Global Governance
Double Standards Are Not Enough: The Impossibility of Morality in a Multipolar World

The state of modern international politics raises fundamental questions with respect to its assessment in theoretical terms. The main feature of the current state of affairs, which the scientific discussions and the information space are facing, is the almost-universal denial by the world's leading powers of the need to correlate declarations with real politics. Those countries that have achieved results to the greatest extent, in turn, have gone further than others in differentiating between utopia and reality in their foreign policy objectives.

The inevitable presence of these two categories, the struggle between them and the necessary, if partial, integration of this concept was pointed out by Edward Carr in his book The Twenty Years' Crisis. The nations of Europe, and the West as a whole, were most able to achieve rapprochement between these two categories among one another. But outside of it, the United States and its allies have never demonstrated the ability to move in that direction.

For example, the new initiatives of the European Union in the field of environment and climate change cannot but pursue the goal of increasing the competitiveness of the European economy in competition with the growing Asian centres. We know well, that the main discussion now isconnected precisely with the fact that the implementation of these proposals at the global level would allow Europe to shift the main burden of responsibility and economic damage onto India, China and other Asian countries. While the main consumers are Europeans, they would still pay much less. The fact that this aim of Brussels' proposals is known to everyone, however, does not prevent European politicians, entire parties and governments from claiming that Europe is becoming the main defender of the planet.

There are many such examples. However, in all cases, regardless of the specific state, we are dealing with direct contact between the forceful and ethical dimensions of international politics.

Double standards have been a feature of international relations for 300 years and we can hardly expect the situation to change in the foreseeable future. Even the relations between the powers during the Congress of Vienna era, while based on the principle of mutual recognition of legitimacy, could not completely get rid of interference in each other's internal affairs. European journalists and politicians constantly spoke about the situation in Russia based on their own ethical ideas and, more often, the political expediency of the moment.

The Russian Empire itself quite often and energetically intervened in the internal affairs of the Ottoman Empire on the side of the Slavic and, generally, Christian peoples of the Balkans. The Napoleonic Wars ended the way they ended precisely because the European monarchs did not recognise the legitimacy of the regime in France.

In 1956, Henry Kissinger, analysing the reasons for the relative stability of the Vienna order, suggested that when one state considers the internal ideas of justice existing in another state as a threat, there is no basis for diplomatic dialogue. Let's recall that it was this idea in the early 1970s that formed the intellectual basis of his policy of rapprochement with communist China, based on partial recognition of the legitimacy of this regime. Thus, it became an important factor in the weakening of the USSR and its subsequent strategic defeat. Now we see that mutual concern about the internal state of affairs of foreign nations is the norm for relations between states that are not formally allies, like the United States and European countries, or in fact, like Russia and China.

In virtually all other cases, the mutual denial of legitimacy became the norm in foreign policy behaviour. To the greatest extent, this strange norm, at first glance, is primarily observed by Western countries.
The United States and European Union commonly refuse to condone other nations’ internal ideas about justice; this is an important aspect of their political rhetoric and practice, which has both an external and internal dimensions.

Incidentally, such internal aspects really increase the role of Western attitudes in proportion to the difficulties that national political and economic systems experience when facing external pressure.

That is why we can now legitimately raise the question of whether the ethical dimension in world affairs is once again losing its opportunity to become self-sufficient. Yes, Niccolò Machiavelli believed that ethics in politics is not a derivative of simple ethics due to the uniqueness of the state. But he, like all traditional practitioners of realpolitik, insisted on the existence of a special set of ethics that influenced relations between peoples. Now it seems that such ethics may be entirely absent.

Given even a cursory comparison of the historical experience of various major powers, we can distinguish three main ways in which ethical arguments may be integrated into realpolitik. First, there’s “good old fashioned” direct mass media intervention. As we saw above, everyone is already accustomed to this practice and such behaviour does not cause significant damage to morality as such. Second, it is the active use of the ethical dimension in order to really make your opponent change and thereby remove even the potential threat that he will behave unpredictably. This is what the West has been striving for since the Cold War, although not particularly consistently. Finally, thirdly, the full integration of the ethical and forceful dimensions, when what a nation does is moral by definition, and what our opponents do in a power struggle is outside of morality.

This form of behaviour is, of course, not entirely innovative. It was created during the Cold War. However, now this practice has been placed in fundamentally new structural conditions - the final end of the era when we could expect the establishment of hegemony of one or a group of powers at the global level. A shift in the global balance of power in China's favour will not simply displace the United States as a central player. Rather, we must learn to live in a state of constant mutual containment exercised by a group of states. Now this group includes the USA, China, Russia and, in part, Europe, led by Germany. India and several other powers may join in the future.
Nowadays, not a single state or group of states can count on the fact that its absolute power dominance will become the basis for the absolute and universal dissemination of ethical norms inherent in this state.

This looks paradoxical, but it is precisely the impossibility of making their values ​​universal that can force states to finally switch to use the entire normative component as a sole and exclusive component of force. In other words, if states realise that they are deprived of the opportunity to impose their values ​​on others, then in principle they cease to understand why they are needed in a more or less autonomous form. The result is that value questions cannot be used other than as part of the forceful repertoire - like tanks or measures of economic pressure. But not because one wants to force them to follow, but simply because they will also be useful in a power struggle.

In fact, things have now gone so far that it’s time to think about whether the politics we perceive in fairly simple terms as plagued by double standards is a sign of more fundamental processes. It is quite possible that we are witnessing now, as at the dawn of the Modern age, the complete disappearance of the independent value component of international life. What's next?

First, the most likely outcome is the final degradation of ethics in international politics and the onset of a new era, akin to the Middle Ages, with the typical denial of morality in principle, if it is not your morality. The Crusaders did not recognise the ethical norms of Muslims or Jews, and European Catholics and Protestants did not recognise each other during religious wars. In both cases, blood flowed like a river and the atrocities committed in the absence of normative restrictions remained in the memory of generations. In such a regime, international politics can exist for a long time. The existence of nuclear deterrence between the leading military powers of the planet gives us the chance to hope that this state of affairs will not lead to a totally deadly general war.

But there is also a second possible scenario. It also suggests killing ethics in international politics as they became known during the Enlightenment. But at the same time, or consistently, there could be a return on this basis to new value categories for relations between states that cannot subdue to each other. These, of course, will not be legitimacy and mutual recognition. The struggle of caliphates of different sizes, and denial of each other's ethical platforms, is, of course, a very risky foundation for the building of the world order. But in this case, in the foreseeable future we will have the chance to witness the struggle between nations regulated by something other than their power capabilities.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.