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President's Corner: When Saving Others Doesn't Work

Is Louise Arbour giving up? After an illustrious career as prosecutor of a War Crimes Tribunal (precursor to the International Criminal Court), High Commissioner of Human Rights, Canadian Supreme Court Justice, advocate of the “right to protect” principle in international law, and head of the International Crisis Group, Arbour has returned to Montreal to a normal role in a law firm. Perhaps she is merely licking wounds incurred by trying to save people around the world from the tragic effects of bad governance.

Nevertheless, her retreat seems even more significant, for she declared to the Globe and Mail columnist Doug Saunders that she is “rethinking” her whole approach, which she now concedes is “not working.”

Imagine that! The protection of vulnerable people around the world is “not working” and Ms. Arbour will adopt more limited alternatives, which she describes as involving “empathy.”

I was initially shocked by her reversal of commitments, which seem to repudiate the core of peace work itself—the advocacy of universal standards of human rights and fair governance. Instead, Arbour seems to favor more limited interventions abroad, and would constrain them by “empathy.” Even after the initial shock, I remain troubled by her proposal.

Although her new attitude seems a benign expression of cultural relativism, she has described it only vaguely in public, so I cannot be sure that I understand her correctly. Nevertheless, we should always take seriously the experience of such a wise person, so I am trying to re-think, along with her, the legitimacy of holding all of humankind to the same standards of justice. It is a difficult inner debate for a peace worker, since I believe that “I am my brothers’ keeper,” and must not stand aloof from their struggles and conflicts. Surely, I want to believe, the defence of human rights is a noble project! So what could cause it to fail?

Five Arguments Against Saving Others From Themselves

Although I can only speculate about Louise Arbour’s own reasoning, I have heard at least five other arguments at different times against trying to free people in other countries from oppression. In deference to her opinion, I have been considering them all once again, as I shall do now. Here they are:

1. “If you take the lid off a society that is unfamiliar with democracy, chaos will result. The group you liberate will just kill their former oppressors.” According to this theory, even the worst possible ruler may be the lid on Pandora’s jar, preventing warfare among the various clans and ethnic populations in his society.

I never fully rejected this grim prediction, but during the last decade the evidence for it has multiplied. Saddam Hussein was a murderous tyrant and Bashar al-Assad ruled over one of the world’s worst regimes, but the efforts to oust them have made their societies even more miserable. My Russian friends predicted from the outset that the Arab Spring would fail and, on the same reasoning, continue to support Putin today, even if they despise him. Were he ousted, they predict, the result would be endless bloodshed. The necessary institutions and cultures of democracy are absent and cannot be constructed in the Arab world and Russia within the foreseeable future.

I can no longer dismiss this view, having previously cheered for the brave youths in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and the pro-democracy protesters in Moscow. They have been killed or silenced, leaving current regimes more vicious than earlier ones. Why did democratization fail? What might have worked? Does this question haunt Louise Arbour, as it haunts me? Clearly, before starting even a nonviolent revolution for democracy, the activists should anticipate the events that may follow.

2. “Many people do not want to be free.” When I was visiting the Soviet Union late in Gorbachev’s presidency I used to ask Russians why they were ungrateful to him. “If I were in prison and the warden unlocked the door and let me out, I would thank him,” I said. “But most people here seem to hate him for it.”

It was Lyudmilla Alexeyeva, the old dissident and human rights activist, who explained it to me. “We were like children,” she said. Her people had spent their whole lives under totalitarianism and did not know how to take care of themselves. The state had always told them what to do and had provided for their basic needs. They had to learn how to organize their own affairs. Many people simply died after being liberated and told to manage their own lives.

Of course, it is not only Russians who are unprepared for democracy, and yet certain societies have managed a remarkably smooth transition to freedom. This leaves us with yet another question: Why so? What enables some societies readily to become functioning democracies and remain so, while others still prefer authoritarian regimes?

3. “Your so-called ‘altruism’ is fraudulent. We know that you are really trying to dominate or exploit us for your own purposes, not trying to protect our ‘human rights.’” This comment is often heard in post-colonial societies, where there is lingering mistrust of international ‘do-gooder’ humanitarian projects, while even in Canada, former Marxists retain a trained capacity to detect self-interest behind the motivations of others.

They are not always wrong. Still, such suspicions undermine humanitarian actions. Perhaps Arbour’s encounters with this cynicism are the basis for her conclusion that international institutions of justice are “not working.”

4. “Go clean up your own country. Your ‘democracy’ is no better than ours.” Hypocrisy is the most ridiculous foible of all, and Canadians and other Western purveyors of democracy abroad are inevitably considered hypocrites nowadays. Indeed, there are double standards. The people indicted for war crimes are not from rich Western countries, but are mainly African generals or prime ministers, even if they use American or French bullets and helicopters.

Besides, it seems that democratic governance itself no longer works, for grievous shortcomings are apparent in North America and Europe—not only in the protection of human rights (consider Ferguson, Missouri) but especially in the efficacy of government policymaking. Even China can solve economic and environmental problems today that Canada cannot.

That’s true, but still, the basic argument is wrong. All governments are flawed, but not equally so. International human rights workers invariably do criticize their home countries, but they also recognize certain places abroad that are worse. They properly devote their attention to the places that need it most—and Louise Arbour undoubtedly knows which countries need it more than Canada. Hence this argument can hardly be the basis for her new conviction that such projects are “not working.” So what other arguments may she have in mind?

5. “You will humiliate them by seeming superior. Even if they admire you and want to emulate you, they will envy and resent you.” This argument may seem crazy, but Arbour has probably encountered it many times. In fact, I think it is not only correct and historically crucial, but also nearly impossible to counteract. Indeed, this fifth argument may be the most insoluble reason for not trying to save others from themselves and each other.

The German sociologist Max Weber disputed Marx’s notion that material interests were an ultimate concern for most people. Instead, he emphasized the significance of prestige or social recognition, which is allocated, not only according to one’s individual traits, but also one’s social “status group.” In that case, an ethnic group or even a whole society is assigned a particular social rank. Thus one may take pride in the high position of one’s nationality or country, or may be humiliated if it loses prestige. Indeed, there may be no emotion more painful than the shame and rage that accompanies wounded national pride.

But prestige ranking is entirely comparative. On an objective test, everyone may get all the right answers, but (except in Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon) not everyone can be above average. In a comparative system of rankings, for every winner there must be a loser. For every person or nation or custom that is respected, there must be a person or nation or custom that is scorned.

To be a judge is to apportion honor. To be a human rights prosecutor is to apportion scorn. What a miserable job!

Apportioning Scorn

Worse yet, as Louise Arbour has noted, it isn’t working. Many people refuse to accept the scorn that is assigned them. Indeed, some resist it with astonishing ferocity. Echoing Weber’s previous insight, Thomas Friedman has noted:

“It has always been my view that terrorism is not spawned by the poverty of money; it is spawned by the poverty of dignity. Humiliation is the most underestimated force in international relations and in human relations. It is when people or nations are humiliated that they really lash out and engage in extreme violence.”

Here Friedman contrasts humiliation to dignity. More accurately, however, its true antonym is not dignity but triumphalism—a smug gloating about having defeated the competitor. Dignity is ordinary respectability, an awareness of being “good enough” to incur neither glory nor shame. With dignity one can feel comfortably normal, but the extreme degrees of prestige—humiliation and triumphalism—are problematic.

Describing the humiliation experienced by one status group, Muslims, Friedman has also written:

“One reason Yasir Arafat rejected the Clinton plan for a Palestinian state was that he and many followers didn’t want a state handed to them by the U.S. or Israel. That would be ‘‘humiliating.’‘ They wanted to win it in blood and fire. Hezbollah TV had bombarded Palestinians with stories of how the Lebanese drove the Israelis out. Palestinian militants wanted the ‘‘dignity’‘ of doing the same….
“Ditto Iraq. Why have the U.S. forces never gotten the ovation they expected for liberating Iraq from Saddam’s tyranny? In part, it is because many Iraqis feel humiliated that they didn’t liberate themselves, and America’s presence, even its aid, reminds them of that.”1

Humiliation involves envy—an inherently ambivalent attitude. On the one hand, the low-ranked group admires and wants to resemble (or even be admitted to) the high-ranked group, while at the same time hating them for exclusively possessing the very qualities they desire. Indeed, René Girard maintains that all human desires are borrowed from other people and all conflict originates in these desires, which he calls “mimetic rivalry.”2

And we certainly can see such rivalry everywhere, if we look. Besides the Muslim resentment now being expressed in the violence of Daesh, we see the humiliation of Russia. Vladimir Putin never misses an opportunity to express his resentment in speeches, declaring almost every day that his country has been denied the respect that it deserves as a major world power, and that he will no longer tolerate such humiliation. In this, he articulates feelings that almost all Russians share.

Let me hazard a guess about your own relationships. Please count up all the Russians with whom you had friendly relations a decade ago. Now count those who are still your friends. I would bet that your current list is only half as numerous as the earlier one. That is true for all of us. Almost all Russians today hate Westerners—especially Americans—and consider us arrogant for assuming that we know anything about democracy that they need to learn. The same Russians who loathe Putin and want their country to turn toward Europe nevertheless share his feeling of humiliation. Even Mikhail Gorbachev has called Barack Obama “triumphalist,” though only Russians seem able to imagine Obama gloating over the defeat of a rival.

To be sure, there are abundant objective grounds for Russian hostility. For example, among its other bad decisions, NATO repeatedly violated promises never to advance into formerly Soviet space. Moreover, the United States defended the Kosovar Albanians by bombing Serbians, whom the Russians regard as Slavic kinsmen. These are realistic sore points. Still, their objections to such affronts cannot explain Russians’ explosions of rage against foreign friends who offer to help them acquire the skills of democracy.

In fact, humiliation is rarely inflicted intentionally, either interpersonally or between states. Ordinarily, higher-status parties express benign attitudes or (at worst) indifference, and suppose they are treating their lower-status counterparts as either friends or (at worst) normal competitors. They are baffled when Russians reject their well-meant suggestions as arrogant.

But instead of being uniquely Russian, humiliation is one of humankind’s most difficult problems, even though we typically avoid mentioning it, lest we exacerbate the ill will it creates.

Richard Ned Lebow is the author of a book, Why Nations Fight,3 that does not avoid the term. In it he claims that foreign policy behaviour can be explained by three concerns: fear, interest, and honor. These give rise to four main motives for going to war: INTERESTS (material interests, such as territory, oil); SECURITY (fear of being attacked or exploited); STANDING (group status, national prestige); REVENGE (“revanchism” —retaliation for past defeat).

Lebow studied 94 wars (1648-2008) that involved one or more great or rising powers and had 1,000 or more battle deaths. He explained them by these motives: STANDING: (62 wars, 58% of the total) SECURITY (19 wars, 18%) REVENGE (11 wars, 10%) INTERESTS (8 wars, 7%) and OTHER (7 cases, 7%)

The loss of status is evidently one of life’s most painful experiences. Envy, resentment, and humiliation may have some basis in objective mistreatment, but more often they are not grounded in any real insult at all. Yet they are no less painful for being of comparative or even imaginary origin.

If, as Lebow is shows, “standing” is by far the most common motive for war, we need to address it to reduce the dangers, but I have no idea how to do so. Even mentioning the differential in status can be perceived as arrogantly rubbing salt in the wounds of defeat.

One who administers justice internationally, as Louise Arbour has done, will often be seen as arrogantly imposing foreign values on a vanquished society, not as defending the universally recognized human rights of people who cannot defend themselves from tyrants. And Arbour is not the only altruistic person who encounters such resistance abroad. Peace workers of all backgrounds receive similar responses. Then how shall we proceed? I think any answer to that question must be tentative, for we are witnessing the breakdown of old forms of social organization before the future forms can yet be envisioned.

Globalization and Its Discontents

Basically, Arbour remains, with other peace workers, on the right side of history. Human rights matter. And over time, humankind will not be contained within national borders, within the Westphalian principles of national sovereignty or the regional boundaries of normative tradition. Like it or not, we are one world and must live as such. Our interests and our personal relationships are anchored in other countries as much as our own. We may not even know in which countries most of our Facebook friends live.

Yet democracy is not working well at the national level and so far barely exists in transnational organizations. The IMF, the World Bank, the International Criminal Court, the United Nations, the OSCE, and NATO — such organizations are not accountable to citizens, and the rules they impose may be unfamiliar or even unwelcome. We need new forms of governance and economics to regulate our new relationships and ways of participating. These will be created only when the old forms are decisively rejected as unworkable. As that happens to one institution after the other, our work must continue, but in a context of uncertainty. Even our own projects may be discredited and rejected as failures.

Yet we should celebrate failure! I was a student of Karl Popper, the great philosopher who described the scientific method. He asserted that, though we never reach the truth, we may get closer to it by progressively eliminating falsehoods. We do not prove true theories, but only disprove false ones. The ones that are left standing are not necessarily true (someone may knock them down later) but we can reasonably increase our confidence in them.

Thus science is a battle among theories or models, and it must be hard-fought in order to test them adequately. When a model truly fails, we can rejoice, for the rejection of it brings us closer to the truth. If we have been defending that model, we may not rejoice about its defeat. But we should! Let’s shout “hooray!” whenever a new failure can be declared conclusive, for progress toward truth is a process of elimination.

The same goes for social institutions. Communists tried hard to defend their model of a good society, but it didn’t work. It was rejected decisively in 1989 and almost nobody believes in it anymore.

Now it seems that democracy and capitalism are not working well. Either they too must be abandoned in favor of something else, or at least they must be changed markedly by replacing the failing parts. But there is no single, comprehensive alternative available now. The failures must become more conclusive before reforms can begin.

Clear-cut, unmistakeable failures are ultimately the most satisfying ones. Ambiguity is frustrating. This fact helps explain why certain societies have been able to accept democracy more readily than others. Here’s my theory about it.

Wars have only one good aspect: They may put a conclusive end to a dispute. The outcome of World War II definitely proved that Naziism and the Japanese plans for the future of Asia were finished. No one would try to restore those defeated regimes. Indeed, both Germany and Japan were occupied by victorious armies that enforced democracy and left nothing uncertain.

Likewise, in 1989 the collapse of communist regimes in Eastern Europe was total. Democracy became the new—the only—option. Sensible people all “got with the program” and made it work.

Nothing so decisive happened in Moscow. Gorbachev was still contemplating a hundred options when the Soviet Union collapsed. Although that collapse was decisive, numerous alternative economic and political models are still afloat today, not one of which seems convincing so far.

So the Russians, like the Muslims, have to sort out their own problems. It would be easier if they were not humiliated by comparing themselves to other societies. But can foreigners help them at all?

Maybe a little. At least we should avoid gloating. That may have been what Arbour had in mind when she proposed greater “empathy“ for others. Avoid triumphalism, and try to improve our own institutions, which also are “not working” — or not working well enough—while we offer to aid others.

Admittedly, these recommendations will solve very little. Our work must be incremental and even hesitant. We should celebrate every institutional failure as a potential advance, yet show respect and friendship to those who supported that institution and who feel defeated by its failure.

And let’s thank Louise Arbour!

Metta Spencer is President of Science for Peace.


1 Thomas L. Friedman, “The Humiliation Factor,” International New York Times, November 9, 2003

2 Rene Girard, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, Stanford University Press, 1978.

3 Richard Ned Lebow, Why Nations Fight. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

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