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Bill Emmott: Understanding the Concept of Standards and Countries That Don’t

By Bill Emmott, independent writer, lecturer and international affairs consultant. Russia and China grab any opportunity to accuse the West of “double standards” or hypocrisy, especially when the West claims to be standing for an international rules-based order or any form of moral or political values. That accusation is often eagerly taken up by smaller and middling powers in Asia, Africa or Latin America who want to avoid being seen as members of the Western, or even worse American, camp, and who resent being given lectures by the West about what they should do.

As a tactic to divert attention from their own sins and shortcomings, this tactic can work, at least in the short term, especially for the Russians and Chinese but also for those members of what is misleadingly called “the Global South” who understandably want to kick back against histories of colonialism. Yet in both sorts of hands this line of argument is in fact a compliment to the West, for it underlines the West’s fundamental attractiveness.

What is important to note about the “double standards” smear is that it highlights the fact that the West does have standards and does stand for certain values, even if its own record on standards and values is far from perfect. Russia and China do not, and their record on standards and values is well known to be abysmal.

On Feb. 4, 2022, those two nuclear-armed powers released a supposedly values-laden Joint Statement which lectured the world that it was “going through momentous changes” and condemned “some actors … [that] continue to advocate unilateral approaches to addressing international issues and resort to force,” and “interfere in the internal affairs of other states.” Everyone knew that by “some actors,” Russia and China meant America and its allies in Europe and Asia.

Yet just three weeks later when Russia attempted the violent conquest of its neighbor, Ukraine, a move which was the ultimate “unilateral approach” and “resort to force,” few political leaders or commentators in Asia, Africa or Latin America bothered to point out that both Russia and China had just proved that they are hypocrites. The reason is that everyone knows that the only standards followed by Russia or China concern their own national interests, or the interests of their dictatorial leaders. Hypocrisy and such flagrant contradictions are just par for the course, to borrow a golfing term.

Western countries have always been hypocritical even — or perhaps especially — when speaking to themselves. Britain built a worldwide empire based on conquest and racial discrimination while simultaneously telling itself it stood for liberal values including democracy. Ever since its Declaration of Independence from Britain in 1776, the United States has claimed “to hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” while simultaneously practising slavery, massacring indigenous peoples and denying equal civil rights to African-Americans until the 1960s (or, some would say, until the present day).

Nevertheless, the essential Western proposition has long been the aspiration to improve itself, to reach higher standards. More crucially, however, the process that the modern West led after 1945, beginning with the United Nations Charter of that year, was a process of establishing international rules, norms and institutions that recognized that all countries, especially the great powers, had been destructive sinners during the first half of the 20th century, a process that set out to try to constrain countries to act according to higher and more constructive standards than in the past. The UN Charter was thus an admission or acceptance of being flawed, not a claim to superiority.

Nonetheless, Kishore Mahbubani, a former Singaporean Ambassador to the UN and now a prominent public intellectual, wrote in a 2020 essay of “The Hypocrisy of the West,” condemning America’s use of torture following the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and saying that this contradiction of previous moral and legal positions was now not just undermining Western credibility but was actively encouraging the use of torture by others.

Ambassador Mahbubani claimed in that essay in his now widely read collection, “The Asian 21st Century,” that “since Western moral reasoning is brutally ironclad and allows no exceptions, when the U.S. began torturing human beings it was thus declaring “Thou shalt torture human beings.” Yet this is a gross misrepresentation of the nature of what he terms “Western moral reasoning,” which is also why this “double standards” critique does not work.

The whole essence of Western moral reasoning, ever since the flowering of European philosophy in the so-called Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries, has been one of debate, experimentation and an admission of uncertainty. That liberal acceptance of uncertainty, and indeed diversity, is what replaced the previously “brutally ironclad” reasoning based on religion.

Today what characterises the countries in Europe, North America and Asia that constitute the West is quite a lot of diversity, including about morals and human rights. Europeans criticise America and Japan for practising the death penalty. Japan is far behind most others in gender equality and particularly in equal rights for gay people and others. We all criticise each other’s justice systems, approaches to immigration and even our democracies.

Precisely because of that diversity and debate, it would be a mistake for any Western country to base its foreign policy on lectures about morality. It is also wise for any Western interventions in other countries’ affairs — such as those in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya during the past two decades — to be done so with wide international support and clear objectives founded on principles and practices laid down in the UN Charter. Unilateralism, as has indeed sometimes been practised by the United States, clouds these principles and leads to worse outcomes. African Union countries now contemplating armed intervention in their member state of Niger following a military coup are grappling with the same issues.

Ultimately, the question facing countries in South Asia, South-East Asia and Africa, as they look at Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s bullying actions in the South China Sea, remains one of which set of countries can they ultimately rely on to promote standards, rules and norms that are of benefit to all. The more that Russia and China accuse the West of double standards, the clearer the answer becomes: it is better to trust those countries that sin occasionally than those who do not even recognise the concept of sin (or blatantly lie about it when they do).

In fact, rather than dividing the world into good and evil, as American presidents are inclined sometimes to do, it may be wiser to divide the world into those that understand the concept of standards, and those that plainly don’t. The true threat to the West is not the issue of double standards but rather the risk that the United States might end up renouncing those standards altogether. It would be the re-election in November 2024 of Donald Trump, a man who does not recognise the concept of standards, that would really risk destroying the West, for it would erase the basic difference between the West, Russia and China. As the French say, Vive La Difference: Long Live the Difference.