia didn’t learn a lesson. If anything, Turkey learned a lesson.
      I have some links too, and this one says that Turkish aircraft have grounded themselves as of today: They no longer fly over Syria. While Russian planes still fly against ISIS.

      So, who learned a lesson here?

      Slowly but surely, Russia is establishing its “no-fly zone” over Syria.
      The only “lesson” that Russia learned, is that Turkey is an enemy, allied with an enemy..



  4. For a couple of reasons, Syria was, legally and I would argue morally, considerably more in the right then Turkey.

    As I understand, the coalition powers (UK; US; France, very likely Turkey) and the Russians did sign Memorandums of understanding in order to avoid this kind of bullshit. While I am not privy to this MOU, I would guess that it would mostly state that, in case of a border violation, the entire gamut of the escalation ladder, from radio contact to visual contact to warning shots etc. is to be run, and only then would fire be opened.
    Turkey also has a military information interface with Russia (provided by the Russians) over which they could have interacted too.

    I would also add that the last time Russian Jets violated Turkish airspace, the Turks went through the MOU and got a formal Russian apology, together with a better view of the Russian military via increased contacts/interfaces provided by the Russians.

    Turkey directly violated this, by moving straight from alleged warning messages via Radio (personally, I believe that Turkey spamms everyone in the unilaterally declared 5 mile buffer zone in Syrian territory with this messages, which would explain why everyone would ignore them) to shooting the Russian Jet in cold blood.

    No MOU existed between Syria and Turkey, so Syria did not break an agreement it had recently signed. One should also add that Turkey is a clear threat to Syria, and has a habit of violating Syrian airspace and attack Syrian Arab army and Kurdish targets in Syria. Russia has no history of attacking Turkish targets in Turkey.

    Oh, Turkey violates Greek airspace a couple of thousand times per year, and its fighters engage in “mock dogfight” with the greeks hundreds of times per year. The astonishing degree with which Turkey totally ignores other nations air spaces is pretty unique, and by far puts Russias (which mostly stays in international airspace) to shame.


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