During a panel discussion in June of 2014 – four months after the toppling of Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine – Professor John Mearsheimer was asked whether Ukrainians have a right to choose to join the West. His emphatic answer, which provoked laughter from his fellow panellists, was: “No, they don’t.”
This gets to the very heart of the current crisis. Those who deny the West bears any responsibility insist that we must uphold the principle that every state is sovereign and can enter whichever alliances it chooses. Now, this sounds very appealing. But there’s one major problem with it.
The problem is that the US – by far the most important Western country – has blatantly and repeatedly violated this principle over the last five decades. Hence if the West wants to make any kind of normative argument against Russia’s aggression, it has to explain why it doesn’t hold itself to the same standards.
This point was made eloquently by Robert Wright in a recent essay titled ‘In Defense of Whataboutism’. As he notes:
Exercises in whataboutism force people to mount what Singer calls “a disinterested defense of one’s conduct.” They have to articulate a general rule—or a general exception to a general rule—that applies to everyone in comparable circumstances.
Since there’s no “general rule” under which America’s foreign policy would be justified but Russia’s foreign policy would not be, the West cannot mount a “disinterested defence” of its conduct. (I suppose certain countries like Iceland might be able to, but the US – the only one that really matters – certainly can’t.)
So the West doesn’t actually uphold the principle that every state is sovereign and can enter whichever alliances it chooses. Once this is established, the question arises, ‘Is Ukraine one of those states that can’t enter whichever alliances it chooses?’