One of the great myths of our time is the idea that domestic and external politics are connected, in the sense that the nature of a given regime determines whether it is a benign or malign actor on the international stage. According to this myth, democracies are naturally peaceful and benign; authoritarian states (a very broad, and poorly defined, category) are naturally aggressive and malign. Authoritarian states are thus by their very essence threats to international peace and security and as such worthy targets of our foreign policy.
Reality, of course, is very different, as the recent case of Belarus shows.
Belarus, as you no doubt know, has been making news this week due to what has been called its act of ‘piracy’ against an Ryanair jet flying through its airspace. Whether this really was an act of ‘piracy’ I will leave to a neutral international arbiter to decide (which, of course does not exist). But the case neatly demonstrates that the domestic-international connection isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Domestically speaking, Belarus is far from a model of liberal democratic norms. Its president, Aleksandr Lukashenko, almost certainly owes his position to mass electoral fraud allied to occasionally brutal, though normally quite targeted, use of state violence. Given that the fraud and violence serve no obvious purpose other keeping him in power, one may say that much of the opprobrium directed against him and his government is deserved.
But is Belarus a threat to international peace and stability? Should we be concerned enough about it to warrant sanctioning it and doing what we can to promote regime change? Critics would no doubt point to this week’s events, and answer yes to all of the above. But let’s put it all in perspective. What were the effects of the ‘hijacking’ of the Ryanair jet (if that is what is was)? Did it infringe on the sovereignty of another state? Was anybody killed? Did people suffer other than having their flight delayed several hours? Was any property damaged? Was anybody bombed? Was anybody invaded? Were any fundamental principles of the international system challenged?
The answer to all the above is no. Even if could be shown that this was a breach of international law (and I’m somewhat sceptical about that), it’s fairly mild as these things go and poses no danger to any other country anywhere. In fact, despite its authoritarian regime, Belarus is about as harmless an international actor as you’re likely to find. As far as I can tell it doesn’t threaten anybody, never has, and probably never will.
Many liberal democracies, by contrast, have a lot of blood on their hands, and if you were to ask the questions above about some of their deeds, the answers would be a very emphatic ‘yes’.
At this point, people starting getting very angry at me and start accusing me of supporting dictators. Or, as happened after my latest RT article, start throwing the ‘Whataboutism’ charge in my direction. ‘How dare you point out that Western states are selective in their outrage and failed to object to other breaches of international law,’ they say, ‘‘Pure whataboutism.’
Maybe, maybe not, depending on how you define it. But as I’ve said before, there’s nothing wrong with whataboutism if it’s used properly. If the purpose is to excuse misbehaviour, then it is wrong – it’s a logical fallacy to say that it’s ok for me to commit some misdeed because somebody else has also done it. But if its purpose to expose hypocrisy or to analyze others’ true motivations by revealing discrepancies in their actions, then it’s perfectly valid. Say person X condemns ‘piracy’ by person A, but refuses to condemn obvious acts of piracy by person B. That gives reason for supposing that an objection to piracy per se isn’t the main reason for their indignation. Rather, they are driven by something else, such as a dislike of person A and a like of person B. That’s useful information, and there’s nothing wrong in pointing it out.
But for some reason, it really pisses people off. I think most likely this is because it bursts their moral bubble. But the moral bubble deserves bursting, because the reality is that, with some notable historical exceptions, there are generally no good guys or bad guys in international affairs, no liberal democracies and no autocracies, just states pursuing their interests. In that regard, there are just two types – powerful states and not-powerful states – and as Thucydides put it, “The strong do as they will, and the weak suffer as they must.”
The international system favours the powerful, as they can get away with more. The United States isn’t worse than Belarus, but it is more powerful, and so it misbehaves more than Belarus does. This isn’t a moral judgement; it’s just a fact. It does misbehave more. Russia misbehaves more too, because it also is more powerful, though obviously not as powerful as the Americans. As a results its misdeeds, though larger than those of Belarus, are not as large as those of the USA. This is just the way things are.
Selective moral outrage is mistaken, in other words. It’s mistaken when it targets the weak for their occasional breaches of international norms, because those breaches are both occasional and generally fairly mild. And it’s mistaken when it targets the powerful, because their more consistent, flagrant, and harmful breaches are a product of their power rather than some inherent malevolence. But on the whole, I feel that targeting the latter is more justifiable, simply because their misbehaviour is more consistent, flagrant, and harmful. In short, piling the outrage on Belarus is wrong, just as much as it’s wrong to pile the outrage on the United States (or the Chinese, Russians, or Brits). But if you’re going to pile it on anybody, the latter is a more justifiable target than the former.
Domestically, we in the West have some good reasons for preferring our own systems to those of authoritarian regimes elsewhere. But internationally, we’re no better (and no worse) than all the others we like to complain about. Condemn Lukashenko’s domestic policies as much as you please, but let’s not pretend that Belarus is an international danger. So when US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, or British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, start complaining about the evils of the Belarusian state, just ask them, “When’s the last time Belarus invaded anybody, sir?” Whataboutism? Sure. But fully justified.