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.