Are the international stances of Russia and the US inherently incompatible?

JRL/2013/ 73/32

Countries enjoy claiming highfalutin values and principles as justification for their often sordid actions. But these principles are usually pretty malleable. Washington, for example, was firm on the principle of inviolability of borders in the Georgian case in 2008 but not so much in Yugoslavia in 1999; Moscow firmly held the opposite position each time. Moscow was supportive of the human rights of Ossetians but not so much about those of Kosovars; Washington, again, the opposite. Each was adept at manufacturing reasons why the inviolable principles of one case did not apply in the other.

But it is pleasing to one’s to self esteem to claim high motives. For years Washington has claimed the moral high ground of “democracy” and now we see Moscow claiming to be the home of stability. These noble self-portraits look most convincing at some distance. For Moscow to claim to be the thumb keeping the scales of world power balanced is to slip over its partial responsibility for the transformation of another Balkan squabble into a world war in 1914 and ignores most of the years between 1917 and 1990. Washington focuses its moral quizzing glass on Russia rather than say, Saudi Arabia: an “Arab Spring” for Libya but not for Bahrain.

But above this normal level of sanctimony-cloaked interest, the USA goes father with its bizarre obsession about Russia. It is bizarre because Russia is not very pertinent to Washington’s strategic and security concerns: it is not threatening nuclear war today; nor is Obama considering using force against it; neither does he see it as the greatest threat. Russia has surely seldom appeared in White House threat briefings for a decade and a half. If not a real opponent, then, Russia must fill some other need: a cost-free shadow opponent; a contrast that can be painted as dark as you like; an object of feel-good moral righteousness; a sullen teenager who must be brought to obedience.

Americans seem to need a rival, an opponent, a type of geopolitical chiaroscuro: the light can only shine against the darkness. Russia is large, significant and gives a contrast more substantial than, say, Venezuela.

Because US-Russia trade is pretty inconsequential, Russia is a low-cost object of periodic American fits of moral censure. An issue as trivial as Pussy Riot can be played up as a momentous violation whereas any sustained condemnation of the treatment of Shiites or Pakistani and Filipino servants in Saudi Arabia would come with a cost. Outrage against Russian “occupation” of parts of Georgia is cheap; outrage about Chinese occupation of Tibet is not. Russia’s sins are a perfect fit: giving a pleasing moral superiority without expensive consequences.

Or is Russia an ungrateful child? In the 1990s there was much talk about US aid and advice reforming Russia and some saw it as on the edge of becoming “just like us”. But it didn’t and such back-sliding cannot be forgiven.

And, of course, when you are looking down from a moral prominence, disagreement is sin. Moscow cannot just be disagreeing about the Syrian nightmare; it must be blocking “the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people.”

So, the differences do seem incompatible so long as the curious American obsession endures.

As for global realities, how are the last two “humanitarian interventions” working out? The Guardian quotes reports identifying Hashim Thaçi, put into power by NATO, “as one of the ‘biggest fish’ in organised crime” in Kosovo and the less said about the “success” in Libya, the better. In these two cases, therefore, it doesn’t seem to be Moscow that is out of touch with global realities.