The language of exceptionalism

US President Joe Biden gestures as he speaks in the East Room of the White House in Washington. File picture: MANDEL NGAN/AFP

US President Joe Biden gestures as he speaks in the East Room of the White House in Washington. File picture: MANDEL NGAN/AFP

Published May 24, 2021


Alternative Viewpoint by Ilya Rogachev

About two months ago something extraordinary in state-to-state relations happened: US President Joseph Biden called, or, to be more precise, agreed that his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin was a “killer”.

On March 17, 2021, Mr Biden gave an interview to ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos. At a certain point in this conversation, the journalist asked this: “So, you know Vladimir Putin, you think he is a killer?” In response, Mr Biden simply nodded and said: “Mm-hmm, I do”.

We believe that before we move on with our discussion, we should first mention that regardless of motivation behind US leader’s reply, regardless of the context – what he said was unacceptable.

In recent times it became quite common for Western mainstream media to talk about a “tougher stance” that President Biden would take towards Russian president, compared to Donald Trump. For example: “Biden Strikes Tough Tone on Russia in Diplomatic Push” (Associated Press).

Even the incumbent US president himself seems to be following this trend: “I made it clear to President Putin in a manner very different from my predecessor, that the days of the United States rolling over in the face of Russia’s aggressive actions, interfering with our elections, cyber attacks, poisoning citizens are over” (Biden tells Putin: US no longer "rolling over", Reuters).

We understand that calling the Russian president a “killer” could’ve been an attempt to talk of him “in a manner very different” from Donald Trump. But “to understand” does not equal “to accept”. It does not comply with the norms of comity of nations, comitas gentium, at all.

With the attention of the world media being concentrated on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s reply to his US counterpart vis-à-vis, another step by Moscow seemed to have passed relatively unnoticed. We are referring to summoning of the Russian ambassador to the US back to Moscow “for consultations” and suggesting that the US ambassador in Moscow returns to Washington for consultations as well, as he apparently had no intent to do so. Translated from diplomatic to English, this means that Russia downgraded the level of bilateral relations (perhaps, temporarily).

In our view, the West have been practising a quite peculiar approach towards diplomacy for several years. Here is how Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov described it: “As a matter of fact, they (the US and the West) have largely lost the skill of classical diplomacy. Diplomacy is about relations between people, the ability to listen to each other, to hear one another and to strike a balance between competing interests. Whenever a diplomatic or a political dialogue turns to the language of ultimatums, and partners are expected to ’acknowledge their mistakes’ or comply with demands, the whole thing stops being diplomacy. Whenever our Western partners, who are already using these methods, get politely rebuffed, they impose sanctions.”

It’s a good thing we are not living in the Middle Ages now. Because, if we were still there, that “mm-hmm, I do” alone would’ve sufficed to start a full-scale war.

Back in medieval times, such display of rudeness was a casus belli. Of course, some might say that this was a provocation from the journalist, George Stephanopoulos, who lured Mr Biden into saying what he said. The thing is that we can’t be one hundred percent sure – it could’ve well been an advance question from the interviewer and an advance answer from Joseph Biden.

Both versions are outrageous and, frankly speaking, we don’t know which one of them is worse. Of course, Russia is not going to start a war because of an insult. Russia is a nuclear power that fully acknowledges and understands the responsibility of such status. The US knows that very well and that is one the reasons why its political elite allows itself to stoop so low as to hurl insults.

The US also knows that Russia is not threatening anyone. Just for a quick comparison; according to SIPRI, in 2020 Russia’s defence expenditures amounted to 61.7 billion USD. As for Nato, its members’ defence expenditures totalled $1 103 billion. This sheer fact is revealing a balance of forces that makes “Russian aggression” against Nato members unthinkable (even if Russia had such intentions).

Nevertheless, for some reason, this “inevitable” aggression is being emphasised in Nato’s anti-Russian propaganda. For instance, Mr.Gitanas Nausėda, president of

Lithuania, a small country bordering Russia, a former Soviet Republic, decided to follow in Mr Biden’s footsteps and repeated, almost word by word, what the latter said about President Putin. Paradoxically, Lithuania is one of our neighbours which constantly expresses its fears of that very forthcoming “Russian aggression”. To us, this behaviour seems to be running contrary to common sense.

If, as some Lithuanians put it, you truly believe that Russian aggression is a possibility, why would you precipitate it, especially in such a provocative manner? Provocative, also as Lithuania, unlike the USA, has no means to defend itself against Russia in military terms.

So, the image of Russia that is imposed by Western propaganda can be perfectly described with the word “demonisation”. In one of our entries we have already described what this instrument from the Western toolbox serves for.

Getting back to medieval times, here is one more observation for you. When President Putin suggested to hold an online, broadcasted, open discussion with President Biden, Washington turned this invitation down. In the Middle Ages that would mean declining a challenge and thus inflicting dishonour on oneself.

All this begs the question – why would such a thing ever happen? The answer, perhaps, is the sense of impunity and exclusiveness – the US got used to the idea of being the only superpower as in the recent 30 years nobody contested its global leadership, so Washington seems to have convinced itself that it could do or say whatever it wants.

Then the next question arises – is there a point to talk to the US at all? In Russia, opinions divide. On one hand, Russia, our Foreign Ministry in particular, traditionally proceeds from the position that we pursue dialogue with all legitimate leaders. Our president said that on numerous occasions. On the other hand, there are those in the Russian elite and expert community who believe that any attempts to foster a dialogue with Washington will lead to nowhere. And, thanks to Washington itself, the number of people who think that way keeps growing.

It’s not easy to argue with them as the US has demonstrated many times that “dialogue”, as Washington understands it, is when the US announces its demands, their partners take notes and then proceed to fulfil the above-mentioned demands.

If they fail to do so, the US resorts to pressure, blackmail, threats and sanctions. There are countless examples to that – we’ve already spoken about it in our previous “Alternative Viewpoint” entries.

All this rests on the idea of Western exceptionalism – particularly typical of the US. History teaches us that when one or several countries start to think that they are above all the others, it does not bring this world any good. What it brought, however, was slavery, colonialism and two destructive World Wars. In this regard, we cannot but agree with a Chinese proverb: “Arrogance invites disaster”.

* Ilya Rogachev is Ambassador of the Russian Federation to the Republic of South Africa and the Kingdom of Lesotho.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.

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