Weaponised Liberalism: Russia, the West and the Great Game of Moral Equivalence

The West’s claim to moral superiority and its assumption of the role of ‘world’s policeman’ are largely derived from a classical approach to liberalism. In short, the argument is that our societies are more liberal (and therefore superior), so we have the unique right to spread our values around the world by force and coercion. Journalist Tom Secker of the Spy Culture website challenges this dominant view.

The contradictions inherent in this philosophy are manifest in every country touched by Western foreign policy, from Yemen to Afghanistan to Iraq and Syria. By contrast, the more authoritarian superpowers of the world – most obviously Russia and China – have less aggressive foreign policies that are mostly focused on resources and regional geopolitical aims.

A recent article in S&C by an anonymous contributor criticised the mentality of moral equivalence, arguing that the paradigm of Western foreign policy has shifted in the last fifteen years, since the failure following the invasion of Iraq. The author describes the war in Libya as being motivated by the prevention of a possible genocide by Gaddafi. As per usual with apologists for liberal interventionism, the author refers to the Russian, Syrian and pre-war Libyan governments as one man, in keeping with the Hollywood-style narrative of the ‘big bad’. He or she goes on to suggest that, ‘there seems at least a decent chance for a constitutional order’ in Libya, conveniently overlooking the return of slavery and the prevalence of Islamist militias in the country: both direct results of Western intervention.

Indeed, it has emerged in the years since that the US intel community had no intelligence indicating an imminent genocide by Gaddafi government forces, and that the threat to the uprising in Benghazi was vastly overestimated. Even Obama called the war his ‘biggest regret‘. Leaked emails show that Hillary Clinton – one of the main architects of the war – was partly motivated by opposition to the Gaddafi government’s plan to introduce a gold-based currency that could eventually be used across the African continent. This flagrant diversion from Western financial hegemony was a far greater motive than any humanitarian concern for local Libyans.

The failure of the use of violence to spread liberal values is perhaps most obvious in Syria, where the West and its allies have sponsored the most violent, bigoted and reactionary sections of the diverse opposition to the Assad government. Another contender is Ukraine, where the Western-backed government includes neo-Nazi elements. Exactly how liberal values are spread or encouraged by assisting these gangs is not at all clear to me, and I’ve yet to see anyone attempt a reasoned argument for this policy.

No country that has been subject to Western military action, whether in the form of full-scale war, coup d’etats or lower intensity warfare, has become more democratic or liberal as a result. The ability of Western nations to liberalise their own countries over long periods of time is no justification or excuse to try to generate the same results in other countries by force. Decades of these policies being pursued provide us with ample data showing that the result of nation building is never a built nation, and the result of humanitarian intervention is never the alleviation of humanitarian crises. Perhaps ironically, the wars in Libya and Syria helped produce the influx of refugees and migrants to Europe, which in turn has fuelled and been used to excuse authoritarian politics here at home.

By contrast Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the referendum ratifying the peninsula as Russian territory did not result in ethnic cleansing, widespread violence or the creation of millions of refugees. Likewise their brief war in Georgia and the ongoing occupation of the disputed territory, while a subject for legitimate criticism of the Russian state, is far from equal to the decade-long occupation of Iraq, or the forgotten but still ongoing struggle in Afghanistan. As such, the fallacy of moral equivalence cuts both ways – it is a fallacy both for those who would criticise Western foreign policy, and for those who would excuse it.

The anonymous author conflates liberal rights – such as equality before the law – with economic rights, again conveniently overlooking how China’s authoritarian government has raised over half a billion people out of poverty. All while fighting no protracted wars on foreign soil or trying to overthrow problematic governments. Meanwhile the gap between rich and poor in Western liberal democracies has grown sharply since the crash of 2007-8. The notion that Western liberalism produces a more equal society is in sharp contrast with reality.

By blaming Russia for the rise of right wing populism and what the author dubiously calls the ‘authoritarian moment’ the article also ignores the significant rise in Western authoritarianism following the 9/11 attacks. All of the new ‘counter-terror’ and ‘national security’ laws and powers are still in effect, with the US and UK having the most pervasive and technologically advanced domestic security states on the planet. While the author is right that Assad’s security state is one of the most repressive in the world, it lacks the funding and sheer technocratic reach of its Western counterparts. It is not respect for liberal rights or human rights that prevents MI5 from routinely assassinating dissidents – it is because they don’t have to do that in order to maintain the state and class interests that they serve. If they did, they would.

In reality, the rise of the far right that the author blames primarily on Putin and/or Russia has been encouraged and sponsored by elements within Western establishments. In the years running up to the EU referendum Nigel Farage was the most common guest on the BBC’s flagship political discussion show Question Time. UKIP, despite never having more than two MPs, were featured on 24% of shows in the last seven years. Meanwhile, most if not all of the major news channels and discussion shows have aided the rise of ‘Tommy Robinson’, as his every action and word is reported like it is of significance. Exacerbating the irony, ‘Tommy’ tries to excuse his race-baiting and sometimes illegal behaviour by citing the liberal principal of freedom of speech. Consequently, liberals offer little (if any) resistance to him and his kind, other than derogatory labels and conspiratorial fantasies about Russia.

As such, rather than engaging in tit for tat arguments about moral equivalence we should be employing careful moral distinctions. Russia’s involvement in Syria came at the direct request of the Syrian government, which makes it distinct from NATO’s involvement both morally and in terms of international law. That does not make it praiseworthy or free it from criticism, but any honest critique of the war in Syria should at least acknowledge the difference and thus that Russia’s involvement – however bloody and reprehensible – is not a manifestation of Putin’s warmongering bloodlust. Likewise, any challenge to Russia’s control of Crimea should focus on whether it is legitimate, rather than use it to stereotype Russian foreign policy or excuse Western backing for fascists in Ukraine.

Otherwise, liberal imperialism under the guise of humanitarian intervention will remain the default policy for NATO countries, providing a convenient excuse for other blocs and superpowers to exercise their violent might on the world stage. In presenting geopolitical rivalry as an either/or choice, our current debate merely reinforces the tensions between the West and Russia, and fails to advance liberal values while endorsing extremely illiberal actions.

Instead of weaponising liberalism to try to assert our moral superiority and our right to intervene anywhere in the world, we should manifest those values in both our motives and our actions. Doing illiberal things for liberal reasons only exposes the hypocrisies and contradictions at the heart of liberal philosophy, and results in targeted societies becoming more reactionary, fundamentalist and abusive. Our future is likely to be one of choosing between resolving the contradictions within liberalism and upholding those values, or abandoning them and replacing them with new values that genuinely prize human rights over the authority of the state.

Image reproduced under a Creative Commons licence.