At a conference a couple of years ago, I had lunch with a Croatian. The conversation drifted to the subject of Yugoslav war criminals, at which point he angrily exclaimed something along the lines of "why should Croatia send our generals to the Hague? No American will ever get sent to the Hague!" Sadly, he had a point. And sadly, that point remains valid.
There is a consistent double standard in the dealings of what is usually called "the West" when engaging with the rest of the world. The examples are literally too numerous to recount here. But to take just one, it should give pause for thought that Russia is being chastised for interfering in internal Ukrainian affairs by applying a non-existent "gas weapon," while what passes for an international press barely even noticed that the USA actively supported an attempted coup in Venezuela.
There is, in other words, one rule for Americans and (non-Russian) Europeans, and another rule for the rest of the world.
But why should the West care? The system largely benefits us (at least in the short term), so why change it? Apart from moral suasion, which is of limited value in the world of realpolitik, there are two compelling reasons.
- The West cannot expect to continue being the hegemonic power that it is today. In terms of vital strategic resources, we are dependent on Mercosur, Africa, and Russia. In terms of heavy industry, China surpassed us the better part of a decade ago (that is in no small part due to the deliberate de-industrialization policies of Reagan, Thatcher, and their fellow-travellers). In certain areas of basic science (most notably solid state physics), Korea and Japan have taken the undisputed lead. Building a fair and consistent system of international jurisprudence may turn out to be the most effective way to ensure our legitimate strategic interests against potentially aggressive rising powers in the 21st century.
- The challenges of today require broad international cooperation. In an age when a bank incorporated in the Bahamas can imperil the entire monetary system by placing leveraged bets on the exchange rates of Indochinese currencies, the need for global banking regulations (and the requisite arm-twisting of certain flag-of-convenience countries) should be obvious. In an age when a factory farm in China (or Mexico) can breed a deadly strain of bird flu, which is then transmitted by airplane to most of the world, the need for international rules to uphold environmental and labor standards should be equally obvious. Most seriously of all, in an age where there is a credible risk that global climate change will wipe most of our coastal cities off the map, just as completely and irrevocably as a megaton-yield nuclear warhead could, the need for global action on greenhouse gas pollution has never been more urgent.
The fact that these are global problems should not be construed as a license to think of them as "somebody else's problems," and we can certainly do a lot to curb them ourselves. But they cannot be fully and finally resolved without the active cooperation of the rest of the world. And the rest of the world will not take action to solve global problems if they have reason to believe that it will, yet again, be one rule for them and another rule for us.
If China has reason to believe that the West will not curb our greenhouse gas pollution, why should they do so? And if Russia does not believe that the West will respect its legitimate security concerns in Central Asia, why should they respect our legitimate security concerns in Central and Eastern Europe?
Cooperation requires, above all else, a climate of mutual trust and a mutual presumption of good faith. Having glaring double standards is fundamentally destructive of such trust and presumption of good faith.
It's time for international law to apply to white people too.
Jakob Stenfalk is a trained physicist and a regular contributor to the European Tribune.
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- Scott T. Paul: The US Must Show Its Committment to International Law
- Rudi Guraziu: European Union and Global Governance: An Evaluation