On the Moral Superiority

There are a lot of news about the leaked Afghan War documents. And a lot of descriptions of Wikileaks as a threat to the US national and military security.

Which reminds me a lot of things.

The Cold War

Most Westerners are convinced that Ronald Reagan won it, by raising the military expenses of USA to a level that the Soviet bloc could not afford. This is not the first gross Western misconception about the communism – but is a very important one.

Every single penny in the cost of everything, be that a toaster, tank or ICBM, is eventually spent on someone’s salary. If you can pay peanuts, you can produce tanks and ICBMs for peanuts… That was the case in the Soviet Union. The head of an ICBM project there was paid about one tenth of the salary of a floor sweeper in an US ICBM project. And, living in the Soviet Union, he could not run away for a higher salary. In fact, the Soviet Union could push the military spending to a level that USA would not be able to afford, just because they spent so much less per a result than the Americans. (A hint for the future: watch China.)

Why, then, the Soviets did not win the Cold War, if it was so easy?

Because they could not achieve moral superiority over USA. An unrealistically sounding answer – if you haven’t lived in a communist country, and don’t know the situation from inside.

Immediately after the WWII we, who remained in the Soviet bloc, saw our stand against the Western bloc as a patriotic one. We saw that the Soviet order was horrible, but the order in the Western bloc was also not very nice. We had Lavrentiy Beria etc., but the West had Barry Goldwater etc. The Soviet Union orchestrated aggressions and coups all around the world, but the U.S. did the same. Where there is no clear “good” and “evil”, there is only “us” and “them” – and, of course, everyone is with “us”, not with “them”.

Things changed drastically under John Kennedy, and even more under Lyndon Johnson. The censorship and the anti-communist witch hunt in the US disappeared. The civil liberties were strengthened. And despite the Iron Curtain, this was noticed in the Soviet bloc. Suddenly, “them” ceased to be about as bad as “us”. We saw that “them” is the Good, and “us” is the Evil. We started believing that “them” means freedom, sincerity, truth, decency, while “us” means lies, hypocrisy, and life in a prison.

The West had achieved a moral superiority.

But how this translated into a Cold War victory?

You can’t run away from a Soviet country, no matter how much you despise it. However, if you are forced to remain there, you lose your initiative, inventiveness and desire to work, create and win. And, most of all, you lose your trust in the system, and your hope for a better future… The most important engine of the economics, the impulse of the people to work and create, went dry. The economics continued going for some time, supported by the effect of the scale, but eventually stuck. And to our perceptions of the West added one more – “wealth”. Actually, a “deserved, decently obtained wealth”.

Even the top Soviet functionaries had lost their trust in the communist system. Publicly, every time they spoke, they acclaimed the Soviet superiority. Privately, they didn’t believed a word from what they said. They regarded everyone who believed that the Soviets can be superior in any way as idiots, brainwashed by the lies they themselves fabricated. When told: “We can beat the West in the arms and space race”, they didn’t believed it, despite the calculations they were shown, and despite that they had nearly done it during the 60s. “If you believe one thing, and the Western experts believe otherwise, then it is them who must be right. There is no way you can be right, there is no way for us to be the better. It is them who speaks the truth, and us who cheats and lies.” This is what everyone was convinced in – even the Party core and top.

The military buildup and the “Space Wars” of Ronald Reagan merely coincided with the final stages of the Soviet economic deterioration. The rot was clearly seen from inside even before Reagan, and many people understood it is a matter only of time before the Soviet system falls apart economically. (Most of us expected this fall to come later, but to be a catastrophic one: happily, we were wrong.) The military race could have speeded it up a bit, but I doubt even this – the Soviet bloc practically didn’t tried to increase the military spending in order to counter Reagan. There was no use in doing this. The Cold War was already won by the West, and not in the arms race.

It was the moral superiority that won it. That rendered the Soviet “army” unwilling to fight – in fact, willing to desert at first opportunity, and expecting and hoping to lose… The result was the only possible one. The Soviet bloc simply disappeared into the thin air, without a single gunshot against the West.

Al-Qaeda

As a student, I saw once a man who was bent on organizing a crusade against the evil capitalism. He tried to recruit for it every single person he saw. And always failed… Instead of on the top of some government body, the system had placed him in a mental clinic. Despite that this obsession was his only peculiarity.

This is how much the Soviet system believed in itself, facing the Western moral superiority. In a country where everyone publicly called for the fall of the capitalism, this man hadn’t seen in his life a single person who would actually fight the capitalism. Or even believe that this is a sane idea…

If Osama bin Laden was in a situation similar to the Soviet bloc, he shouldn’t be able to find a single follower. And the Arab countries are not as anti-Western as the Soviet bloc was, so his task should have been even tougher. How is that he found thousands of followers?

Some people believe this to be an effect of the Islam. However, the communism is a religion also, and one that is much less tolerant of everything decent than even the darkest sects of the Islam. In addition, 15% of my country’s population is Muslims, and that madman could not recruit among them, too. Also, before Osama there were many other militant Muslims who went on a jihad against the West, and none found a significant number of supporters. Despite that the US were supporting then Israel as firmly as now, etc… Obviously, it is the situation that changed.

The people from Western Europe would not go on a jihad. However, during the last decade their opinion on the USA plummeted, too. Twenty years ago, if you were an American in Berlin, you would be revered, and more honored than the Berliners around… Not anymore. Now, you can often hear: “The country that lied to the entire world about the Iraqi WMD? That created and still maintains the Guantanamo gulag? That ran the Abu Ghraib prison? That bombed to destruction the civilians in Faluja? That shot the Italian hostage resque mission? That killed the Reuters journalists in Baghdad? That photographs, fingerprints and tracks every visitor like a criminal? That created the ECHELON system? That is killing in Afghanistan maybe more civilians than terrorists?… If it is decent, then Stalin is, too. This country is a blemish to the humankind.”

Of course, the real criminal is the war itself. In a war, no involved army can avoid such things. The war always de-humanizes the people. And sometimes you can’t avoid wars… However, a moral country is expected to not lie to the other countries, in order to involve them, too, in a non-justified war. To not organize gulags. And when its soldiers perform some nasty crime, to not try first to cover it. Otherwise, this country starts being considered by the entire world as an immoral, cheating and lying one. If it is bigger and stronger, it earns the “Evil Empire” nickname, and deservedly. All of its moral superiority, earned with bitter, painful and long-lasting sacrifices, and often paid with the lives of many of its best people, quickly evaporates.

The worst comes when this country continues to pretend that it is the mainstay of the world decency, morality and human rights. These pretensions make me, who has lived twenty-odd years in a communist country, instantly remember another country. One that pretended that it is the source of all human rights in the world, but actually was a big prison. The Soviet Union… Yes, there are differences. But not ones that matter when it comes to moral image and leadership.

What about Wikileaks?

What Wikileaks does is exposing the indecent and immoral things done, in this case, by the US army. When Adm. Mike Mullen says that this risks the lives of American soldiers or Afghan informants, he surely doesn’t believe himself – the leaked documents do not contain enough info to endanger them. Few people, if any, will believe him… What he actually achieves is to remind me (and not only me) of another kind of people, who also said what neither they nor anybody else believed. The Soviet functionaries.

I don’t know if Pfc. Manning is the person who leaked those documents (and the “collateral murder” video on which the US copter pilots killed the Reuters journalists). If yes, he reminds me of another person – Hugh Thompson Jr, the officer who stopped the My Lai massacre, and leaked the info about it. He was sharply criticized by the US Congressmen for this. He was sent to missions without adequate cover and supply until he was gunned down and nearly killed. However, he was awarded a medal by the US government, because of his humanity.

Will the same happen with Pfc. Manning? I doubt it. Given the current situation, it is more like he will get a sentence, and the medal will be preserved for those who will succeed to shut down Wikileaks. Which is another proof that the things in USA have changed – and a proof which direction they took.

… Remember the great support Obama had among the ordinary people abroad before the president elections? Especially in Europe? There is a reason for this support. The ordinary people hoped that he will restore the US moral superiority, by bringing moral to the US politics… He failed to do it. The Guantanamo gulag stays. Some measures are taken to prevent the worst things the US Army does abroad – however, the “culture of concealment” is stronger than ever. Slowly, but surely one trend emerges and grows in the thinking of the people outside US. Namely, that this state has gone too far on the Evil Empire road. That it cannot be stopped anymore, even by a good-intended President. And that it is better late than never to say openly: “Things changed. This is not anymore the moral leader of the world – this is just another evil empire. One that the decent people must hate, loathe and oppose to.”

What will happen if this trend of thinking prevails? Easy guess. Al-Qaeda will grow and attract more and more people, and will probably obstruct more of the US activity abroad. In fact, it may gain enough support to carry its fight on American soil. The support for US in Europe and the rest of the world will gradually diminish, to the extent that even the pro-US politicians will have to become blind and deaf to the USA needs. And very surely there will be new “cold wars” – economic, cultural etc. – between USA and some other countries, but it will not be possible anymore to win them through moral superiority.

Know Thy Enemy

USA is still the strongest military power in the world. However, even it cannot afford a major war against a decently strong enemy on its soil. And an union between some of the other top countries might prove as strong militarily. Not speaking that USA is not the world biggest exporter since quite a lot of time, and relatively soon is going to be dethroned from the first place in the economics, too. (In fact, the EU already did it.) So, a question arises – how USA is going to maintain its influence in the world?

Typically, influence is maintained by what you export, in the broadest sense of the word. Currently, USA exports almost only military power and economic size. In not a long time these will diminish, compared to other countries. Unless USA finds something else to export, and to be the top exporter, its influence in the world will be lost. Which carries a lot of problems for it, and for the world, too.

The single thing that USA is uniquely positioned to export is exactly the moral superiority. Its long-standing culture of freedom, compassion and civil liberties is still unmatched anywhere in the world. If properly extended to the people outside USA borders, it can restore this superiority, to the extent USA can become its overwhelming exporter. However, the freedom and the civil liberties inside USA are seriously eroded during the last decades, and it seems that this trend will not be reversed easily. And the growing tendency to treat the non-US citizens as second-class people doesn’t help too much.

Still, it is worth trying to do what can be done to preserve the moral superiority. The history has clearly shown that every bit of it is worth more than an army of tanks, even in a war. Unless USA choose this path, they are headed where the decadent Roman Empire was headed – to internal corruption, weakness and ultimately disappearance. This is the road down that every evil empire takes, sooner or later.

To preserve moral superiority, the US must first learn what is the correct move in situations like the current one. Whether Wikileaks is its enemy, or the best friend they can find – one that is brave enough to tell you you have a nasty problem, and to press on you to solve it on time. And whether people like Mike Mullen are its best servants, or its best enemies – the ones that tell you “There is no problem, continue this way, people will never learn of the crimes, truth never comes out”.

If you are still not sure which is the correct position, ask one truly outstanding soldier – Gen. David Petraeus. He will surely be able to tell you the truth… Actually, you can tell it yourself, by using his simple principle – which action decreases the number of your enemies, and increases the number of your friends.

15 Responses to 'On the Moral Superiority'

  1. Иван Says:

    Small nitpicking “Collateral Murder” show the murder of Reuters journalists, not BBC ones. Both news organizations are located in England.

  2. Kalle Says:

    Very interesting read, thank you for your insight.

  3. Григор Says:

    @Иван: My mistake. Fixed.

    @Kalle: Thank you for the support.

  4. Johnny Says:

    As an American, it is good to read material from someone with a far different perspective. Thank you for the time and effort. I hope the US can regain what we have lost.

  5. Emil Sotirov Says:

    Grigor… your post reflects a lot of my own thoughts, experiences, and conclusions.

    Thank you for taking the time to make this post. I don’t find the energy anymore to talk about this stuff. Most people respond with blank stares when you try to “mix” morality with politics and economics. As if those were ever separate.

    I’m putting your RSS feed in my G reader.

  6. ZT Says:

    The United States has changed a lot less than you think, since the 1950’s. Its reputation overseas changes a lot faster than the country does itself.

    One result is that if the US tried to manage itself solely so as to optimize its reputation overseas, it would be trying to change all the time, at an unrealistically rapid rate, and would lose sight of its own values and objectives (which don’t include being perfect).

    You would find, if America started trying to chase what is currently fashionable overseas, that it would quickly lose all its best characteristics. Not a good outcome for anyone.

  7. Григор Says:

    @Johnny: I hope it, too. The moral superiority is something that, even if hold by only one country, benefits the entire world. When one country loses a bit of it, the entire world suffers.

    @Emil Sotirov: Thank you! 🙂 And please, never get tired of explaining the connection between the morality and the economics. It is far too important.

    @ZT: Please, don’t be afraid that moral, decency and ethics will quickly fall out of fashion overseas. They won’t. Also, I believe they are a part of the US values and objectives – pushing for them will not impair the US best characteristics. And if they are restored a bit, I guess this will be a good outcome for everyone.

  8. Alexander Says:

    I see one problem with this line of thought.

    al-Qa’ida was founded by the CIA, trained by the CIA and financed by the CIA, all to counteract the Soviet presence in Afghanistan in the 1980s. When Soviet Russia pulled out of Afghanistan, al-Qa’ida remained. The group is still being trained and financed by the CIA, and used as a false flag attack on its own country on September 11, 2001 – which happened to be the 60th anniversary of the building of the Pentagon.

    Now its continued existence is an excuse to round up anybody who stands in the way of the USA’s dominance. By associating a person’s name with al-Qa’ida, the USA can invoke the Patriot Act and spirit that person away to an American gulag.

    (It’s not the first time the Yanks have set up gulags. During World War II they rounded up innocent Japanese Americans and stuck them in prison camps as spies.)

    Actually, you might notice how when a terrorist attack happens, the news claims that the terrorists “have ties to” or are “linked to” al-Qa’ida. Never an /actual/ attack by al-Qa’ida directly.

    al-Qa’ida don’t actually seem do anything itself. They don’t have to. They just sit there and occasionally churn out a video here, an audio tape there by some voice impersonator doing an Osama bin Laden impression – if bin Laden ever existed at all, he’s been dead since 2001, and if he never existed except as a fictitious persona his role has been played by a succession of actors rather like James Bond or Doctor Who.

    Their real masters, the CIA, use them as a boogey man to scare voters and to keep dissenters quiet, in case they say the wrong words and get whisked away by the Department of Homeland Security at 03:00 to the holiday camp at Gitmo.

    In other words, the only real enemy to the USA … is actually a glove puppet controlled by the USA to keep its own people in line. The USA has no “morally superior” enemy because that “enemy” is an invention intended as a trap for dissenters.

    The true “morally superior” state no longer exists. The USA got dragged down to the same base, vulgar level as all the other nations it claimed it was superior to, and like a schoolyard bully it blocks all attempts by any other nation to rise above it.

  9. Григор Says:

    @Alexander: I don’t know whether you are right about al-Qaeda. However, I am sure that the American people can wake up, and have their politicians get to gaining some moral ground. Because if their country loses it, the entire world loses some. When the entire world loses some moral ground, some states very happily go lose a lot of it. And when this happens, the ordinary American becomes a bit less secure.

    We live in an interconnected world. A Bulgarian philosopher and dissident who later become our president, Zhelyo Zhelev, write in a book of his that “the totalitarian state drags the entire world to a totalitarism”. And gave examples with the spying of Nazi Germany (an Aesopian way of referring to the Soviet Union) that forced the other (Western) countries to limit their civil liberties in order to minimize the damage. Many similar examples can be given.

    BTW: nobody can block a state from gaining moral superiority, if that state is determined to get it. Not even USA. If you tell me USA prevents your country from becoming a moral light, I won’t believe you. 🙂 So, you can help bring some moral and ethics to the world, too – through your country.

  10. Senji Says:

    Nice post Grigor, but i have a small nitpick.
    When you say “Moral” you actually mean a single type of moral superiority.
    There are as many superior moral values as there are people. Lets not fall to the trap of declaring there to be only one possible moral value system.
    That is a dangerous road.

  11. Chui Tey Says:

    I recall that it Russia was already collapsing economically. CIA switched over to using scenario analysis. It said if a country was collapsing, industrial output would plummet and there would be industrial stoppages. Then it went out to look for the signals and lo and behold the signs were there. The US then put the pressure on knowing that it will bring the Soviet Union to the bargaining table.

    http://www.marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2007/06/why_did_the_sov.html

    In contrast, China still locks people up, but it has none of the problems Communist Russia had.

  12. Григор Says:

    @Senji: You are right, when it comes down to people. When it concerns states, however, the types of moral superiority are far less. 🙂

    @Chui Tey: I am very much afraid that a totalitarian capitalism is possible, either by allowing the monopolization to run out of control, or by building capitalism in a state under a tight totalitarian control. China is the second case. I would expect it to suffer from the same problems as the Soviet Union did, but to a lesser degree: the loss of initiative and inventiveness will be smaller, and the positive effect of the bigger scale will be larger. In addition, currently China has still a lot of place for extensive economics development, during which this problem is smaller, and a lot of foreign investment, which more than negates the effect. So, I will expect this problem to arise later – after at least 20 years.

    It might be interesting to compare China to some of the Eastern European countries, eg. Bulgaria. Here, the change was actually a coup, made by the secret services people, and organized with Russian help, in order to prefetch and deflect the real change. The big spooks were the ones who actually controlled the country assets, so the “everything for the ordinary people” demagogy was preventing them from living a truly rich life (read: to do whatever fancies them with no accountability). The result is that currently you will have a hard time finding here a rich person who is not a former bigtime spook, or a child of one (or a bigtime criminal, at least – or all of these). And they make our “capitalism” in the only way they know, and like it – like Marx described it… I am afraid that China might turn into a capitalist-like, but actually feudal society, where the former Party officials are the new mandarins.

  13. Tansu CABACI Says:

    Nicely .

  14. enmac Says:

    the us has no moral superiority. if you look around the world, everyone fucking hates us. many people even say we deserve the terrorist attacks that we suffered.

  15. Григор Says:

    @enmac: Not everybody hates you. I don’t, for example. Many others don’t, too. And most definitely you don’t deserve the terrorist attacks. (Yes, it is mostly your faults that provoked them, but deserving them is a completely different thing.)

    What you need to understand is that in a world full of hate, dirty games and “realpolitik” everybody gets a lot of terrorism, deserved or not. In addition, if your throw bombs at your neighbors, it is more than likely that they will throw back rocks, will poison your dog, or whatever else they can do against you. Nuclear weapons are not available to everybody, but terrorism is.

    And, most of all, you must understand that enlightening the world starts with you. If you don’t have strong civil liberties, it is only natural that your government will cheat you, will do dirty things to you or to other countries in your name, and will indulge in oppression and realpolitik abroad. Guess what you will get back.

    Take, for example, Wikileaks. Everybody knows that Assange is sought and will be prosecuted not for rape or espionage, but because he dared to tell the world (and to you, in first place) what your government does behind your back, what it seeds for you to reap. To allow you to have some small degree of control over your government. Yes, he will be imprisoned. But Wikileaks will continue to work. Other leaking organizations will join, too. The single net result will be that US will have political prisoners from now on.

    Yes, this will not cause many people to hate you. But a hell lot will already think with contempt on you. What is worse, the contempt will be directed also against the “freedom” and “democracy” notions. You will gradually get the same fame the former USSR had – the prime example for a hypocrisy empire… And everybody in the world will lose, except the bigtime creeps. If you are not one of them, you might like to think about it. And maybe to act against it.

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