The west shouldn’t beg for its reputation

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Reconcile, if you can, the following statements.

First, universal laws are just another form of western empire. While the US and its allies lecture developing countries about such rich-world frills as human rights, China and Russia respect national traditions. These so-called autocracies offer material help — trade, investment, arms — without moral or legal strings attached. “Freedom of speech won’t feed my children.”

Second, Israel is in breach of universal laws. The proper forum for this case is the International Court of Justice, whose name and picturesque Dutch setting could hardly be more suggestive of Enlightenment supremacy. When the court makes a provisional ruling that Israel must “prevent” genocide in Gaza, the world should defer to it as secular scripture.

What explains the flow of both arguments from quite often the same mouth? Cynicism, perhaps. Or confusion. Either way, critics of the west — not just South Africa itself, which brought the ICJ proceedings against Israel — tend to use whatever line of attack is convenient in the moment.

The case in The Hague should stand as a lesson to the west. With a large part of the “non-aligned” world, the west can’t win. In Washington, but more especially in European capitals, there is still a liberal inclination to blame the rich democracies for their unpopularity elsewhere: to accept at face value the criticisms of the west, and atone. The extent to which anti-westernism is just muddle-headed and vexatious gets lost in all the well-meaning guilt.

Grievances to do with the colonial age, or with cold war meddling, are one thing. But so much of the case against the US-led democracies is fresher than that, and doesn’t survive a closer look.

No, the west did not go on a triumphalist lap of honour after 1989. Far from imposing its values, it abstained from Rwanda, dithered over Bosnia and, in the last decade, took half-measures against Syria. In a curious choice for an overbearing empire, the US cashed a peace dividend so large that, as a share of national output, its defence budget has never again touched the levels of the mid-1980s. London and the south of France were still Russian playgrounds after the occupation of Crimea in 2014. The Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Russia was German policy until two Februaries ago. It is the west’s accommodation of rivals that stands out from that era, not its chauvinism.

Also, no, the Iraq war, though it remains America’s error of the century so far, does not equate to the Ukraine war, or make a mockery of the west’s sanctions on Russia. There wasn’t a decade’s worth of UN Security Council resolutions against Ukraine.

No, the Washington consensus was not imperialist in either intent or result. The two most dramatic outcomes of that trade liberalisation were the enrichment of China and the poisoning of the west’s own politics as voters who lost their industrial jobs seethed. No, the eastward expansion of Nato was not a gratuitous American bicep flex, but a reflection of the wishes of sovereign nations. It wasn’t viable or conscionable to use them as a “buffer” with Russia as though this were a board game.

In all these cases, it might be useful to apply the “but for” test that lawyers favour. But for the “forever wars”, but for the enlargement of Nato, would the US and its allies be much better-liked now? Or would the case against them just be something else? (Sanctions on Iraq were said to be killing children, until the invasion was mooted, at which point they were said to be containing Saddam Hussein nicely.) The west can’t be naive enough to think it is always in a good-faith argument with its antagonists.

Hostile-to-ambivalent countries can — must — be courted. But this will have to take the form of an appeal to their cold interests. The US is a better source of security than any alternative patron and, if its protectionism doesn’t get in the way, of prosperity too. It is the hearts-and-minds approach, with its touching premise that everyone is open to being persuaded, that seems hopeless.

Anti-westernism is, in part, a domestic tactic. Inept or despotic governments tell their populations to blame the global north for their woes. The rest of it is sincere (which isn’t the same as being justified). But in all cases, it targets the intellectual glitch of the west. Still Christian-tinged, the liberal mind is trained to entertain all notions save one: the weak can be wrong, too.

janan.ganesh@ft.com

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