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In foreign policy, double standards can be a virtue

Democracy, war crimes, terrorism - regardless of the issue, the West is accused of not playing fair. But is absolute moral consistency possible or even desirable? Deutsche Welle asked an ethics expert for advice.

Turtle with two heads

How two-faced is the West in its dealings with others?

In a recent essay in Germany's Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper, Egyptian author Alaa Al-Aswani eloquently drew attention to the fact that when Western governments and media talk about democracy in the Muslim world, that's not exactly what they mean.

Why, Al-Aswani asked, was the West so eager to criticize irregularities in this summer's elections in Iran when no one in the West protests about electoral manipulations in his country?

"The answer is that the cries of injustice are not raised to promote democracy," Al Aswani wrote.

"They were aimed solely at discrediting an Iranian regime that is hostile to Israel and is trying to develop nuclear weapons. The Egyptian government may be despotic and corrupt, but it's compliant and tame…so Western media are happy to ignore its flaws."

It's no secret that the West, to paraphrase George Orwell, views some democracies as more equal than others. Is this an instance of crass hypocrisy, or does it merely reflect the Realpolitik of international relations?

"Western democracy is based on and cannot be understood without Christian humanist values," said Stephan Holthaus, the director of the Institute for Ethics and Values at the Giessen School of Theology.

"So-called democracies in the Middle East are often based on a different foundation and have a different history, culture and religion in the background. We use the same concepts but fail to understand one another because the basic value systems are quite different."

The fog of war

Democracy is, of course, an abstract concept particularly open to definition and interpretation. Concrete rules - for instance, those applying to the conduct of war - should be easier to apply consistently. But are they?

The UN, for instance, commissioned the recently released Goldstone report to investigate allegations of human rights abuses during Israel's military incursion into the Gaza Strip last winter. The study found that not only Hamas, but the Israeli military were guilty of serious violation of international law, including targeting civilians.

Palestinians inspect the damage

What for Palestinians is wanton destruction is self-defense for many Israelis

But no sooner was the report out than it engendered further controversy and confusion. Critics of Israel seized on it as evidence that the West turns a blind eye when Israel commits the sorts of abuses that Western leaders condemn when carried out by Palestinians.

Proponents for Israel, however, accused the study of wilfully ignoring evidence of Hamas fighters disguising themselves as civilians and using civilian facilities as well as the fact that Israel had repeatedly asked the UN to intervene to stop Palestinian rocket attacks on its civilians.

In an article for Israel's Ha'aretz newspaper last month, leading commentator Ari Shavit even argued that the US would be guilty of war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan if held to the standard Goldstone used for Israel.

Can and should the West be absolutely strict about what is and isn't a war crime?

"Here, too, cultural difference plays a huge role," Holthaus said.

"What one person sees as a war crime is for another a pure and legitimate act of self-defense. What we need is a common ethics that applies to all cultures. And the decisive question is not: Who's right? - but rather: How do we create lasting peace and reconciliation?"

Tangled up in terrorism

At least in terms of the unequal power of the combatants, Russia's conflict with Georgia last year is comparable to the Israeli campaign against Hamas. Yet Western leaders were quick to condemn Moscow for using excessive force.

On the other hand, they largely ignore the Kremlin's often bloody campaign against separatists in Chechnya, treating it as an internal matter and citing Russia's need to fight terrorists (the situation is comparable to Sri Lanka's battle against Tamil Tiger rebels).

House in Georgia on fire

It's difficult to compare conflicts like the one in Georgia, yet comparisons are made constantly

Moreover, under former President George W. Bush, the US itself used practices many people consider to be torture as a weapon against a perceived enemy.

So is fighting terrorism something like a moral trump card that overrides customary ethical limits?

"We distinguish between ethics, which are timeless, and morality, which is very temporal," Holthaus said. "Basic convictions have to be adapted to concrete situations, but primary values like freedom, equality and solidarity should never be undermined, not even in the seemingly noble cause of fighting terrorism."

Practical idealism

Given the perhaps irreconcilable moral ambiguities that attend nearly all of the world's major conflicts, one possible response for the West would be to drop all ethical concerns from foreign policy.

In other words, Western nations could simply declare that results, and not standards of justice or fairness, are the goal in their dealings with other countries and cultures, and admit that they treat allies differently than perceived enemies.

Statue of the goddess Justizia

The West needs to strike a balance between morality and pragmatism

Philosophers often refer to that outlook as "realistic." But arguments can be made for the alternative usually known as "practical idealism." In that view, ethical standards are very much in the interest of individual nations since they promote concrete goals like peace and stability.

And they have a long, if often forgotten history

"We need politicians who represent a clear ethical standpoint and have a high degree of sensitivity for other cultures," Holthaus told Deutsche Welle.

"But many politicians in the Western world no longer know their own ethical roots. We should do our homework first before confronting other cultures with our values. It's well worth remembering the venerable values of the Western world."

Perhaps the key, then, is not ethical strictness, but awareness of and the ability to communicate the complex set of values that determine different responses to seemingly similar moral situations.

Author: Jefferson Chase
Editor: Rob Mudge

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