Yesterday I was given a copy of a recent report published by the London School of Economic’s !deas think tank. Entitled ‘Five Years after Maidan: Toward a Greater Eurasia’, its foreword (by LSE Emeritus Professor Michael Cox) begins with this provocative, but I think rather penetrating, statement:
The West’s increasing self-absorption verging on the narcissistic … has made many of us ‘over here’ forget that there is another very different world ‘out there’ about which most of our leaders know very little and think about even less. … other people in other places have other, rather more important things to worry about than the comings and goings of western politicians and pundits.
I’ve been wondering for some time about Russiagate, America’s inability to end its ‘forever wars’ in the Middle East, and other phenomena of the modern era, and trying to puzzle out what explains it all. It seems to me that Cox has found an important part of the puzzle – the narcissism of the West. Boosted by victory in the Cold War, believing that our systems represent the ‘end of history’, we in the West have come to see ourselves as ‘masters of the universe’. We are all that matters. And so it follows that we must be at the top of everybody else’s agenda, and that whatever anybody else in the world does, it must somehow be about us.
Take the paranoid stories I’ve been covering on this blog about how the Russians are bound to ‘meddle’ in Canada’s upcoming general election. Why on earth do people here think that this is so likely, given that the choice is between a governing party whose foreign minister is banned from entering Russia and an opposition party whose leader is banned from entering Russia? The answer lies in our strange belief that we’re actually really important. Canada is a G7 country after all. Of course the Russians will target us. We matter! Except that in reality we don’t. As was mentioned in the report by Sergey Sukhankin which I critiqued a week or so ago, Russians who study international affairs don’t look at Canada as a truly independent country. To most of them, we’re just an appendage of the United States. Our belief that the opposite is true – that we’re a big player, that our elections really matter to foreign countries, that they’re bound to try to undermine us because ‘WE’RE IMPORTANT!’ – is narcissism pure and simple.
Canadians aren’t the only one guilty of this. Americans have a similar problem. It’s why they had such a huge problem understanding what Saddam Hussein was up to after his defeat in the 1991 Gulf War. Faced with apparent Iraqi obstruction of US demands, they assumed that this meant that Saddam was plotting some sort of evil revenge against the United States. In fact, it turned out that he wasn’t thinking of the Americans at all; his real concerns were to do with Iran. You can find lots of examples like that. Americans are told that they must fight the Taleban because of the danger that terrorists might again use Afghanistan to strike the United States. But is the average Talebani really thinking about America? Or is he thinking about his home, his family, his village – all things local? If the Iranians are helping the Syrian government, is it because they view the war in Syria as part of a global struggle against the United States, or is it because Syria is next door to Iran and what happens there is of direct importance to Iran’s own security? The answers, I think, are pretty clear.
To put it another way, states (and non-state actors) have their own interests unconnected to us. The fact that their pursuit of their interests sometimes makes them clash with Western states who are pursuing different interests doesn’t mean that they’re doing what they doing because of us. Moreover, as the balance of power in the world shifts, it’s likely that more and more often the West will become less and less of a factor in non-Western states’ calculations. As Derek Averre says with reference to Russia in another part of the LSE report:
We are in danger of missing the fact that European norms are becoming less important as a reference point against which Russia’s political elite measures its policy. Indeed, Ted Hopf’s argument – that Russia constructs its identity in relation to the US/Europe as ‘significant others’ – should be subject to appraisal at this time of far-reaching change in Russian foreign policy.
In short, it’s not all about us, and becoming less and less about us with every passing day. But arrogance and narcissism prevent us from seeing this. As a result we stumble from foreign policy blunder to foreign policy blunder. Unless and until we are able to come off our high horses and recognize that we’re not the centre of the universe, we’re going to keep getting things horribly wrong.