Rediscovering a sense of right and wrong in international affairs

This Editorial comment owes its title to three recent developments that attracted our attention, two from the US and one from Europe.

In the case of the US developments concern Iran and Syria. The Obama Administration, in both cases through Secretary of State Kerry, has stressed the importance of negotiations, including with Assad in Syria, thus signaling a tactical if not strategic shift. And this happened despite inflammatory statements by Benjamin Netanyahu in the US Congress and a letter by Republican Senators directly addressed to the Iranian leadership that undermined the negotiating position of the US government, in the case of Iran; and loud protests from the Syrian opposition in the West, in the case of Syria.

As for the development from Europe, Swedish Foreign Minister Wallström finally spoke the truth about the Saudi Arabian regime and its human rights record, while the government of Prime Minister Stefan Löfven decided not to renew a military cooperation agreement with the oppressive kingdom despite protests by the Swedish business community.

Why is all this rather novel and worth celebrating? Because maybe, just maybe, it may mean a gradual end to hypocrisy and double standards that the world of international affairs is characterized by, including in the West. When we talk about principles and human rights but sell arms to authoritarian regimes, we are wrong and should change. When we side with regime change that favours forces that lead to even worse regime options, we are wrong again and we should change. And when we say we negotiate in good faith, which has to be monitored on a daily basis, of course, but basically believe that there can be no negotiation but force should be used, again we (or our advisors) are wrong and have to change. Which seems to be what has happened with the three recent developments that we celebrate. Otherwise, the norm has been for too much diplomacy and double talk, which has ended up confusing what is right and what is wrong in international affairs (and beyond).

The right and wrong distinction is not just an issue punished by a supreme being that people may have different views about. The value of morality is much more immediate and down to this world. See the mess that the lack of cooperation between the West and Russia, in talks with Assad among others, has brought about in Syria and Iraq. The Islamic State or “Da’esh”, as is now pejoratively referred to by some, grew out of this. Imagine the mess that a US and/or Israeli attack on Iran would bring about, while the country of the mullahs has made its own steps towards democracy – more than many pro-Western regimes in the Arab Gulf and elsewhere, one could argue – plus is fighting ISIS. Finally, Saudi Arabia has not only been the country where Bin Laden made his money but its radical circles finance extremists in the Balkans and beyond, while not allowing women to drive or move around without their “guardians”, condemn bloggers to imprisonment and lashes, etc.

Let us hope (and watch to make sure) that the recent developments really signal a turn towards greater honesty, and a clear distinction between what is right and what is wrong in international affairs. This does not mean an instant war on all authoritarian regimes and non-democratic leaders, of which there is aplenty. But should mean more consistency between theory and practice, and use of diplomatic and economic means to change behaviour for the better, not reward bad behaviour from “friendly regimes” that can turn nasty at any time. This is something that Europe as a whole should keep well in mind, as it deals with challenges in its immediate and less immediate neighbourhood, with increasing decisiveness, perhaps, but also with a higher sense of honesty and consequence, one would hope.


Hansens is former student in political science and sociology, specialised in EU studies. He was snatched up by the Brussels bubble a couple of years ago. As a journalist and illustrator, he is deeply interested in casting an amused and ironic eye over the world, and understanding and depicting its political and social issues in a few lines and pencil strokes.

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