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Clash of Worldviews: Moral Equivalence or Moral Superiority?

As the unfortunate era of unipolarity and moral superiority over others grinds to its end, the ‘moral’ lessons that the U.S. in its blindness wishes to impart to the world will fade away as well.

This post first appeared on Russia Insider

Several weeks ago I participated as an observer in an international seminar in St. Petersburg on Russia—U.S. relations. The VIP event, titled “Russia and U.S.: Mistrust and Misunderstanding,” took place on 5 June 2017 at the Saint-Petersburg State University of Economics. Such dignitaries as Jack F. Matlock, Jr., U.S. Ambassador to the USSR in 1978-1991; and Gleb Olegovich Pavlovsky, adviser to the Presidential Administration of Russia (until April, 2011), among many other influential personages, were present. In the morning session I was struck by the remarks of Alexander Baunov, Senior Fellow at the Moscow Carnegie Center and editor in chief of Baunov pointed out a cogent distinction between the ways in which the Russian and the U.S. governments perceive their respective roles in geopolitical affairs: Russia addresses other countries from a position of moral equivalence, while the U.S. speaks from a standpoint of moral superiority.

This philosophical and existential difference underlies the ways in which these two world powers perceive their national interests, and how they interpret the intentions and actions of other countries in the diplomatic arena. The countries of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) and SCO, or Shanghai Cooperation Organization (China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and newly-admitted in 2017 India and Pakistan) in their aggregate represent a system of multipolarity, which by definition threatens the post-World War II world orders of, first, the superpowers’ balance of power, and after 1991, the unipolarity of the U.S. (arguably along with Western Europe) with respect to the rest of the world.

It is this unipolarity that grafts onto itself attitudes of exceptionalism, of always being, as former Pres. Barack Obama stated, “‘the one indispensable nation in world affairs.’”1 Such views of the national self by any country can lead to one standard of behavior for itself and another for the rest, disregard for any system of international law other than its own, and, in the worst iterations, to racism and fascism. There is a fine line, yet a discernible one, between exceptionalism and fascism, and it behooves any self-proclaimed ‘exceptionalist’ country to recall the recent history of this destructive ideology.

It is precisely the attitudes of exceptionalism and unipolarity that Pres. Vladimir Putin criticized in his well-known speech at the 43rd Munich Conference on Security Policy of 12 February 2007. Putin noted that the unipolar world is one “in which there is one master, one sovereign.

And at the end of the day this is pernicious not only for all those within this system, but also for the sovereign itself because it destroys itself from within.”2 It is the misguided moral superiority at the heart of exceptionalism and unipolarity that indeed is destroying from within the democratic values yearned for by American citizens, values that are receding into the distance as greed and corruption become the standard of the day.

The Russophobic hysteria and evidence-free accusations of misbehavior of various governments (recent examples include Libya and Syria) by members of the U.S. Congress belie a depravity so ubiquitous that it is not even noticed anymore. It is a low standard that forgets history and lacks a higher philosophical, abstract perspective.

If the U.S. is not careful, it will back itself into a brittle ideological corner tantamount to cultural, political, and world-social isolation. The Russian government consistently reaches out to the U.S. for cooperation in affairs of mutual interest, and in a spirit of developing a platform of collaboration and friendship, but it is Russia’s position of moral equivalence—let us work together and treat all countries with dignity and open-mindedness—that the U.S. rejects.

This inflexibility of attitude is accompanied by a refusal to grow and change with the rest of the world. The petrodollar is losing its dominance, OBOR (the Silk Road Economic Belt project, known as One Belt, One Road) proposes to unite many nations of Eurasia, and at least one alternative to the SWIFT banking system is now in place. Multipolarity will define the future, while unipolarity’s deleterious effects are visible in the cracking of the cultural and ideological features of Western Europe and the U.S.

Although the U.S. contains 4.34% of the world’s population, it utilizes approximately 25% of the world’s energy resources.3 The U.S.’s wealthy economy has been built through hard work and careful stewardship of finances and materials, to be sure—but it has also come about through exploitation of more fragile economies around the world and trade agreements that have driven workers and farmers out of business.

Sanctions and embargoes might benefit U.S. business, but in the long run they produce resilient people (such as in Cuba and Russia) and engender ill will in the international community. Sanctions and embargoes are unfair, stemming from exceptionalism and moral superiority. What evidence justifies the U.S.’s actions of implied moral superiority? Surely it should have been sanctioned for its invasion of Iraq alone.

As the unfortunate era of unipolarity and moral superiority over others grinds to its end, the ‘moral’ lessons that the U.S. in its blindness wishes to impart to the world will fade away as well. Russian leaders, such as Pres. Putin and FM Sergei Lavrov, will continue to reject the U.S.’s attempts to lecture others about democracy and enforce a system of unipolarity, with its moral superiority. The world will breathe a sigh of relief when these attitudes become ideological relics of the past, and it will welcome the productive potential of moral equivalence.


Valeria Z. Nollan is professor emerita of Russian studies at Rhodes College, and a faculty affiliate at Texas Tech University. She was born in Hamburg, West Germany; she and her parents were Russian refugees displaced by World War II. Her books and articles on Russian literature, religion, and nationalism have made her an internationally-recognized authority on topics relating to modern Russia. Her new biography of Sergei Rachmaninoff is forthcoming by Reaktion Books of London.

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