This article originally appeared at Journalitico
Here’s my two cents:
The problem with our “Western values” is not the values in themselves, although some are certainly questionable. The real problem is the triumphalism that came with them after the West’s ‘victory’ at the end of the Cold War, a dangerous triumphalism that continues today. We have utterly convinced ourselves that everyone else wants what we have and we will use any methods, from the most bloody and overt, to the most quiet and covert, to pass them on.
We convince ourselves it’s the “right” thing to do because, we tell ourselves, the end will justify the means. So we shut our eyes to the side-effects and carry on with our righteous mission. This kind of skewed thinking is how you get so-called bleeding heart liberals calling for a humane solution to a massive humanitarian crisis on one hand, while urging more NATO bombing on the other.
It’s a contradiction that has its roots in that very idea that we need to rid the world of the ‘bad’ guys we don’t like and fill it with the ‘good’ ones we do like. We rarely consider that this might indeed be an impossible task, or even, God forbid, wrong. Because of course, Western values are always “right”. Or as historian Paul Robinson put it yesterday in a blog post about the failures of Western foreign policy:
“The idea that the underlying policy itself might be faulty is never properly considered. That would produce far too much cognitive dissonance. And so the disasters keep piling up.”
Even a person most uninterested in geopolitics, if you ask them, will probably tell you that Western values are universally sought after and it therefore is a noble goal to attempt to spread them. We all witnessed the celebrations at anchor desks across the Western world at the beginning of the Arab Spring. What a wonderful time it was for democracy, we were told. Our values were (supposedly) sweeping across the Middle East and North Africa like never before and we were all getting teary-eyed just thinking about it. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out how that all turned out.
But there is not much difference between the relatively uninformed and the supposedly highly informed. I argued on Twitter with New York Timescolumnist Roger Cohen a few months after he made the outstandingly weak case that refugees from the Middle East and North Africa were coming for European values. It was for this reason, he said, that they weren’t going to Russia, for example. I argued that if Russia was on the other side of the Mediterranean where Italy and Greece are, they probably would be. I argued that Western values had very little, if anything, to do with the reason most were making such treacherous trips to Europe. If values were the draw, I said, we would not have half as much trouble with integration and assimilation between native populations and ME/NA immigrants as we do today in places like Britain, France and Sweden.
It is abundantly clear that the majority of refugees would not be attempting to reach Europe if it was not for the destruction of their homes and towns and cities; destruction caused by civil wars and doubled-down on by NATO’s various “humanitarian interventions”.
Erlanger’s piece today accepts that what differentiates China, with its own mix of both authoritarian capitalism and communism, is that it has no interest in spreading its model across the world.
“China engages with the world in its own interest, divorced from moral aims, with little desire to proselytize.”
The same, I believe, can be said for Russia.
Russia, with features of both authoritarianism and democracy, is interested in its near abroad; places that, for obvious reasons, already share its language and culture. Places where people feel and are Russian.
That doesn’t necessarily mean Putin is on some historic mission to conquer the Baltics and recreate ‘the glories’ of the Soviet Union, as Barack Obama recently claimed. It simply means that there are certain places Moscow regard as within its sphere of influence and thus will react more strongly to events in those places. The problem is that Washington is utterly convinced that only it is entitled to a sphere of influence — and that sphere can extend to any place, at any time. Moscow, on the other hand, is simply not allowed the same luxury, even in its own back yard.
On a wider scale, Russia, like China, has no interest in imposing its model of governance or cultural values on the rest of the world. Russia’s own very recent history affords it the knowledge that this kind of imperialism simply does not work, which is why we hear so much from the Kremlin about the importance of multi-polarity and international systems based on mutual respect, not diktats and the relinquishment of sovereignty to a self-appointed world leader.
Western leaders and politicians cannot accept that there may be places where a different model might work — but at the same time, their incessant declarations of superiority are laced with hypocrisy that is increasingly hard to stomach. Calling for one thing and doing another. Do as we say, not as we do. Imposing and forcing values and ‘democracy’ on cultures that either may not want, or be ready for it, doesn’t seem very…well, democratic.
Quoting the cultural historian Jacques Barzun, Erlanger writes:
Democracy cannot be imposed, but accrues, he suggested, dependent on “a cluster of disparate elements and conditions.” It “cannot be fashioned out of whatever people happen to be around in a given region; it cannot be promoted from outside by strangers; and it may still be impossible when attempted from inside by determined natives.”
Either way, what most Western leaders won’t tell you, is that even in places where there is democracy or some semblance of it, it can at any moment be disregarded if they don’t like its outcome. Democracy, it seems, evaporates and reappears exactly when Western governments want it to. If the right guy won, it’s a victory for democracy. If the wrong guy won, we must oust him immediately, for the sake of, you guessed it, freedom and democracy.
And just like democracy disappears conveniently, so too do borders. When US or Western “interests” are at stake, borders evaporate. Indeed the White House proudly professed it would not be “restricted by borders” in Syria when it felt the need to insert itself uninvited into that country’s civil war. A few months earlier however, borders were all the rage in Crimea.
Western interests are always legitimate, transparent and morally superior. Russia’s interests on the other hand, are always illegitimate, mysterious and morally bankrupt.
That’s the line and they’re sticking to it.