The (Un)Questioned Moral Authority of the “West”

Anamaria Iuga is one of the ten 2015 Milton Wolf Emerging Scholar Fellows, an accomplished group of doctoral and advanced MA candidates selected to attend the 2015 Milton Wolf Seminar, an annual event co-organized by the Center for Global Communication Studies, the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna, and the American Austrian Foundation. Their posts highlight the critical themes and on-going debates raised during the 2015 Seminar discussions.

The Milton Wolf Seminar has become a tradition and a signature event of the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna. As a student of this institution, I have had the opportunity to participate in both the 2014 and 2015 Seminars, both of which enriched my knowledge and understanding of the intersection between modern diplomacy and media. The theme of the 2015 edition, “Triumphs and Tragedies: Media and Global Events in 2014,” was fascinating and of great relevance to the current state of affairs, providing new approaches for analyzing the ongoing global political processes. Moreover, the guiding questions of the panels were highly pertinent. The panels and the guest speakers lived up to expectations.

The first panel, “Asymmetries and Strategic Communication – New Mechanisms, New Players, New Strategies,” set the stage for heated debates regarding such issues as the on-going conflict in Ukraine, and the “shock value” of ISIS. Session panelists and the participants questioned the very existence and the role of the media as an “independent” sphere. The opening remarks of Professor Monroe Price, the chair of this panel and Director of the Center for Global Communication Studies at the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania, regarding the role of strategic communication in conflict situations raised my interest. Some further research, led me to his recently published book Free Expression, Globalism, and the New Strategic Communication. This tour de force analysis sheds light on the recent radical metamorphosis of global politics, media, and their intertwinement. Looking through the lens of the “market for loyalties” and “competing narratives of legitimacy” as suggested by Price, one gains a clearer picture of the “triumphs and tragedies” of recent decades, particularly those that took place during 2014.

Dunja Mijatović, Representative on the Freedom of the Media for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), drew our attention to the dangers of mixing content (facts) and propaganda in Russian and Ukrainian media coverage of the conflict in Crimea. Questioned about her role in mitigating media manipulation, she explained the OSCE’s limited mandate in the Ukraine, particularly in matters related to the accuracy of the media coverage of the conflict. She also emphasized that the organization is “moving on the edge” and is not in the position to “tell media what to do.” Furthermore, Mijatović criticized the Western-centric approach in global politics, which she nicknamed the “US-Europe bubble.”  According to Mijatović, this bubble prevents “Western powers” and Western civil society actors from acknowledging that other state and non-state actors understand and do politics in another key, for better or for worse.

During this first session and throughout the Seminar, I would have been interested to hear more about the origins of the new mechanisms and strategies in strategic communication, the raison d’être of the new players in Global Politics, and the systemic effects past and recent Western political decisions and strategies on the events of 2014.  The state of affairs during 2014 and the first half of 2015 reflect what Tariq Alif refers to as a “new world disorder.” This disorder is in stark contrast to the ambitions of a “new world order” (i.e. “a victory over tyranny and savage aggression”) advocated by George Bush Sr. in his speech on September 11, 1991. The New World Order is a concept employed frequently by US leaders to designate major shifts in politics. But, most often, politics take different turns than those initially envisaged in these master strategies.

Henry Kissinger in his latest book, World Order (2014) concludes there has never been a true “world order.” After the fall of the Berlin Wall and communist regimes in Eastern Europe, the world entered a period of big hopes and promises for democracy. The normative agenda of the “West” seemed to be generally welcomed. From its inception, however, the “democracy project” was based on double standards. This Western “exceptionalism” is, according to journalist Chandran Nair, “an incredibly arrogant notion that postulates that western power is uniquely benign and that the rules that apply to others do not apply to western leaders.” The primacy of short-term thinking and immediate pragmatic interests led “Western allies” to overlook the potential medium and long-term consequences of their military and political actions.

Furthermore, Russia perceived NATO’s eastward enlargement as a breach of promises and a threat. The European integration project and the Eastern Partnership that paralleled the military expansion were regarded as overt provocations and challenges to Russia’s influence in Eastern Europe. The invasion of Crimea aimed to counteract these policies, to eliminate a possible “Maidan in Moscow” (i.e. demonstrations akin to the 2013 Ukrainian Euromaidan demonstrations in favor of further integration into Europe), to display Russia’s power, and to reclaim its “great power” status. The return to Cold War master narratives and antagonisms at the height of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine was the result of a two-and-a-half- decades-long failure to find a common ground and to fully engage Russia in global politics. Russia-Ukraine relations steadily “fell prey” to Russian-style capitalism and revisionism. But as Ivan Krastev emphasized, “Russia’s aggression in Ukraine should not be understood as an opportunistic power grab,” but rather as “an attempt to politically, culturally, and militarily resist the West.” Unfortunately, this confrontation has not been casualty-free. The downing of the MH 17 civilian airliner proved the indiscriminate and hazardous character of warfare and brought the Ukraine conflict “to the West’s door.” Two hundred and ninety-eight innocent people lost their lives, an event that shocked people and made headlines around the world. Moreover, the political leaders of the West, led by Barack Obama, harshly criticized Russia and its conduct of war. Almost one year later, the conflict resolution process is still lagging. The military conflict between Russia and Ukraine, however, would probably not have happened if the “West” had been more thoughtful in its relations with Russia and committed to international norms.

The ISIS-induced terror that has proliferated since 2014 constitutes yet another major subject of concern, not only in the Middle East, but globally. Filling the power vacuum in Syria and Iraq, ISIS developed into a much-feared group that makes maximum use of modern technologies and attractive media and communication strategies to spread its shock-value messages and attract new recruits, which include fighters and proselytes from Europe and North America. The roots of modern Middle Eastern conflict and instability dates back to the 1916 “line in the sand” from the Mediterranean to the Persian frontier, which was drawn by Europeans Sir Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot. In the ensuing century, turmoil—caused by sectarianism, proxy wars, and economic, military, and political interests—has become the “normal state of affairs” in the region. The US and the European “great powers” have consistently played an active role in these developments; the Gulf War (1990-1991) and the War on Terror were but the most recent major milestones.

The most recent milestone, the Arab Spring in which many Western policy and opinion makers put their hopes, ended in a single successful story—Tunisia. In contrast, the repressed uprisings in Syria turned into civil war that has lasted for more than four years. Western conversations about the successes and failures of the Arab Spring rarely historicize recent events against a century of Western intervention. Furthermore, citizens in Western countries lack knowledge about the political developments in the region and their consequences. The European Refugee Policy, crisis paralleled by a rise in popular right-wing populism illustrates the vulnerability of the West’s domestic politics to its own foreign policy. ISIS’s “theater of terror” has had the intended effect on Western society. As journalist Robert Fisk points out, the “propaganda war of Islamic extremists is being waged on Facebook and internet message boards, not mosques.” By seizing power where legitimate authority was lacking, ISIS has imposed its terror regime, not only in the field, but also worldwide through the media. It not only rules by killing and oppressing civilians and destroying vital infrastructure and historical monuments, but it also challenges the “West” by recruiting new members from Western countries. To disseminate its propaganda messages, ISIS deploys the most cutting edge media. French lawyer Martin Pradel, who represents individuals charged with trying to wage jihad, emphasizes that the young people who leave France for Syria make their decisions based on what they see in the media; they have been particularly influenced by images of the use of chemical weapons in Syria against Muslim populations. The incapacity of the international community to solve the Syrian crisis, urged them to do something themselves and provided them with a life purpose. As a consequence, Western young people, both with and without Muslim origins, have joined ISIS. This phenomena of radicalization has affected citizens in numerous European countries, as well as in Canada and the United States. ISIS’s successful Western recruitment attempts reveal both the incapacity of Western authorities to mount an efficient and rapid response as well as deeply-rooted Western societal problems that have resulted from failed immigration and integration policies.

The double standards and breaches of international law and norms by Western powers have set dangerous precedents, allowing other states and not-state actors to legitimize illegal actions. Often Western political decisions are not compliant with the principles that representative states publically advocate for and defend, such as turning a blind eye to breaches of human rights in allied countries, and supplying dictatorships with weapons. Moreover, flows in the global decision-making process, especially at the level of the United Nations, impedes the “international community” from taking effective countermeasures.

Contradictions also lie at the core of the “West,” as illustrated inter alia by the NSA scandal (see the 2014 edition of the Milton Wolf Seminar: The Third Man Theme Revisited: Foreign Policies of the Internet in a Time of Surveillance and Disclosure”). Furthermore, lack of vision and shortsighted decision making, both in domestic and foreign affairs, have had disastrous medium and long term effects. Hillary Clinton’s claim that the U.S. is a “problem solver” falls short when carefully examined. From a public diplomacy perspective, the U.S. and the EU have indeed already adopted 21 Century Statecraft, but they have failed in fulfilling many of their 21st Century commitments, especially regarding the support for democracy, human rights, and human development. After failing to honor these commitments, the US and the EU have continued to lose credibility as normative players in the international community. The moral authority of the West is based, according to historian Heinrich Winkler, on a normative project. Analyzed through the lens of the current state of global politics, this normative project can be easily contested and challenged. This has left room for states such as Russia and China to point out Western examples when legitimizing their own breaches of international law and principles, violations of human rights, and promotion of a so-called low-cost international order.

Even though it is difficult to predict the final outcomes of the tragedies of 2014, what is clear is that the “market for loyalties” is becoming more and more competitive. The “moral authority” of the United States, the European Union, and their close allies will continue to be contested and challenged.  In the absence of significant re-evaluation of foreign and domestic policies, Western credibility might erode to such an extent that Western powers will be easily replaceable.


About the Author

anamariaAnamaria Iuga is a second-year student in the Master of Advanced International Studies Programme, a joint degree offered by the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna and University of Vienna. Her research interests include human development and security, cultural studies, and modern diplomacy. She is writing her master’s thesis on the Austrian intellectual elite’s involvement in the First World War. She holds a BA in International Relations and European Studies from the Babeș-Bolyai University in Cluj-Napoca, Romania. During her undergraduate studies, Anamaria served as Chairperson of the European Students Society.


Featured Photo Credit: AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works Some rights reserved by Ryan Lackey

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