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Double standards and the Rules-based order

A year ago this week, I gave a presentation at a conference organized by the Simone Weil Center 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’. A Russian-language version has been published by ‘Russia in Global Affairs’, and I’ve decided to supplement that with the English version 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.

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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.