“When Saving Others Doesn't Work” dialogue and additional essay

This blog post is a follow-up to my President’s Corner essay in the May 2015 SfP Bulletin: When Saving Others Doesn’t Work. Click the preceding link to read the original, and come back to this page for:

Metta Spencer

Replies to “When Saving Others Doesn’t Work”

I am immensely grateful for the many thoughtful replies I’ve received to my essay. I will reply to parts of each one, but identifying its author only by Initials and an (admittedly transparent) description, since I have not asked permission to circulate your comments. Then I will write and attach another reflection in response to the wise ideas you have all contributed to my thinking.


From IK, a Moscow political scientist and former member of the Council on Civil Society Institutions Development and Human Rights of the President of Russian Federation:

Dear Metta!

I have received by e-mail your letter “When Saving Others…” (your President’s Corner) and read it with the great interest. For a long time I thought about the role of HR problem in the international relations, but of course not as “brothers keeper”. I intended to write an article looking at HR problem as a part of global security problem. Still I have for myself a lot of questions and not enough answers. So – many, many sincere thanks for your letter. It seems to me both of us are feeling that something is changing rapidly and we are trying to evaluate what is going on in the world. At the same time, as it seems to me, your message shows the differences between yours and mine vision of the world though both of us stand for HR, democracy, and nonviolence. It is very interesting as it is.

Let me make some little marginal notes.

The present contradictions between Russia and the West are not ideological like ones between the USA and the USSR in the past. Now, Russia has no ideology at all. If you do not consider Putin’s attempts to survive as an ideology. The Soviet ideology is over. And there is nothing serious to replace it. Nobody in Russia is ready to fight for returning “lands of Granada” to peasants (a kind of citation from one of the most popular poem and song of Soviet times). In principle, Russians are even not against democracy. But they more and more see the modern Western technologies of dissemination democracy abroad as something like colonialism. (MS: I sense that too, and, as in colonialism, the current situation makes us appear to be swaggering boastfully, while Russians appear sullen. I don’t know how to surmount it because it is not a matter of personality traits, but instead is situational.) For example, North Americans and Europeans actually dislike feeling superior to Russians, but the truth is that we do, and probably show it. Nobody wants to change Russia in the second Canada. The national pride EXISTS everywhere, especially in the North America. (MS: True. And Canadians resent Americans too, though not as much as Russians do nowadays.)

It seems to me that trying to predict the foreseeable future for Arab world and Russia you “unite” these regions in one common zone of future chaos. I do not reject such possibility. But I think the reasons, results, consequences, form and content of such chaos could not be the same. In case these regions will move to democracy the infrastructure and functioning of democratic development will be quite different. (MS: I’m sure you are right. The similarity I am highlighting refers only to Russian and Arab resentment of the West. Their reasons for feeling resentful differ, and so will their responses, I imagine.)

About double standards. It seems to me these double standards on HR field appear at the state level – only! On purely humanitarian level they are impossible, or should be impossible. In other words one have to separate humanitarian and political approach to HR problems. The humanitarian approach means help from peoples to peoples and do not demand any “payments” for that. And state HR policy on the international level is a political weapon based first of all on their own and interests and could be used for various kinds of economic, political, military pressure. About 25 years ago the UN limited such pressure using the UN Charter to prevent interference in the in the interior affairs of any states. Now situation changed radically (globalization, terrorism etc.). The HR problem is now a very important element of (western) “soft power” which successfully could change or kill state regimes. The most visible results – Islamic State and chaos in Arab world (plus Ukraine and infiltration of radical islamic ideology in Europe). (MS: Ah, here’s the crux of the problem. It is not always possible to know whether someone is doing something for humanitarian reasons or to dominate the other. I am sure that Louise Arbour thought she was a humanitarian when she tried to stop mass killings in Bosnia and Rwanda, but she was probably seen as a colonial ruler, imposing foreign cultural standards on colonial subjects. Her rationale is based on “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” but not every item on it is recognized universally. And human rights change. When that declaration was written, practicing homosexuality was not a human right, but it is now. I would gladly intervene to protect girls from genital mutilation and forced marriages, but I would then be seen as a cultural imperialist. I also think I know more about how to run a democracy than the average person in Cairo or Kyiv or Krasnoyarsk, and as a humanitarian I would gladly share that knowledge — but it would certainly not be appreciated as helpful but only as political aggression. And even I myself (and Louise Arbour herself) cannot always be sure where the boundary is between humanitarian action and a violation of another country’s sovereignty. Worse yet, even when the intervention is a clearly meant to protect defenceless victims, the outcome may be chaos, as you point out. I think Gadhafi would indeed have killed most of the people of Benghazi, but the effort to protect them led to even more chaos. (Maybe the interposition of a UN peacekeeping force between the two sides would have prevented further bloodshed, but that would not have solved the whole political crisis in Libya.))

In other words I agree with you that “we need new forms of governance” – absolutely. The present system of world governance multiplies HR violence on global level, in all states. (MS: I think UN interventions occasionally reduce human rights violations, but it’s hard to know when it will work and when not. In East Timor, for example, I think it was helpful.) The modern state elites proved they are not capable to solve this global problem peacefully. And it is a main danger for our planet. Could the global civic society to avoid this danger? (MS: This is a promising area to explore. I will comment on that notion in the larger piece I write below.) I wish to hope it is possible. Alas, all of us have to search for peace, democracy and HR even if we do not understand all aspects of world development in all their complexity.

And let’s thank Louise Arbour!


From A.L., head of a global organization, and adviser of Mikhail Gorbachev.

Dear Metta,

I liked very much your essay. However we like usually writings that are either similar to our thinking or when it gives impulse to some new ideas and thinking. Your piece is of the second type, it challenges and provokes.

I would have loved to discuss this in person and in more detail, maybe we will have such an opportunity in the future, but now I would limit my reaction to certain rather eclectic points.

1. I totally understand Louise Arbour’s sentiment. Sooner or later the frustration turns to be unbearable. But the frustration has its own reasons. In my judgement the reason is that the West at some point has assumed the Kipling’s “white man burden” in messianic attempt to “civilise” the rest of the world.

(MS:You are diving right into the middle of the issue! Okay, let’s play rough. Let’s admit that Louise Arbour and I are among those Westerners who want to civilize the rest of the world, so I will defend the position she held before “re-thinking” it.

What would you want us to do instead when confronting uncivilized behavior? In the street, if I see someone beating up another person, I feel obliged to intervene -whether it’s my street in Toronto or in yours in Geneva, or in Moscow or Kabul. Would you say, “Mind your own business! You’re in my country so this is not your affair.”?

The Westphalian system of sovereignty does say it is none of my business what goes on in Moscow, Geneva, or Kabul. But I cannot agree-not because Westerners like myself should rule the world, but because everyone should be concerned about everyone else, regardless of where they live. If you were visiting my home I would also want you to call the police if my neighbor were beating his wife.

What should any of us do when human rights are being violated?

You may reply, “But why do you assume that people in other countries are less civilized than you? It’s Western civilization that needs improvement.”

Okay, fair enough. But the people I know who work on human rights issues do tackle violations in their own countries as well as abroad. Moreover, we welcome Russians who want to help civilize us. For example, I subscribe to RT television, which offers much-needed constructive (albeit unfriendly) advice to Americans. Civilizing each other is not a “white man’s burden” — it’s a HUMAN burden. As a global society, it’s wonderful that people everywhere keep trying to civilize themselves and each other. What’s unfortunate is that our systems of governance obstruct our best efforts. We need governments that are truly accountable, not only to their own citizens but also to worried neighbors and foreigners.)

Indeed after the World War 2 many people of the world were attracted to the western model, by its “soft power” — its high economic efficiency, rule of law, human rights became a beacon for many. After the collapse of the socialist system that by its existence challenged the West to borrow some of its basic elements (social justice, very fast social lifts, free medicine and education — that at the previous epoch also played a role of the soft power and attracted a lot of left leaning intellectuals) the capitalist system (MS: Is it CAPITALISM that has disappointed you or DEMOCRACY?) has lost the need to “look back over the shoulder”. The degree of euphoria that swept the ruling elite in the West after the end of the USSR was explicit in Condoleezza Rice article in “Foreign Affairs”: «it is America’s job to change the world…Democratic state-building is now an urgent component of our national interest » (MS: Yes, that statement reflects arrogant hypocrisy. It is obvious that today, in the “West,” both governance and the economy are in deep trouble, but in my opinion, to understand its problems, we should not conflate capitalism with democracy and treat the whole package as a failed project. It’s the relationship between capitalism and democracy that needs to be fixed, both in the West and wherever it has spread around the world. It’s not democracy’s shortcomings that have spoiled everything; it’s the fact that democracy is almost absent in any big economy or big government -especially a transnational government. If we can make a capitalist economy democratic and global governmental structures truly responsive to human beings, that will solve our worst problems in the West – the ones that make our society look so unattractive to Russians. But that means developing NEW solutions instead of looking to the past for ones that used to work in small businesses and town-hall democratic forums. We don’t have such solutions yet, but the very things that will solve the current failings of the West will also help solve the problems of countries that are understandably reluctant to commit to democracy (e.g. the Arab world and Russia).)

Having lost the “beloved enemy” the West has started gradually turning principles into instruments. As a result, the program of “democratic state building,” as any attempt to implement an ideological utopia turned into results opposite to expected, and the West has encountered the emergence of varied, but global in scope, “International resistance.” Its forms are different, depending on the cultural and historical features. People do not see any more a “torch of Future” in the western model, and indeed it is difficult to expect that after Abu Graibe, Wikileaks and Snowden revelations. (MS: Thank God you could not import the whole “Western model” (whatever that is) to replace your own in 1991. Now that you’ve had a good look at it, you don’t like it much. We don’t either. And nobody has a clear idea how to fix or replace it. I do know that we mustn’t try to revert to an earlier model of society. Each period of time and each society has its own set of problems. Western society is no worse now than 50 years ago, but we do have a new set of problems – e.g. Abu Ghraib, Wikileaks, and the Snowden revelations. Those are among the problems that we have to solve, and we should do it together, for the solutions may be worth emulating in other countries, not “The Western Model” circa 1991.) Socialist system imploded largely because of the compromise of the ideals by the inhuman implementation. Unfortunately I apprehend that similar process are going in the West today. (MS: I don’t think the guys implementing the ideals are necessarily “inhuman.” (Some are, some aren’t.) I think the society has changed so much that inherited ideals cannot be made to work in it. For example, globalization and electronic communication mean that boundaries are only obstructions. But what kind of accountable government could be possible in an electronic, borderless world? I’m working on that question and I bet you are too.)

Western ideological utopia is based on the belief that democracy could be tailored “prêt á porter” in any country regardless of its history, tradition, mentality and cultural codes and predictably evolved into a handy instrument to overthrow unfriendly regimes attempting to put the friendly ones in power. (MS: I don’t think any country can overthrow another regime elsewhere, though it may be worth trying! I know of several dictators and tyrants who violate the rights of their own people whom I would gladly help to overthrow. The only problem is, the dictator’s successor may not know better how to run a state, so I now hesitate to help support nonviolent civil resistance movements unless I think they have prepared thoroughly to handle the problems they will acquire if they succeed.) It was tried in many places all over the world with predictable “unexpected consequences” – Taliban, AlQuaida, now ISIS etc. Actually these attempts replicate the experience of the Soviet Union that also had been trying to expand its power projection under the guise of spreading its ideology. (MS: Is the protection of human rights and freedom just “ideology”? Is my desire to help protect the rights of people in other countries just “cultural imperialism”? Gorbachev didn’t talk that way a few years ago. Once at a meeting of the American Sociological Association Samuel Huntington was on a panel talking about the desire for freedom and human rights as an aspect of “Western Civilization,” that would clash with other civilizations. I took the microphone and challenged him by reminding everyone that Gorbachev had claimed that these were not “Western” notions but universal principles. What does he say about the matter nowadays?

My own growing hesitation to promote democracy abroad, using any means except violent ones, is not based on a doubt that democracy is beneficial to everyone if it is done well (and no one-including Americans and Canadians-do it perfectly), but on the certainty that such promotion is “not working.” That is Louise Arbour’s problem too. She doesn’t doubt that human rights and democracy are desirable, but she sees that every effort to promote them is failing nowadays.)

2. The Western democracy principles are not being compared any longer with the totalitarian practices of Stalinism, but need to be confirmed and proved in its own daily reality, by “sweeping in front of its door.” This refers to the declarations of social responsibility of the state and solidarity with the unprivileged. (MS: I agree.) The threat to the West has moved inside its organism. It does not come from the East any more, but from the elite groups of “chosen” that decide the fate of the Western world: those who “run” the market economy itself, that has always been considered the material basis and the support of political democracy. Unable to resist the temptation of unprecedented profits, which the globalised world, capitalism, both Western and wild, post-communist Eastern one (Chinese, Russian, and so on.) offers to them they forget about any decency and not only multiply tenfold social inequality separating the poles of poverty and wealth, but also do it in the most shameless forms. (MS: I agree. However, I am not inclined to blame it on the personal greed of these elites, but on bad legislation which creates poor regulation of taxation,intellectual property rights, limits on campaign donations, etc. etc. A few good legal changes can make a world of difference.)

In the meantime the wealth ratio between the richest and poorest countries has grown from 44:1 in 1973 to nearly 80:1 today. The richest 85 people in the world now have more wealth than the poorest 3.5 billion, or half the world’s population. (MS: Definitely true!)

The aid project is failing because it misses the point about poverty. It assumes that poverty is a natural phenomenon, disconnected from the rich world, and that poor people and countries just need a little bit of charity to help them out.

And at the same time, developing countries lose as much as $900bn each year to tax evasion by multinational companies through trade mispricing, and almost the same sum again through transfer pricing. They lose another $600bn each year in debt service to mostly leading world banks. These losses alone amount to nearly 20 times more than the total flow of aid, which is a paltry $135bn – and that’s not counting land grabs and other forms of resource theft.

(MS: Exactly.)

Therefore for many nations, including Russia, the term “democracy” itself has become associated with corruption, complacency and abusing of their hopes and trust. (MS: Well, that’s a mistake! It’s not democracy that is ruining the world’s economy, but the LACK of effective democratic mechanisms for controlling corruption and abuse.) Active role played by western advisers in the attempts to tailor democratic mechanisms in the country have created a stable immunity to any new social engineering exercises linked to the West. (MS: Okay, suppose we agree that all economists are fools. Where does that leave us? We still have to start from someplace in order to build the rules governing ownership and exchange. And those rules have to fit together because a lot of the trade is global now. It’s not “Western”; I have no more control over it than you do. It’s all out of control. And bringing it back under control to make it work well is the challenge of GLOBAL governance. We’re in this together, pal.)

3. The real problem runs much deeper and unfortunately related to the demise of the modern civilisation. Materialism dominance over the life values of Western model is one of the hidden reasons why people in many parts of the world feel unhappy with Western mechanisms including distorted versions of democracy. Parliamentary democracy’s obsession with economics makes it uninteresting for those who believe that democratic debate should also deal with values, ethics, concepts such as justice and peace. Over time democracies have phased out every quality of intellectualism and philosophy – even discussions of visions of the better future society. (MS: I don’t agree with this at all. My friends and acquaintances are just trying to make their way through life as honorably as they can, and it’s not always easy. But I think, on balance, it is getting easier, not harder. I think most people today are at least as ethical and principled as in my grandparents’ day. We just have different sets of problems. I like the current problems pretty well and I thank God every day for the blessings I enjoy — the fascinating sets of problems that life has assigned to me-such as the issues that we are discussing right now!)

Evidence from social psychology highlights the importance of cultural values in shaping our collective responses to the challenges. Certain cultural values motivate people to express concern about a range of social and environmental problems, and such values are associated with action to tackle these problems. These “intrinsic” values act in opposition to “extrinsic” values. Particular values are likely to be strengthened through many aspects of our daily experience, including the media we consume, the advertisements we see, and the public policies we experience.

I have a hobby (as a historian) I like tracing the evolution of human thinking, analysing transformation of thought reflected in dictionaries and encyclopaedias. Some time ago I have discovered that there was a notion of “Ethical blindness” or “Moral insanity” available in the dictionaries until the beginning of the 20th century. The latest mentioning that I have found was in Encyclopaedia dictionary by Pavlenkov, 1905. It said:

MORAL INSANITY – mental illness, when ethical values lose their force and cease to be the behaviour driver. Moral insanity (moral blindness, moral colour-blindness) makes human being indifferent to the good and evil though maintaining his ability of theoretical and formal discrimination between them. Moral insanity develops due to the hereditary mental degeneration and is incurable”. (My translation from Russian)(MS: Maybe that terminology is no longer in current use, but psychologists do try to explain the development of — or failure to develop — moral reasoning. Piaget for example shows the stages that children go through in acquiring that capacity; it is largely the result of interacting and empathizing with peers and others. A mature moral sensibility does not come from internalizing the rules that others try to promote.)

Does it not remind us about the state of modern society? We talk endlessly about common good but as soon as our personal interest is at stake…., we talk about environment, climate but… (MS: Maybe I should introduce you to a different set of friends. Apparently you have been hanging out with the wrong crowd. :-) I know some really fine people.)

The term is not reflected in modern dictionaries because this has ceased to be qualified as abnormality. Traditional ethical taboos are extinct species today. Whatever is not forbidden is permissible and sky is the limit in our strive for pleasures, comfort and convenience. But our civilisation was built not on the rights basis but on endless ETHICAL TABOOS. (MS: I think one needs to learn to reason about moral issues intelligently, not just adopt some rules and hang onto them, regardless of the situation. I try to be ethical, but I try not to base my behavior on traditional taboos. Surely you can think of thousands of hideous customs in anthropologists’ accounts of paleolithic societies. How could we make ethical progress if we always stuck to old traditions?)

Instead, we have developed a surrogate substitute for moral norms – political correctness – dodging reality, trying to bypass difficult questions, just postpone their resolution, avoidance of differentiating between evil and good, evasion of moral choices.

Multiculturalism today is the key word. But the division is not between cultures – it is between sautereological and hedonistic civilisations existing even within single countries. (MS: Fascinating distinction. I never heard those two terms paired as opposing categories before. It makes me stop and wonder whether I am more soteriological or hedonistic. I’m not sure what the answer is. I was brought up as a fundamentalist Christian, which is absolutely soteriological. I had a wild phase in my youth — not materialistic but deliberately acting out and violating taboos. I spend my time now trying to save others. That’s why Louise Arbour’s dilemma is mine too. I think I once told you that I am obsessed with “saving Russia”— and I imagined that you winced a little. But is my effort to save others “soteriology”? I don’t expect to go to heaven, exactly, but I do think that what we do here matters and that life (or God) gives each of us certain assignments. To meet them is a goal comparable to achieving salvation.”)

This is why in Russia in the 90s more and more freedom made it more and more difficult to breathe….Soul became thirsty of Spirit, it has started to suffocate. However unfortunate but the current Russian leaders have so far succeeded in riding this vague longing for traditional values and converting them in very pragmatic and tangible political agenda. (MS: Oh dear. What can I say? I’m sorry.)

Sorry for rather hectic comment, and with compliments for your excellent piece.

And you do not risk to lose me from your friends list — I have always believed in freedom of thought, and as I learnt recently visiting Alexandria Library in Islam there used to be a wonderful traditional conclusion to any statement, that I want to use now:

What I have said is my opinion, there are other opinions on these issues and only God knows what is true. (MS: Lovely! Thank you.)

A. L.

From AK, a recent political science graduate of the University of Toronto.

Dear Metta:

…Generally I am in favour of humanitarian interventions. I think I tend more towards the interventionist approach, but I have reservations about the level of commitment that the countries undertaking the intervention should exhibit. It is my personal belief that ‘the West’ is generally unwilling to make serious sacrifices. Ignatieff’s article ‘Virtual War’ is what articulated and helped me understand this.

…Your arguments against intervention are spot on in my mind, many people make those arguments and they do resonate with many people. Your last paragraph in argument 2 has the question: “What enables some societies readily to become functioning democracies and remain so, while others still prefer authoritarian regimes?” I think this is a great research question, it is something I actually want to spend more time exploring. On page 3 you talk about China solving economic and environmental problems. I take issue with the environmental part of that statement. From what I have seen and read, many people in China are seriously concerned about environmental issues and the government seems to be worried about this as an avenue for opposition. I have attached two links for reference. (MS: I take your point. I think both points are true — the government is concerned and trying hard, but that’s not good enough, so people are suffering. But so far as I know, whatever Xi says, goes. And that’s a big help in getting things done if he wants them done. But equally, if he makes mistakes, it’s hard to stop him before his errors become disasters.)

…I think humiliation is only one piece of the current issue. I did some reading on the subject of the ‘promise’ that the Russians believe was made about NATO expansion. It was from what I remember informal, and not a firm diplomatic commitment on the part of the US, the Russians on the other hand viewed it as an iron clad promise. I remember watching TVO one day when Janice Stein was presenting a segment, she spoke of the anger at the US and NATO over what China and Russia saw as the abuse of a no fly zone in Libya so as to enact regime change. I think that much of this antagonistic relationship is also a product of mistrust. I don’t think the Russians view the US as a particularly trustworthy partner, Libya is merely one example of many. Sudden regime change in Ukraine, whatever the real reason, would definitely cause them concern and make them suspicious. Perceived triumphalism may play a role, but it may be that it is only so divisive because the US is viewed as morally bankrupt and untrustworthy. This mistrust is naturally extended to the ideological children of the US: democracy and liberalism. (Yep. That’s what my Russian friends keep telling me, and of course I too deplore NATO’s and the US’s expansionism. But I can’t help doubting that it is the real reason for Russia’s current anti-Western resentment. I’ve had too many encounters with Russian friends who have become furious with me personally, not for defending NATO’s actions (since in fact I don’t defend them) but just for appearing patronizing or dismissive toward Russia. And I probably really am patronizing. The problem is this: they want to be respected (Putin would settle for being feared) and we cannot create respect when we don’t actually feel it. I wish I knew how to overcome that reality.)

…You write that “we should avoid gloating.” I do not know how this is possible, (MS: Maybe that’s my problem too. We can try to be polite. Even if we REALLY think poorly of Russians and Arabs now for preferring authoritarian rule, we need to express solidarity and what Arbour calls “empathy” for them. I’m apparently not good at that, though I hope I don’t appear to “gloat” over their predicament.) it seems to me like it is a cultural miscommunication that now helps drive this antagonism.


From DD, a physician in the Canadian branch of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War:

Read your “When Saving..Doesn’t work”. An interesting take on the subject – of course you would have an interesting take.

My first reaction is that it is naive to think that the US went into Iraq to “save” anyone but their source of oil – and I believe that wrecking the country was exactly what they had in mind. It made bundles of money for the PNAC people. Likewise Libya. Definitely Yugoslavia. (MS: Hmm. I agree about Iraq. Not about Libya, though. I believe Gadhafi would have killed most of the people in Benghazi as he promised to do. So I understood the desire to protect them. But it would have been better to have interposed peacekeepers between the two sides and kept either side from attacking the other. However, the peacekeepers would still be there, frozen in the desert, waiting for a solution to the conflict. It seems to me that all critics of the decision to bomb Libya (and by now that includes all of us) should be expected to point out an alternative way of protecting the Benghazi people from Ghadafi.)

Louise Arbour puzzles me too — I’m taking a “wait and see” approach because I cannot believe that she will disappear. She really needed a break; can you imagine being in her position?

Your article will spur an interesting discussion. We had similar discussions in the 1970’s after working overseas in aid projects.

(MS: Yes, and although you apparently believe that no governments that intervene abroad are truly altruistic, you know that individuals — you yourself, and Louise Arbour, and thousands of other humanitarian workers — are actually motivated by a desire to help others. Nevertheless, even Red Cross workers are accused of all the bad motives that have brought Arbour to the point of “rethinking” her own approach.)

Talk to you later.

From RS, a political science professor at a university in California:

Metta, Thank you for writing this article. I thought you made an important argument. I have been struck in recent years by two related arguments made by people on the “left” (progressives?). One is that altruism is bad, suspect, disingenuous, dishonest, or misguided. Some scholars have even argued that foreign aid to poor countries is bad, harmful or wasteful. (MS: I take William Easterly’s critique seriously. Don’t you? And I have heard women from Africa complaining bitterly about seeing young men lounging around in the shade, waiting for the “aid truck” to arrive instead of doing anything constructive to solve their own economic challenges. Still, I heard Jeffrey Sachs last night reciting figures about the moderate success of the Millennium Development Goals, so development aid has not been altogether wasted.)

And the second is that “universal” values (or “human rights”) do not or should not have universal application. Both I think are wrong, so I was glad to see you explain why.


From DM, a prominent retired Canadian military historian:

I am not sure that I have any very clear thoughts. The issue is profoundly complicated since 19th Century imperialism was so often justified in the argument that European countries would bring law and order and “good government” to the benighted peoples of their colonial empires. Instead they left a Heritage of arbitrary rule and often racist practices. The indigenous rulers who inherited power, as my sister saw when she joined the staff of our first High Commissioner in Ghana in the days of Kwame Nkruhmah, and saw the pattern repeated when she moved north to Nigeria. .

My classic example was Sierra Leone, In the 1890s, the British sent as a governor an ex-army colonel who had blighted his military career by joining the Plymouth Brethren and becoming a principled pacifist. Sierre Leone was an island populated by liberated British slaves and a hinterland on the main-land populated by indigenous slave-holders, Who raided the island and neighbouring areas to obtain slaves. The new government sent his tiny, ill-equipped army to recover the victims of the trade. The results were predictable: his soldiers were annihilated, the British rounded up better and more numerous troops from Nigeria, the Gold Coast and the West Indies and conquered the so-called hinterland. The righteous governor was fired for allowing so much expensive trouble and Sierra Leone’s new army was recruited from the mainland and formed the government as soon as Sierra Leone was decolonized. It still is an embarrassing and painful problem-state.

(MS: This is so relevant to what one of my Russian friends wrote about the current attitude there — that democracy is resented as something similar to colonialism. I think there were good colonials, people like this pacifist who wanted to do the right thing, but couldn’t. Same now.)

Best regards, D.M.

From LS: A leading Russian analyst of international affairs who is highly critical of Putin’s policies:

Dear Metta,

Thank you for the most thoughtful essay. I agree nearly with all your points. True, I am not sure I would agree that Russians are humiliated. This is rather argument used by the Kremlin propaganda to justify its policy.

Overall, great essay!!!!! Yours,


From PR, an eminent retired political science professor, University of Toronto:

Hi Metta

I think you should distinguish more clearly the legitimacy of judging all of human kind by universal standards and intervening with force to overcome injustices. The former I believe in but the latter is problematic because of its ineffectiveness and unexpected consequences. That is the point I think Louise A was trying to make.

(MS: That’s probably the main problem. I believe in nonviolence almost invariably, but occasionally I would use force to protect the weak — yet that is what is definitely not working nowadays.)


From DR, a retired Canadian, formerly ambassador and senator, and anti-nuclear weapons campaigner:


Thanks for writing this perceptive analysis. I think the situation Arbour is really getting at is summed up in your own words in your article: “…we are witnessing the breakdown of old forms of social organization before the future forms can yet be envisioned.”

There is an essential but not a complete truth in that. I think the United Nations, in its ongoing development, is trying to outline the “future forms” of post-Cold War civilization. There is much evidence for this, which I have tried to gather together in my new book, which will be published in September. I have just returned from a week at the UN. Once again, I see an overview of progress with pockets of failure – not failure with a few pockets of success. There is a difference.

(MS: Very encouraging assessment. I look forward to that new book.)


From JP, a Nobel laureate and nuclear disarmament activist:

Dear Mme President,

A fine State of the Union article. You are quite right about prestige, which seems to matter more than life itself. As for Louise A., she is decency itself, and will be back.

As ever, J.P.

Further Reflections on Saving Others

By Metta Spencer
30 May 2015

After reading the comments of my illustrious friends concerning my previous essay, I may be getting close to recognizing the main sore points dividing us. Although I will not dwell on it long, I still consider the root problem to be the nationalistic desire for comparative “standing” and the wounded pride that results from loss of comparative status. That is at least a factor behind both Arab and Russian anger toward the Western world, but the experience of humiliation is universal. Everyone has felt it a few times-whether justifiably or not. (The offending “Other” sometimes intends no disrespect.) But whether the affront was intentional or not, the resentment is always generated by the offended party himself. It results from comparing oneself to a higher-status “Other,” both envying and hating him.

The moral lesson to learn from humiliation is this: Don’t compare yourself to anyone else. Ask whether you have enough without regard to how much other people possess. Equality, if made into a goal, inevitably invites invidious comparisons and hence resentment. A better goal would be to have enough resources to do the unique tasks that life assigns. If I possess enough to pursue my own projects, the money or status of others should be irrelevant to me. But here endeth the lesson.

Instead of preaching further, I’ll turn to two other issues that generate the current animosity between Western democracies and the other countries that resent them/us. The first issue is globalization; the other is democratization. Globalization threatens national and cultural sovereignty, while democratization is problematic primarily because of its apparent linkage to corporate capitalism.

I remain an enthusiastic proponent of both democracy and globalization. However, I notice three differences between me and my Russian friends. Unlike them, (a) I consider democracy as almost synonymous with “human rights”; (b) I believe that creating a democratic and just world requires us to distinguish between capitalist institutions and democracy and to subordinate the former to the latter (at present, big money is running our governments); and © I worry that globalization is an impediment to democracy, though the Westphalian system of sovereign states offers no protection for it either. Instead, we need new forms of accountability to replace the democratic institutions that are obviously failing everywhere.

While I welcome the inevitable coming of an almost borderless world, I doubt that the current structures of governance, if expanded to a global scale, can be adequately accountable to the human population. An undemocratic world government would be a giant prison — and potentially a prison from which no escape is possible. Thus to protect human rights, we must invent new structures that do not concentrate power in the hands of any centralized body of rulers. Power must be decentralized and located in diverse decision-making bodies. This is a challenge that Russia shares with Western “democratic” states. (I put “democratic” in quotation marks because most Western states are flawed democracies today, and the flaws seem to be increasing.)

Still, there are worse places in the world. I think our flawed democracies do offer more opportunities to improve global governance than, say, Putin’s Russia. And I think Russia has more opportunities to do so than, say, Assad’s Syria or Sisi’s Egypt. And I think all Middle East countries have more opportunities to solve governance problems than Kim Jong-Un’s North Korea. All states are flawed, but not equally so.

Yes, that previous sentence is the kind of statement that provokes the resentment that I want to reduce. It sounds arrogant, I know. But it is the truth. I do feel disdain-even contempt-for people who love their dictators and I don’t know how to feel otherwise. Since listening to Lyudmilla Alexeyeva’s explanation I can transmute my contempt into pity, but that is not much of an improvement. I can even pity the pro-dictator mentality nowadays-the refusal to resist an authoritarian ruler because of the (quite reasonable) belief that a successful ouster would just plunge the country into violent chaos.

But pity is not respect. Russians want respect-everyone does-but I cannot convert either contempt or pity into that. Can any honest person do so?

It seems that people historically do love their dictators. Germans loved Hitler. Russians loved Stalin. Chinese loved Mao. Cubans loved Fidel. I’m told that Mongolians still love Genghis Khan. So why do I disrespect them for it?

I don’t claim that democracies make better decisions than autocracies. Some dictators are far more astute than even a well-educated electorate. Nevertheless, it’s an empirical fact – not just an ideological claim – that real democracy offers optimum conditions for defending human rights. And that is what I care about.

I don’t believe we can stop globalization. There’s no way to insulate your civilization or mine from foreign influences. For that fact I am genuinely glad, though I recognize that it presents huge challenges. Corporations and private greed dominate politics in (I guess) every country. Moreover, large political structures are less accountable than small ones. I don’t live in Europe, but my impression is that the EU’s parliamentarians are hardly attentive to the voters who elected them. One partial solution might be the creation of transnational parties so that citizens throughout Europe can combine to support specific policies. However, that would still not elicit the level of participatory activism that any real democracy requires of its citizens.

Of course, the economy is more difficult than the improvement of politics. There is no pretense that the control of money is democratic anywhere, but it must become socially accountable. Capitalism has done wonderful things for humankind; even global poverty has been reduced amazingly, even within the past decade. As between socialism and capitalism, I would almost always choose the latter-and those are the only two systems on offer. But corporations are more powerful than governments, and nowadays they are buying elections, as well as exploiting people and despoiling the environment.

My own preferred economic remedy is to require every corporation to appoint to its board of directors a specific number of persons chosen from panels elected by various sectors of civil society: environmentalist organizations, consumers, anti- poverty groups, human rights activists, development charities, feminists, disabled persons advocates, and so on. I think if we can make corporations accountable to all relevant stakeholders, not just shareholders, we can tame them.

A similar kind of innovation would also go far toward making global governance democratic. I am impressed by David Held’s vision of how to make a borderless world more accountable. Ida Kuklina has also mentioned the use of civil society to protect human rights, and I concur. Held’s approach was explained by Michael Oliver in Peace Magazine in 2000. (peacemagazine.org/archive/v16n1p19.htm)

Writing “global governance means action by governments plus global civil society,” Oliver pointed out that NGOs have become the dominant element in civil society. Today even the UN has to take account of the transnational NGOs that are claiming a share of power with the state members. Increasing NGO power is a promising way to increase the accountability of global institutions to reforming activists.

As Oliver wrote in the aforementioned article,

“Just as Boutros Boutros-Ghali and Kofi Annan have called for modifications in the doctrine of state sovereignty when human rights are at stake, these and other U.N. leaders are calling on states to share global policy-making with an emerging global civil society, and specifically with NGOs. Global governance means, it seems, the United Nations plus civil society. And the partnership, on the civil society side, will be dominated by the huge clusters of NGOs concerned with peace and disarmament, human rights, environmental security and sustainable development. More and more, NGOs are invited to sit with the representatives of states to create humane global policy. The Millennium Forum of NGOs will parallel the Millennium Assembly of the U.N. General Assembly. And perhaps, Annan suggests, “a new Trusteeship Council, transformed into a watchdog for the global environment” will link states and global civil society on that body.”

So there are glimmers of new global governance after all!

I have strayed far from the theme of my original paper-the question whether there are any universal standards to which a global system of justice can legitimately hold everyone to account. Can the global promotion of democracy—even the proposals that I have mentioned in the preceding paragraphs—ever be fair and legitimate? Or, as Putin seems to argue now, is it just a matter of America imposing its culture on the rest of an unwilling world? If, for example, any state attempts to prosecute the crooks that run FIFA, is this just cultural imperialism?

One of my dear Russian friends blames the current crisis on the arrogance of Westerners in trying to “civilize” the rest of the world. But I think we are all obliged to keep civilizing each other. The question we face (and I suppose Louise Arbour also faces) is HOW to do that without appearing arrogant or patronizing. Didactic messages are invariably resented, yet the challenge is to change whole cultures. Every culture needs additional civilizing — some more than others.

The only way I have discovered to teach others without giving offense is through storytelling. Instead of criticizing real individuals, one tells an entertaining story about a fictional character that makes mistakes but learns to correct them. If the story is entertaining, people will listen and not take the message as personal criticism. Series TV dramas, in particular, can demonstrate better ways of behaving on the part of characters whom the viewer comes to love. Soap operas have been shown to influence behavior markedly in regard to health, education, child marriage, birth control, drinking and driving, and a host of other social practices. This only works, however, when the fiction is entertaining, so that the public watches it for their own enjoyment.

Still, Louise Arbour and the rest of us cultural imperialists cannot achieve what the next civilization requires simply by showing TV shows and movies to people in other countries. Saving others is fraught with risk, but it’s necessary. That’s why I hope my Russian friends join me in saying again: Let’s thank Louise Arbour!


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