The infantile diplomacy behind demonising Russia

The self-righteousness of the West’s new Russia-bashers is astonishing.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics Politics

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Are Western diplomats and media outlets being serious when they accuse the Russian government of launching a new Cold War? Do they really believe their own rhetoric when they say Putin has expansionary ambitions and wants to rebuild the Soviet Empire? Did Hillary Clinton, the former US secretary of state, mean it when she said Russia’s actions in Crimea are similar to ‘what Hitler did back in the 1930s’? Other anti-Russian observers have also claimed that Russia’s incorporation of Crimea is analogous to the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Do all these people sincerely believe this interpretation of current geopolitical events?

It is always difficult, if not dangerous, to speculate about the thought processes that drive powerful diplomats and political leaders to say and do certain things. It is especially difficult to make sense of the dynamics that turned the crisis in Ukraine into a perilous international dispute. In a recent interview, a Russian journalist asked me why Western media outlets have become so careless about fact-checking in relation to Ukraine and Russia more broadly. I wasn’t sure if I could answer the question, so I was forced to say that I would have to reflect on it further.

After analysing the statements about Ukraine made by Western diplomats over the past two weeks, I have come to the uncomfortable conclusion that the motives behind the current campaign to demonise Russia are based on genuine convictions. Of course, there is a great deal of propaganda, wilful distortion and a significant element of fantasy in this campaign – but the outlook it expresses has been so firmly internalised by many in the West that it now constitutes their reality. And the fact that the West’s new breed of would-be Cold War crusaders have convinced themselves of their own rhetoric is likely to have far more destabilising consequences than if this campaign were simply a cynical example of old-fashioned realpolitik. At least realpolitik has the merit of being rooted in the real world; the current anti-Russian campaign, by contrast, is based on confusion and, even worse, on self-deception.

Double standards

The self-deception of contemporary Western diplomacy can be most clearly seen in the casual way that it applies double standards in its assessments of global affairs. The naive, almost child-like self-delusion of the modern Western attitude to Russia was brought home to me last May during a visit to Budapest. Following a series of meetings on the role of young people in civil society, I had an opportunity to talk with a group of youngish Americans who were employed by US-based NGOs to work in Russia. During our chat, one NGO worker, from Seattle, said she was surprised to discover that some Russian officials treated her as if she were an ‘agent of a foreign power’. Several of her colleagues also expressed astonishment at the fact that they and their NGOs were treated by Russia as… well, what they really are: American organisations promoting American values in a foreign land.

When I voiced amazement at their reaction, and asked ‘Don’t you see that you are employed by a foreign organisation, and what’s more by one that is critical of your host country’s government?’, they simply could not see my point. When I asked, ‘How would the American government brand a Russian NGO that was promoting Greek Orthodox values on the streets New York or Chicago?’, I got no response. It was only after I asked what would be their government’s reaction if a group of Russian NGO operatives had financially and politically assisted the Occupy movement or the Tea Party that one of my interlocutors conceded that I might possibly have a point.

What my Budapest experience showed me was that the presumption of self-righteousness now runs so deep among those who promote Western values that even highly intelligent young people could not see that they were clearly applying double standards, where they think it is okay for Americans to promote American values in Russia, but not vice versa. Why do they think this? Because the double standard of modern diplomacy is built on an implicit assumption of moral inequality.

It is this assumption that allows Western leaders to lecture their foreign counterparts on what is and is not acceptable behaviour. Double-standard diplomacy allows one party to treat the other as if they are infants. Consider the casual manner in which American and EU politicians went to Kiev a few weeks back to demonstrate their solidarity with the protesters. Imagine what the reaction would have been in America and Britain if Putin or some other Russian politician had shown up over here at the time of Occupy or the English riots and declared support for the protesters/rioters. There would have been outrage. In double-standard diplomacy, however, with Russia treated like a child, leaders in the West think nothing of behaving in a way they would consider unacceptable if others did it.

In a global environment where cultural traffic is increasingly all one way, with little variation or dissent, Russia is demonised as a backward and morally inferior society that will be condemned and if necessary punished until it rolls over and agrees to adopt the values of its enlightened critics. So what if many Russian people possess a moral outlook that is different to what prevails in Washington, London or Hollywood? That means little to the double-standard diplomats, who want everyone to embrace their worldview.

The ethos of the double standard is particularly insidious when it comes to politics. Formally, the cultural and political elites that dominate Western society adhere to the ideals of representative democracy. They describe representative democracy as the prerequisite for an open society. Unfortunately, however, this current cohort of Western leaders has actually adopted a highly selective and dishonest attitude towards democracy. They believe that elections are wonderful if they lead to victory for a party of which they approve. If a party that is not liked by enlightened Western diplomats gets elected, then as far as they’re concerned the democratic process has failed and a change of regime through a coup becomes a legitimate solution.

So in December 1991, the Islamic Salvation Front won the vast majority of the vote – 181 seats out of 231 – in round one of Algeria’s first free legislative elections. The Algerian army responded by cancelling the elections and handing power to an unelected ruling committee of five. There was a sigh of relief in the West and, surprise, surprise, no sanctions were imposed on Algeria in response to this coup d’état.

Last year, it was the turn of Egypt to discover that when the ‘wrong’ people are elected, the West will quickly forget about its adherence to the principle of representative democracy. Again, the army coup in Egypt that swept aside the Islamist Mohamed Morsi did not lead to any lectures from Western politicians about the virtues of democratic institutions. And so we arrive at Ukraine. The freely elected government of President Yanukovich was overthrown by what is conventionally known as a non-legal coup, and so far as the Western media are concerned, this is a ‘democratic development’. We now have a situation where the Western media portray the new Ukrainian government as a legal entity while dismissing the regime carrying out a referendum in Crimea as an illegal clique. Again, extraordinary double standards.

Of course, those who were elected by the people in Algeria, Egypt and Ukraine in recent decades were not nice, liberal-minded democrats. In recent years, governments in Ukraine, including Yanukovich’s, have had very few redeeming qualities. Yanukovich, like virtually all the Ukrainian political elite, is a member of a self-serving and corrupt oligarchy. However, unlike Oleksander Turchynov, the man who replaced him, Yanukovich was at least an elected oligarch! If Western governments take the view that it is okay to get rid of elected governments they don’t like, then they are undermining the moral authority of democracy itself. That is why in Ukraine, the main threat to democracy actually comes from the behaviour of those who were complicit in the destabilisation and overthrow of the democratically elected regime. The protesters in Kiev had every right to protest and challenge the government. But if the verdict of the ballot box can be so easily negated, then genuine democratic politics is in real trouble. The EU and Washington’s politics of double standards in Kiev undermines the authority of democratic politics throughout the region.

Infantilised diplomats

Anyone who follows the Western media could be excused for thinking Russia is a rampant, aggressive and expansionist power just waiting for a chance to reconquer its neighbouring state of Ukraine. The reality is that despite the occasional nationalistic posturing of President Putin, Russia has turned into a classical defensive status-quo power. Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, Russia has experienced a diminishing of its power and influence. It has struggled to keep a grip in the Caucasus and faces a radicalised Islamic movement that is far more formidable than any of the forces that directly challenge Western societies. And on its Western front, Russia feels threatened by political and cultural pressure from Europe. In such circumstances, it is understandable that many in the Russian elite feel as though the very fabric of their nation is fraying.

The main accomplishment of Western, specifically EU diplomacy in Ukraine, has been to force Russia further on the defensive. Russia’s intervention in Crimea is at least in part a reaction to what it perceives as systematic foreign interference in Ukraine. What did the EU expect would happen when it invited Ukraine to join its sphere of influence? As Professor Stephen Cohen noted, this dangerous conflict was ignited ‘by the EU’s reckless ultimatum in November that the democratically elected president of a profoundly divided country choose between Europe and Russia’. The West claims that we have moved beyond the bad old days of the twentieth century, when global powers sought to consolidate and dominate spheres of influence. And yet, since the collapse of the Soviet Union there has been a systematic attempt to move the Western sphere of influence closer and closer to the borders of Russia. The line that divided East and West has shifted from the middle of Berlin towards the Russian border. Putin may sometimes come across as insecure to the point of paranoia. But a Russian today would not have to be paranoid to think his nation is being encircled and slowly undermined by forces hostile to its existence. Western diplomats who fail to grasp Russia’s concerns are actually the ones who have lost touch with geopolitical reality.

The EU and the US act as if they bear no responsibility for the crisis in Ukraine and in Western-Russian relations. Possibly the West has deluded itself about global affairs to such an extent that it is oblivious to its own complicity in the current crisis. Such delusions mean that the normal rules that inform international relations have given way to shallow posturing and empty moralising, always with an eye to making an impact with the media. This corrosion of Western diplomacy represents a real danger to global stability. It also undermines the moral authority of democracy. At a certain point, the politics of double standards in foreign affairs will demean democratic ideals so much that even the integrity of democratic institutions at home will come to be undermined.

Frank Furedi’s First World War: Still No End in Sight is published by Bloomsbury. (Order this book from Amazon (UK).)

Picture: Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP/Press Association Images

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Topics Politics


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