Fighting the State's Hypocrisy
The Western condemnation of the Russian invasion of Ukraine has once again served to highlight the exceptionalist attitude of the West, and of the United States in particular. Whichever standards other countries and governments are held to, the West believes that it is permitted to deviate from, or even obliterate those standards, labelling its own interventionist feats with some other, innocuous term, while utilising a half-baked moral justification in order to promote its acceptability.
For instance, what is, for other countries, an illegal invasion of a sovereign state is, when the West does it, an act of “liberation”. When someone else organises a rebellion against a foreign government it’s a violation of “sovereignty” and of “international law”; but the West only “spreads democracy”. When other states commit horrendous acts of torture or indiscriminate murder they are “war crimes”; for the West, they are the “enhanced interrogation” and “collateral damage” necessary to fulfil a just and noble cause.
One does not have to endorse any of the motives or methods of the Russian state vis-à-vis Ukraine in order to point out this out; indeed, the precise details of this whole affair are outside the scope of this article. However, we might as well note that Russian concern over its Western border region is likely to be far more pressing than any interest that the West has either there or wherever else it has poked its heavily armed nose, such as Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria. This serves merely to magnify the West’s unrelenting hypocrisy.
While the attitude of exceptionalism is, no doubt, bolstered by faith in the values which furnished the West with an untold level of prosperity, it is not something that is necessarily restricted to the West, nor is somehow born out of the Western psyche. Rather, the real root of exceptionalism can be found in how the state operates domestically.
If people steal from each other, it is called “theft” and is criminalised; but when the state steals, this is permitted, and is referred to as “taxation”. If a company dominates an industry it is called a “monopoly” and must be broken up; but if the state does it, we can call it “nationalisation” (“for the people” etc. etc.). If a fraudster takes cash from customers to pay returns to previous investors, it is called a pyramid or “Ponzi” scheme, and he is locked up; when the state does precisely the same thing it is called “Social Security”. If the mafia forces you to pay tribute in return for security it is called a “protection racket”; but when the state forces you to contribute to its armies, navies and air forces it is called “national defence”.
In conjunction with all of this, the state necessarily conditions its operatives to believe that they are exempt from the common standards of morality to which all other human beings must adhere. This would be bad enough if such an attitude was restricted to acts taken within an official capacity. But the level of corruption in our state apparatus is now so grave that the private malfeasance of favoured, high profile state operatives is also swept under the carpet.
None of this is different from exceptionalist attitudes on the international scene; such attitudes gain traction when a particular state, or group of states, becomes the de facto most powerful government on Earth. So in just the same way as the state does not have to behave in the same way as its citizens, neither does the most powerful state have to behave like any other state.
In recent decades, that has been the US, although, as the Russian challenge is demonstrating, the era of American global dominance is coming to an end. However, the US is not an historical anomaly in this regard, having been preceded by other wealthy and heavily armed states such as Ancient Rome, and the British Empire. Of course, many beneficiaries of this dominance will be well aware that they are engaging in outright plunder and pillage. But it is not unusual for them to become blinded by the hubristic belief that, as representatives of the pinnacle of “civilisation” in an otherwise barbarous world, their acts are somehow qualitatively different from those of others. St Augustine relates an anecdote of a pirate brought before Alexander the Great. When prompted by the undefeated conqueror to explain his actions, the pirate delivered a bold but truthful reply: that what he, the pirate, was doing, was exactly the same as that which Alexander was doing; the only difference was that Alexander terrorised the seas with a “great fleet” and was styled an “emperor”, while the pirate did so with a "petty ship" and was thus brandished a “robber”.
The conquest, therefore, of the exceptionalism of the most powerful nation can be achieved only by eradicating that exceptionalism at home – in domestic government and domestic policies. All human beings, whether they are “public” or private citizens, must adhere to the same common morality, and must be held to the same moral standards. Better still, eradicate the state completely so that its political caste – together with the divisions it creates between itself and those of us less exalted – will disappear. Only then can we hope for a peaceful world in which all humans are equal before the law – both nationally and internationally.
St Augustine (tr. Rev. Marcus Dods), The City of God, in Phillip Schaff (ed.), Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Series, Vol. II, WM B Eerdmans Publishing Company (1886), Book IV, Chapter 4, 165.