Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.
No person with a conscience can abide the crimes against humanity Russia is committing in Ukraine today. But the moral myopia of those who sanctimoniously see the transgressions of others as unfathomably different from their own historical wrongs dilutes the outrage that would forge a liberal order the rest of the world can stand behind.
A few weeks ago when I wrote in this space condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, I was surprised to see so many comments on Noema’s Facebook page from Africa, the Middle East or Latin America supporting Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war of choice. In place of indignation, there was only cynicism about the hypocrisy of the Western powers.
No doubt some were bots organized by Moscow’s propaganda apparatus. But most seemed to express an honest sentiment from those parts of the world that have been on the other end of the stick during the West’s tenure on top — not least the U.S.-led wars and interventions during the last 70-plus years of the “long peace” between major powers in such far-flung places as Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, the Balkans, Nicaragua, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
When Putin sneers at the charge his invasion was illegal, his knowing smirk is widely understood by all those who opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq without United Nations sanction. When those who experienced America’s own wars of choice hear about the mass graves left behind by retreating Russian forces in Bucha, outside Kyiv, they think of the My Lai massacre of unarmed civilians by U.S. troops in Vietnam in 1968.
When Russian Tu-22Ms “carpet-bombed” Mariupol last week, my own mind turned to the last time I heard that term. It was when American B-52s carpet-bombed the Plain of Jars in Laos from 1964-69, dropping over 2 million tons of bombs — more than on Germany and Japan in World War II — including anti-personnel cluster explosives. As many as 50,000 Laotians are estimated to have died as a consequence of that most intensive bombing campaign ever, many in the years after the war from unexploded ordinance they stumbled across.
This historical context prompts many decent souls around the planet to see a moral equivalence among those nations who have the might to assert their right. And the more the world grows cynical about the possibility of establishing a “global rules-based order” that would apply as much to the major powers as to every other nation, the more the way is open for those very powers to act with impunity.
In that vacuum, nations will amorally line up with whoever serves, or does not threaten, their own interests or fits within the narrative of their own history. Putin seems to have instinctively grasped the sympathy, or at least lack of opposition, he could count on from nations such as South Africa, India and China who suffered historically under Western imperialism, despite all the post-imperial benefits that may have flowed their way.
The American Self-Exception
It is true, as U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken told his Chinese counterparts in the famous diplomatic confrontation when they first met in Alaska in 2021, that at least America faces up to its historical mistakes and tries to correct them going forward. After all, the lead officer in the My Lai massacre was convicted by court-martial in the U.S. for the killings of Vietnamese villagers and sentenced to life in prison, albeit his sentence was later commuted.
In 2016, President Barack Obama visited Laos and said America had a “moral obligation” to help the small country that had fallen under “the biggest bombing in history.” The free press in the U.S. has been dogged about exposing the collateral killings of innocent civilians by drone strikes in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Yet, the inconsistency of the self-excepting superpower still maintains. While the U.S. promises to bring Putin to justice for his crimes in Ukraine, it at the same time refuses to recognize the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court that is the only institution with the mandate and global standing to prosecute him.
China and Russia have also refused to submit to the ICC’s jurisdiction, underscoring the harsh truth that the rest of humanity can only hold accountable those who don’t have the power to exempt themselves.
No World Order Without China
During the last few decades of China’s rise to the top ranks of global power, there was much hope among pragmatic realists on both sides that it would become a co-architect and “responsible stakeholder” with the West in the construction of a common rules-based world order that, for the first time, crossed civilizational spheres. That hope stuck as China more forcefully warded off Western meddling over Hong Kong, human rights and persecution of the Uighurs that it regards as “sovereign internal affairs.” Even then, despite the U.S.-initiated trade war thrown into the mix, it could conceivably have been a partner in maintaining peace and sustainability beyond its borders.
Now, the Middle Kingdom has crossed the Rubicon. Instead of choosing a limited condominium with the West, China has decisively tied its fate to a “no limits” partner that is committing the very atrocities any world order, liberal or otherwise, is fundamentally meant to prevent. By looking the other way as its core principle of “non-intervention and territorial integrity” in international affairs was summarily violated while abiding Russia’s ongoing brutality in Ukraine, China has forfeited any claims to global leadership — at least for now until, and if, wiser minds prevail.
The West’s Legacy Limits The Scope Of Its Appeal
Putin’s war and China’s alignment may have united the West and reinvigorated the purpose of a liberal rules-based system. But the West’s legacy, and what so many regard as its unbearable sanctimony, has seriously diminished the global scope of its appeal.
In short, the only major powers that together can establish a world order are incapable of doing so.
“No truly ‘global’ world order has ever existed,” Henry Kissinger wrote in his book “World Order.” “What passes for order in our time was devised in Western Europe nearly four centuries ago, at a peace conference in the German region of Westphalia, conducted without the involvement or even the awareness of most other continents or civilizations.”
Paradoxically, now that the whole world is involved and aware, world order has become a geopolitical orphan.