A year ago this week, I gave a presentation at a conference at the Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Research in Moscow on the topic of ‘Human Rights Reasoning and Double Standards in the Rules-Based Order’. There was some talk of publishing it on a Russian website, but as that hasn’t happened I’ve decided to publish it here. It is long, but I hope that you will find it worth the effort. Here goes:
Human Rights Reasoning and Double Standards in the Rules-Based Order
When seeking a solution for the current tensions between Russia and the West, we need first of all to determine what the root problem is. For many in the West, the root problem is Russian aggression, the dictatorial nature of the Russian regime, and even the evil character of President Vladimir Putin. For many in Russia, it is American hegemony and Western double standards. The tendency to see the cause of conflict as lying in the hostile nature of the other is fairly common, but international relations scholars have long since understood that conflict is very often a product not of aggression by one side or the other but of misperception and mutual misunderstanding. These in turn have their own causes, which are far too many to recount here, but one cause of misunderstanding is the fact that the same words or the same concepts mean different things to different people.
So, for instance, a few years ago Russia and NATO countries reached an agreement that security in Europe should be considered indivisible. But they understood this completely differently. The Russians thought that this meant that NATO had agreed that European security had to encompass all of Europe including Russia, with no divisions in a geographical sense. But NATO thought that Russia had agreed that security was indivisible in the sense that it should not be divided up into different types of security, such as military security and human security, and so accepted the idea that human rights were an inseparable part of security. This mutual misunderstanding meant that future discussions on the matter went nowhere.
Today, both Russia and Western countries claim to believe in a rules-based international order, and each accuses the other of breaking the rules of the international system; Russia by annexing Crimea and supporting rebellion in Ukraine; and the West by invading Iraq, toppling Muamar Gaddhafi, and supporting rebellion in Syria. What I want to show today is that part of the problem is that the two sides interpret a rules-based order very differently. For Russia, it is a system in which the same set of rules applies to everybody. To the West, it is a system in which one set of rules applies to the just and another to the unjust. This leads Russia to accuse the West of double standards. In a sense, this accusation is justified, but it isn’t just a case of hypocrisy but also a case of a different conception of what the rules are.