Asymmetrical rules

Back in September I presented a paper at a conference in Moscow on the topic of ‘Human Rights Reasoning and Double Standards in the Rules-Based Order.’ In this I pointed out that both Russia and the West claimed to be in favour of a ‘rules-based order’ and that each accused the other of breaking that order. The problem, I conjectured, derives from differing understanding of what the rules are and how they should be applied. Russia believes in a traditional, Westphalian, order in which states are equal sovereign entities. The rules apply equally to all of them, regardless of who they are or what they do. States may only take action against other states with the permission of a superior court, in other words the United Nations Security Council. Of course, Russia doesn’t 100% abide by the rules of its own model, but its preferred option remains one of legal symmetry – the same rules apply to all.

By contrast, human rights reasoning has pushed the West in an opposite direction, towards a preference for legal asymmetry. In this model, the just and the unjust, those who respect and those who don’t respect human rights, are not legally or morally equal. As I wrote in my paper, if a policeman shoots at a criminal, the criminal doesn’t then enjoy a right of self-defence and so a right to shoot at the policeman. This is because one is engaged in a just act, and the other in an unjust act. Taken to the level of international affairs, a state which is not, in the words of Canadian scholar Brian Orend, ‘minimally just’, has no right of self-defence; but a just state has a right to take action against it. Good states in this model gain rights; bad states lose them. Asymmetry is correct, and there is nothing wrong with double standards.

Having put forward this thesis in my paper, I was very interested, therefore, to see somebody apparently confirm it in today’s New York Times. In an article entitled ‘Russia isn’t the only one meddling in elections. We do it, too’, Scott Shane recounts multiple incidents in which the United States has meddled in other countries’ electoral processes and cites intelligence officials as confirming that this has happened and continues to happen. In a recent example, for instance, the USA attempted (but failed) to ensure Hamid Karzai’s defeat in the 2009 election in Afghanistan. Shane quotes former CIA director Robert Gates as calling this ‘our clumsy and failed putsch.’

What is significant about this article, though, is the unrepentant tone of those interviewed. Former CIA officer Steven L. Hall, for instance, tells Shane that the United States has ‘absolutely’ interfered in other countries’ elections and ‘I hope we keep doing it.’ And then we get onto the key point. Shane writes:

Both Mr Hall and [intelligence scholar Loch] Johnson argued [that] Russia and American interferences in elections have not been morally equivalent. American interventions have generally been aimed at helping non-authoritarian candidates challenge dictatorships, or otherwise promoting democracy. Russia has more often intervened to disrupt democracy or promote authoritarian rule, they said. Equating the two, Mr Hall says, ‘is like saying cops and bad guys are the same because they both have guns – the motivation matters.’

In the same vein, Shane cites Kenneth Wollack, president of the National Democratic Initiative as saying, ‘It’s not just apples and oranges. It’s comparing somebody who delivers lifesaving medicine to somebody who brings deadly poison.’

Putting aside the rather questionable assertion that American interventions in other countries’ affairs are ‘generally’ in support of ‘democracy’, we see here a clear example of asymmetrical thinking. In American eyes the same rules do not apply to the United States and Russia, because they are morally different. The American idea of a rules-based order is one in which the ‘good guys’ are subject to different rules to the ‘bad guys’.

One can understand the logic here. Why should the rules be written to put good and evil on an equal footing? Should they not be written to favour the former over the latter? The problem, however, is that we have no external body (barring the UN Security Council) able to determine which states are just, and so allowed to interfere in the affairs of others, and those which are unjust, and not allowed to do so (and indeed not even allowed to defend themselves). Asymmetrical rules permit anybody and everybody to declare themselves ‘just’ and their opponents ‘unjust’, and so to abrogate extra rights for themselves while denying even the most basic rights to others. Since in reality only the powerful will be able to act on this, such asymmetrical rules serve merely to enhance the power of those who already have it (which is, of course, probably why the most powerful states in the world favour them). Meanwhile, those who are at the receiving end of this logic can hardly be expected to accept it; they are likely to resist. Such an order will never be universally accepted, and so cannot be the basis for a stable international system.

Of course, an international system entirely devoid of any concept of justice is equally problematic. The rule utilitarian logic which underpins the Westphalian model of equal sovereign states can be seen as potentially callous, as it requires states to stand aside and do nothing while others behave in atrocious ways. There are perhaps some good reasons why the Western countries have moved away from it. But the chosen alternative is not obviously any better.

It is sometimes said that current East-West tensions do not constitute a ‘new Cold War’ because East and West are not ideologically divided in the way they were previously. Yet it is clear that beneath present disputes lies a fundamental philosophical disagreement about the nature of a ‘rules-based order.’ Resolving it is perhaps one of the key philosophical tasks of our time.

45 thoughts on “Asymmetrical rules”

  1. It is sometimes said that current East-West tensions do not constitute a ‘new Cold War’ because East and West are not ideologically divided in the way they were previously.

    Yeah, I hear this a lot, including (or even mostly?) from Russian media.

    But I think it’s wrong. A new dichotomy – neoliberal globalism vs sovereignism – is the new ideological divide. Just as antagonistic as the one in the last century.


  2. To go full non handshakeworthy heretic here, I would propose the following reasoning as to why (let us assume for a moment that Russian interference in the US election actually happened) Russias and Americas interferences are indeed not morally equivalent.

    Russia is a nuclear power. While not formally established as a principle, the first duty that a nuclear power has towards mankind as a whole is to prevent a nuclear war. One candidate, Hillary Clinton, espoused policy proposals (no fly zones in Syria) which would greatly increase the odds of nuclear war. One could further add that candidate Clinton espoused these policy proposals despite them being quite unpopular, that Candidate Clinton has a solid track records of favoring military force, and that Candidate Clinton would have been in a position to push through her foreign policy preferences with limited internal opposition.

    As candidates Clintons policy of no fly zones would be in flagrant breach of international law, and would mean war with the Russian federation (due to the fact that no fly zones in Syria would require military action against Russian soldiers in Syria, who are there legitimately with an invitation from the host government), we would do well to look at Russias obligations according to Just War theory.

    Generally speaking, Just war theory states that war must be the method of the last resort, with all measures short of war having to be tried before hostilities commence. Given that Candidate Clinton was just a Candidate, defeating her candidacy would very much be a measure far short of war, and one could actually construe an obligation for Russia to meddle in US election if that could aid in preventing World War 3.

    One could further add that Russian interference in the US election had another element that renders it morally superior to US interference elsewhere. Russia did not interfere in favor of Trump, it interfered against Candidate Clinton. If one assesses that Russia has no right whatsorever to influence US politics on non global thermonuclear war related issues (which is reasonable to assess), then interfering against the global thermonuclear war candidate is actually a legally superior choice compared to interfering in favor of some candidate, as it keeps Russian influence to a comparable minimum. One should note that Russia supported all American political forces that were not running on a platform of global thermonuclear war with Russia.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. ^This is elegant and just so… “thin” trolling! A approve.

      “One should note that Russia supported all American political forces that were not running on a platform of global thermonuclear war with Russia.”

      Either Gary “Driving License Is A Theft!” Johnsons was in favor of the thermonucler war (as a mean to bring forth the global devolution of the state) or I totally missed how we, Russians, supported him.

      Jill Stein was… eh!


      1. Russia Today hosted the third parties debate.

        Which definitly costed more then 57 Pence (and noble Britain established that despicable Russian support starts at this level of monetary commitment), and also supported Occupy wall street which counts as supporting Jill Stein.



    2. Well, Schmeizer, I propose the following reasoning: the venerable Dalai Lama and former Mexican president Vicente Fox had a bet. Being an international persona, the Dalai Lama bet that he could convince the Russians to meddle in USA’s 2016 election. Mr. Fox believed that the Americans would catch on to the mischief and stop it. At stake for both individuals was a purebred pony.

      Your reasoning is a flight of fancy. I regret having spent time reading your story.


    1. When it comes to “bad” states versus good, in terms of the violence, chaos and misery they have spread worldwide in the 21st century, the U.S. is a serial killer whereas Russia is a vandal and petty thief, at worst.


  3. The police-guns-vs-criminals-guns argument is a compelling one at first glance. But its foundation is the whole “legitimacy” framework. Again. With the logical rigor of a well-cooked spaghetti noodle.

    Democratic legitimacy at an international-relations level would see the US outvoted. Interestingly, the likely winners of such a vote would be supporters of an un-democratic system, such as China or the Islamic world. After them you might get India and Latin America, with probably choose democracy, but with different priorities from the US. Next Europe, which would probably be similar to the US worldview, with some exceptions. The US itself would come in maybe 6th place, maybe 5th place if combined with western Europe.

    If you define your legitimacy in terms of a democratic process, your legitimacy extends only as far as the borders in which people get to vote on whether or not you have power. Outside that limit, you’re relying on the tacit assumption that the choices of the population on whose behalf you claim to justly intervene can be extrapolated from the policy choices made at home – policy choices derived, a bit indirectly, from a local democratic system.

    The very real special case that a democratic process results in an undemocratic system is a vicious bootstrapping problem that haunts IR theorists.

    The problem at the core of this discussion is a serious philosophical puzzle. It’s also a situation that applies a lot to China (locally neither democratic nor liberal), where there is zero outrage, and not very much to Russia (i.e., locally democratic but not liberal).

    Instead, I think what we’re seeing as the main element of “legitimacy” underpinning this whole topic, is that of moral or ideological purity. For comparison, the USSR argued its global legitimacy (compared-to-what?
    to capitalist nations) from a foundation of moral-ideological purity. This type of argument is too easy to flip any way you like. The problems with this approach should be obvious.

    There are other obvious measures of legitimacy that exist. Material wealth. Being good at prolonging life expectancy in places where you get involved. Being good at reducing life expectancy in places where you get involved. Blessing of religious authorities, or more technically-specific moral codes.

    On a more practical level — as in what makes Russiagate effective rhetoric — the argument goes to the “enemy state” concept. That one is very solid, it has defeated other arguments with ease throughout history. A lot of the hand-waving we see is just there to make this go down smoother for the more literate consumers of political news out there.


    1. In other words, returning to the police analogy:
      The correct analogy wouldn’t be comparing police use of guns vs criminal use of guns — it would be: an NYPD officer pulls out a gun on an LAPD officer. Who has legitimacy? Depends on whether you’re in NY or LA.


    2. All good and correct words about a paper-thin veil of “legitimacy” which allows the US to call itself “the World’s policeman”. But you need to go further and tell what it is in reality, because there is an exact term for that. The US of A is the World’s vigilante. Not some fucking Batman or other clown in funny cape and trousers, but someone like this great hero of the War for Independence. Vigilantes/lynchers also operate on the concept of the “justness”, which might not go hand and hand with the concept of “lawfulness”. After all – the Man is not to be trusted. Everyone is corrupted. Only Caped Avengers can bring the Justice!


      Is it a coincidence then that the superhero genre is seeing a revival on the blue screen now?


  4. For some reason I think of a cartoon in John Skynner and John Cleeses’s book “Families and how to survive them”. From memory, dad is having an argument with mum and the kids and in exasperation says “Let’s just say that I am God, and leave it at that.” On a more scholarly note, I comment that a local, Professor Ian Tyrrell, UNSW, was perhaps the first to talk about “American exceptionalism”. (Surprisingly, I learnt this from Lyttenburgh.)


  5. “Of course, an international system entirely devoid of any concept of justice is equally problematic. The rule utilitarian logic which underpins the Westphalian model of equal sovereign states can be seen as potentially callous, as it requires states to stand aside and do nothing while others behave in atrocious ways. There are perhaps some good reasons why the Western countries have moved away from it”

    And WHY did the enLYTTENed “Western” (only Western!) states moved away from it, Professor? Could it have something to do with the Great French Revolution and consequent Napoleonic Wars? Then why not tell what system of international relations replaced and what was the basis of it? Hint – it was not an abstract “justice” either. It was a concept of legalism and that the European Concerto of the Great Powers could all make sacrifices for the common good and in the name of maintaining said system.

    This also ignores the fact that Westphalian system evolved greatly from mid 17 c. to early 18 c. This system post 1715 worked like a clockwork – literally. It was absolutely mechanistic, machinistic I’d even say. It did not work on “justness” per se – it worked on the concept of “balance”. Absolute balance, which was possible if you get enough cogs, counterweights and pulleys on each side of the (potential) conflict. In short – if the Turks kicks your Austrian arse one time too many, or if the Prussian grabs Silesia, or if you need a new configuration of diplomatic alliances to stand up to the ISIL Revolutionary France – partition Poland! Ah… fun times! More elegant, that’s for sure.

    “Just” system – is something out from the Middle Ages, where you are just as long as you enjoy the Grace of Heaven (to continue your annual subscription to the “Grace of Heaven” ™, send your tithes to Rome/Avignon). Because you must have a clear, undisputable moral authority to have it and determine what is just. The current post-modernist West has no moral authorities – or morals to speak of.


  6. From the article:

    “The United States’ departure from democratic ideals sometimes went much further. The C.I.A. helped overthrow elected leaders in Iran and Guatemala in the 1950s and backed violent coups in several other countries in the 1960s. It plotted assassinations and supported brutal anti-Communist governments in Latin America, Africa and Asia.”


    “C.I.A. officials told Mr. Johnson in the late 1980s that “insertions” of information into foreign news media, mostly accurate but sometimes false, were running at 70 to 80 a day. In the 1990 election in Nicaragua, the C.I.A. planted stories about corruption in the leftist Sandinista government, Mr. Levin said. The opposition won.

    Over time, more American influence operations have been mounted not secretly by the C.I.A. but openly by the State Department and its affiliates. For the 2000 election in Serbia, the United States funded a successful effort to defeat Slobodan Milosevic, the nationalist leader, providing political consultants and millions of stickers with the opposition’s clenched-fist symbol and “He’s finished” in Serbian, printed on 80 tons of adhesive paper and delivered by a Washington contractor.

    Vince Houghton, who served in the military in the Balkans at the time and worked closely with the intelligence agencies, said he saw American efforts everywhere. “We made it very clear that we had no intention of letting Milosevic stay in power,” said Mr. Houghton, now the historian at the International Spy Museum.”

    Whew! Thankfully the US never intervened in the EuroMaidan AKA the Revolution of Dignity!


    “At least once the hand of the United States reached boldly into a Russian election. American fears that Boris Yeltsin would be defeated for re-election as president in 1996 by an old-fashioned Communist led to an overt and covert effort to help him, urged on by President Bill Clinton. It included an American push for a $10 billion International Monetary Fund loan to Russia four months before the voting and a team of American political consultants (though some Russians scoffed when they took credit for the Yeltsin win).

    That heavy-handed intervention made some Americans uneasy. Thomas Carothers, a scholar at the Carnegie Institute for International Peace, recalls arguing with a State Department official who told him at the time, “Yeltsin is democracy in Russia,” to which Mr. Carothers said he replied, “That’s not what democracy means.””

    Heretic! How de dares to doubt the Holy Word?!

    “Most Americans view such efforts as benign — indeed, charitable. But Mr. Putin sees them as hostile. The National Endowment for Democracy gave grants years ago to Aleksei Navalny, now Mr. Putin’s main political nemesis. In 2016, the endowment gave 108 grants totaling $6.8 million to organizations in Russia for such purposes as “engaging activists” and “fostering civic engagement.” The endowment no longer names Russian recipients, who, under Russian laws cracking down on foreign funding, can face harassment or arrest.”

    Thugs! Goons! ПЖИВ ПЖИВ!


    1. Let me just point out that in that picture Ms. Nuland is offering cookies from a plastic bag. Here in Europe, plastic bags are deeply uncool, environmentally unfriendly and taxed. Everyone takes sturdy, resuseable shopping bags with them (the Brits have only just figured this out, but they do live on and island, so….). I should also add that if she brought the bag from the US, that is also worse for the environment, and lastly, if bought locally it goes to show how far the Ukraine is from the European ideal (as I wrote, reuseable shopping bags). Shocking!


  7. Paul, it’s important to realize that America’s External application
    of a “justifiable double standard” now has an Internal counterpart:

    Remember those platitudes about our reverence for freedom of speech,
    freedom of the (Domestic-only) press, and the free flow of information?
    Well, the recent insensitivity, haters, trolls, and misinformation —
    coupled with our “evolving standards of morality” —
    now justifies very significant censorship … for our protection.

    Only a few months ago, American “progressives” were screaming about
    how the evil internet companies were gutting our sacred “Net Neutrality”.
    This meant that a big corporation could technologically downgrade
    or even censor information content it didn’t like, or didn’t profit from.

    But after our Intelligence Community told us what those bad Russkies
    had done, we are now begging those same big internet corporations
    to stifle and censor anti-social “Misinformation”
    to make our world safe for snowflakes; er, I mean safe for Democracy again.

    Google already announced it had downgraded RT and Sputnik content.
    Did you notice the 100,000 person March on Washington to protest that censorship?

    With the proper frameworks, we could justify “legitimate” double standards.
    Yet Externally we lack a moral arbiter of Justice,
    and Internally we lack an epistemic arbiter of Truth.

    (Alasdair MacIntyre’s “After Virtue” and Oswald Spengler’s “Decline of the West”
    suggest this degradation of epistemological authority and ontological grounding
    began long before Putin.)

    And it seems our courts are poised to judicially verify what has long
    been common practice: the CIA may selectively leak classified info
    to favored “journalists” for favorable coverage, yet CIA may refuse
    to release that same info to the public in response to a FOIA request:


  8. That was a very interesting blogpost (again). Can you direct me (us) to the paper? I would be very interesting to read it. Is it from the Telos event in Moscow? if so, it does not seem to be posted on their website. Thanks in advance.


      1. I may at some point post my paper on this site, but for now am waiting for a possible Russian publisher, having had the piece translated.


  9. While this makes perfect sense on the level of discourse, it has no referent in the real world. Washington can hide behind the abstract concept of justice just as easily as it does behind inventions like “responsibility to protect,” “regime change,” and “state building.” All those notions have become ever more transparent with their repeated usage as masks behind which America attempts to hide its growing insecurities, fears of losing hegemony, and its grandiose neoconservative belief that “full spectrum dominance” is the solution to those insecurities and fears.

    It’s my guess that by 2050 states will be operating under the Westphalian idea of states as equal sovereign entities, but they will have to guard against the abuse of “sovereignty” as just another excuse for anything the state wants to perpetrate against the nation it governs, be it recruiting citizens for war or implementing another device for the even more efficient upward redistribution of wealth. Because that way lies populism, even revolution.

    Those intent upon preserving the liberal order better work on ways to purge it of its illiberalism. They could start by admitting that perceiving the world exclusively through the prism of economics is the culprit, and it will destroy multilateralism and symmetrical sovereignty just as it has the Washington Consensus.


  10. May I go off on a related point, namely the European Court of Human Rights which a year or so ago over Russia asserted its own legal system’s preeminence? Bear with me.

    In the classical model, the ECHR is a court of last resort. Citizens of signed up members are supposed to exhaust the domestic legal process before sending their case to the ECHR for consideration, an supra-national check on national sovereignty.

    It has been increasing swamped over the last decade or more mainly from citizens who consider their own countries legal system as ‘corrupt’ (i.e. Russia, Romania etc.) or ‘unfair’ so it has become a court of first choice and more so by by ‘oppositionists’ (regardless of the case or facts – sic the claim that Khodokovsky’s case was ‘politically motivated’ but the Pork Pie News Networks don’t mention that his conviction for massive tax fraud was confirmed by the ECHR) because it generates free PR and they don’t believe that they can get justice for perceived or even real injustices. If you haven’t launched a case at the ECHR, then you are a nobody!

    Anyway, this is a bit of a long way of saying that I think the ECHR is a perfect example of classic sovereignty vs. new wave ‘human wrongs’ business which I think segues with the theme and ideas of your article.

    I would also say that it is just one of a number of classic multi-lateral organizations created decades ago (the OSCE for one) that are less neutral tools for resolving differences in a large setting than to use against whomever the West is unhappy with. This has all happened since 1990 when the West emerged unrivaled and unchecked.

    These first lines of communication for resolving issues between states and maintaining standards have thus been deeply undermined and damaged trust and credibility, much the same way that prominent NGOs have almost become the second strand of promoting foreign policy objectives in other countries (the executive hotbunking HRW & AI for example).

    Didn’t Putin warn about this erosion an western unilateralism during the Munich Security Forum in 2007, not to exclude Russia work with it?* I read today in the papers that even though ‘no-one is happy’ with Russia at this year’s conference, that there are ‘quiet talks afoot’ and a ‘recognition that Russia’s help is essential on many critical international issues’.

    Which leads to the next question, whither next?

    The West is no longer absolute. I read today that the Mercusor-EU trade talks are back on after quite a long ping-pong-ding-dong with Lat-Am refusing to be treated as a junior trade partner to the EU. Who remembers the Doha round of WTO talks that ran in to the ground a over a decade ago because the ‘developing countries’ got together and refused to accept Western panacea medicine that would mostly benefit others (opening up their markets in return for the promise of being eventually allowed in to theirs)?

    How can the West roll back their interventionist demands and not lose face, or are we already seeing this in their words not being matched by actions? Even American voters are tired intervention (sic Trump), but there’s still thirty years worth of Do Something! voters brought up on the war in Bosnia and neocon forevers who know nothing else and who absolutely abhor making deals with ‘unpleasant’ regimes.

    To me it seems that we are going though the five stages of grief and we (Europe & Canada) are somewhere between 2: anger and 3: bargaining, and 1: denial & 2: anger (USA) due to the continued strong influence of neocons. I suspect like most types of conflicts (kinetic and non-kinetic) that are coming to an end, it may still get worse before it gets better. I hope I’m wrong.




      1. Often, people can’t see what’s right in front of their noses. Even the obvious needs explaining sometimes!


  11. Here is a little thought from an outsider. It is partly prompted by your “down to earth” piece of advice to “stop digging” at the conclusion of your next article. Specifically, I often find it difficult to imagine that many Western analysts/specialists actually believe what they say. I suspect that one reason that they “hold” the views that they promulgate is that they are never challenged in a discussion or debate. More to the point, it is easy to imagine that they would nearly all change their tune if there was some prompt to change the paradigm from above. To say that there is a “fundamental philosophical disagreement about the nature of a ‘rules-based order'” seems, to me at least, not to be especially accurate, nor really helpful. I am rather more inclined to see it as a psychological problem concerning human behavior. Best.


  12. It seems to me this Asymmetrical Rules endorsement by some american officials and commentators is little more than an institutional and legalistic translation of informal American Exceptionalism.

    Most of the people in the world DO NOT want to live under the watch of a global policeman. The US enjoyed 25 years of basically unconstrained foreign policy freedom. But now there are emerging countries that are pushing back. Let’s leave Russia aside for a moment.
    China will never subimt internally to the american liberal model. Chinese culture is substantially different (and thousands of years old), prioritizing “harmony and unity” over “personal freedom to the extent of inflaming societal conflicts”.

    In my opinion, if we, as westerners, don’t promptly internalize and start to respect these kinds of cultural differences we will entangle ourselves in a decades long conflict we can’t possibly win anymore.


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