One of my favourite all-time quotes about world politics is Alan Taylor’s:
You will be shocked to know that states often say one thing and do another. They are inconsistent. They are morally maneuverable. They apply standards to others that they exempt themselves from.
So when militarily adventurous states like the US preach that others should abide by a ‘rules-based’ order, an eyebrow or two is raised. When France complains of unilateralism and arrogance, we might recall their own record of testing nukes in the Pacific without asking anyone. When a Sudanese envoy turns up to lament the ruins of the carnage in Syria, its tempting to cry ‘tu quoque.’
Speaking of Syria, what should we make of the drive within the British Government to ban Syrian diplomats from the upcoming Olympic Games?
The Deputy Prime Minister puts it this way:
“If there is evidence that you have abused human rights and that is independently shown to be the case, you will not be able to come into this country.”
Well now. The obvious, low-ball, easy response is that this principle is absurd, either because it is impossible to apply consistently, or if it were, would make diplomacy impossible. Applied consistently, it would be a very large net indeed. Imagine how many figures known to be linked to atrocious regimes would be denied access to the big track meet in London.
China? Russia? Israel? Libya (where our allies in this great moral victory are still torturing detainees)? Saudi Arabia? And isn’t Guantanamo still open for business?
But hold on: if we follow that logic to its conclusion, we would make the perfect the enemy of the good.
Maybe we should accept a little hypocrisy in our statecraft. We can’t responsibly arrest or embargo or deny entry to every Chinese or Saudi diplomat who wants to visit. There are too many serious – morally serious- things on the table to destroy those relationships: on trade, on global issues like nuclear proliferation or climate change, on the flow of oil, on industrial policy.
But there are weaker atrocious states who we do have the power to punish. Like, say, Syria, which is firebombing cities and reportedly slaughtering children.
Readers of OSB will know that this is not the shop for interventionism or armed liberalism. I’m normally against joining in the civil wars of others on many grounds, part prudential and part principle. There’s enough to do out there, resources are thin, and protecting one side normally results in abetting counter-atrocities.
But we can take a principled stance of hypocrisy here. We can shut out Syria’s envoys from the Olympics. It would be a meaningful gesture – just remember Syria’s outraged reaction to the mere idea of denying their man a visa. The Olympics does confer legitimacy and recognition on sovereign states.
So if we won’t use force to intervene, and if we won’t take an absolute firm stance every time a bad regime’s diplomats arrive, we can at least say to Damascus: ‘Not only are you atrocious, you are also weak. You might continue your bestial assault on civilians. But your man will not sit back with caviar and tea while the world celebrates the brotherhood of man. Not on our watch.’
How do you like them apples?