Abuse and diplomacy

Published July 16, 2022
The writer is an author and a lawyer based in Mumbai
The writer is an author and a lawyer based in Mumbai

SOON after Russia committed aggression against Ukraine and began perpetrating acts of gruesome brutality, the president of the United States, Joe Biden called for talks with President Vladimir Putin of the Russian Federation. That was wise of him. The president of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky has often proposed talks. Can anyone in his senses imagine that the war in Ukraine can be won by Ukraine by military means?

But of late, President Joe Biden has been giving the impression that it is more a US than Nato war against Russia, and the US hopes to fight it out to the last Ukrainian.

There was a time when strong words were regarded, rightly, as being antithetical to the democratic process. One of the foremost diplomats of his time the British prime minister Anthony Eden gave a quietus to the idea by abusing publicly Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser. He revealed clearly he intended war.

American diplomat George F. Kennan warned in 1952: “…I am frank to say that I think there is no more dangerous delusion, none that has done us a greater disservice in the past or that threatens to do us a greater disservice in the future, than the concept of total victory.

States forget the atrocities they themselves have committed.

“And I fear that it springs in large measure from the basic faults in the approach to international affairs. If we are to get away from it, this will not mean that we shall have to abandon our respect for international law, or our hopes for its future usefulness as the gentle civiliser of events… .

“Nor will it mean that we have to go in for anything that can properly be termed ‘appeasement’ — if one may use a word so cheapened and deflated by the abuse to which it has been recently subjected. But it will mean the emergence of a new attitude among us towards many things outside our borders that are irritating and unpleasant today — an attitude more like that of the doctor towards those of physical phenomena in the human body that are neither pleasing nor fortunate — an attitude of detachment and soberness and readiness to reserve judgement.

“It will mean that we will have the modesty to admit that our own national interest is all that we are really capable of knowing and understanding — and the courage to recognise that if our own purposes and undertakings here at home are decent ones, unsullied by arrogance or hostility towards other people or delusions of superiority, then the pursuit of our national interest can never fail to be conducive to a better world.”

The stark truth is that there is very seldom any alternative to diplomatic compromise. Biden has done worse than use intemperate language. He has been calling Putin names. You do not abuse a person with whom you could attempt to hammer out a compromise.

Most in the West are riding the high horse — and have been doing so for centuries. It was left to Prof Fintan O’Toole to expose, as only an Irish scholar would, the false moral arrogance that has often been in evidence in American democracy and its doctrine of “exceptionalism”.

Read this: “According to Iryna Venediktova, Ukraine’s prosecutor general, by April 21 Russia had committed more than 7,600 recorded war crimes. Yet the US has been, for far too long, fatally ambivalent about war crimes. Its own history of more evasiveness threatens to make the accusation that Putin and his forces have committed them systematically in Ukraine seem more like a useful weapon against an enemy than an assertion of universal principle. It also undermines the very institution that might eventually bring Putin and his subordinates to justice at the International Criminal Court… .”

O’Toole writes: “As early as March 10, well before the uncovering of the atrocities of Bucha, the US ambassador to the United Nat­ions, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, told the BBC that Russian actions in Ukraine ‘constitute war crimes; there are attacks on civilians that cannot be justified … in any way whatsoever’.”

Perhaps the US forgets its own recent history as O’Toole reminds us of the massacre carried out by the Marines in Haditha in Iraq in 2005. Twenty-four Iraqi civilians were killed in cold blood, among them women, children and the elderly. It was no surprise that, officially, the US sought to cover up its crime by claiming that most of the victims died in a roadside bomb explosion.

Indeed, more than one country has railed against the atrocities of one state against another while doing no better themselves. But when a superpower that boasts of its democratic credentials takes action against other states behind the fig leaf of the very badge of honour they hold aloft, one is sadly reminded of the fact that there is no ethics in foreign policy.

The writer is an author and a lawyer based in Mumbai.

Published in Dawn, July 16th, 2022

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