Some countries are assholes. They trample on international norms about human rights, weapons trafficking, maritime borders; sabotage negotiations to end civil wars; bully their weaker neighbours; and so on. They make and break promises repeatedly and shamelessly, and complain with violent indignation if they are challenged for it, all the while declaring their commitment to the highest ideals of international peace and cooperation.
You know the kind of country I'm talking about. The kind that believes in its own moral exceptionalism: Not only does it not feel bound by the ordinary rules; it even demands that other countries acknowledge its moral right to set its interests above their own or the international peace. Russia is an obvious current example. I'm sure you can think of others.
I. What is an Asshole Nation?
We all know that people can be assholes. In a helpful little book, Assholes: A Theory, the philosopher Aaron James analyses the phenomenon and how to deal with it. James defines the asshole individual (p.5) as someone who, in interpersonal or cooperative relations,
1. allows himself to enjoy special advantages and does so systematically;2. does this out of an entrenched sense of entitlement; and3. is immunized by his sense of entitlement against the complaints of other people.
James' theory is directed at the anti-social behaviour of individuals. It covers much of the same ground that organizational psychologists have mapped as the ‘dark triad' of anti-social personality types – narcissism, Machiavellianism, and sub-clinical psychopathy – which will be unfortunately familiar to most people who have worked in any large organization. But James adds two things. First, his account is a thoroughly moral one: the asshole is morally repugnant because of his fundamental lack of respect for the moral status of those he interacts with: He doesn't register other people as morally real. Second, because James' account starts from the moral requirements of participation in cooperative relations rather than from human psychology, it is more general than anything produced by organisational psychologists. I believe it can also be helpfully applied to non-human agents, such as nations.
Just as some people seem to think that every day is their birthday and that they deserve special consideration from everyone else - and a general exemption from rules intended for the general benefit which happen to be inconvenient to them, like using their phone in a movie theatre or speeding through school zones when they're running late - so some countries seem to think that their sovereignty is more special than everyone else's.
Merely pointing out that nations can be assholes is hardly an intellectual or practical breakthrough, however. Calling out particular countries as assholes may make us feel better, but what does it add? How does it help? Won't we just get into a shouting match about whether America or Russia or Israel is the biggest asshole?
I believe that the asshole theory of international relations has much more to offer than cathartic name-calling or empty moralising. It can help us explain, predict, contain and perhaps even ‘cure' asshole nations. In particular it offers a more realistic account than either realist or liberal international relations accounts of the motivations of both ‘normal' and ‘rogue' states.
But first we need to develop the core concept more systematically.
II. A Typology of Asshole Nations
Calling some country an asshole expresses one's moral contempt for them rather forcefully. But as a descriptive term ‘asshole' has some failings.
First, judgements of character are complex and disputable inferences from behaviour. Reasonable people will often disagree about whether a country's misbehaviour really indicates their underlying loathsome moral character, rather than, say, an understandable if mistakenly excessive response to provocation by others. Assholishness can't be reliably diagnosed from any particular action - one must consider an entire pattern of behaviour.
In addition, there is a strong temptation to award the title of asshole in the manner of an inverted beauty contest, for example to the worst hypocrites. But such relativism pulls us away from the core problem. National assholism is an objective pathology of moral character - the systematic failure to recognise and live up to one's most basic responsibilities as "one among others equally real" (to quote Nagel). Whether or not America is an asshole is irrelevant to whether Russia is an asshole. We need to be able to identify asshole nations objectively, on their own demerits.
Finally, the very power of the term asshole makes it open to abuse. Calling out lots of other people as assholes is, after all, exactly the kind of thing an asshole would do to demean the moral status of others so he doesn't have to take them seriously. (Just think of how the term ‘ideology' is routinely deployed by the left to evade criticism.)
The asshole theory of international relations has to do address these problems. To start with, we need a typology of assholishness to distinguish the merely badly behaved countries from the ugly from the ghastly. Just as with people, there are different kinds of asshole nations, deserving of different degrees of moral condemnation and requiring different handling.
The Partial Asshole
The most common – indeed almost universal – form of national assholism consists of domain specific misbehaviour rather than a dominant moral identity. Take Japan's support for whaling. This can certainly be described as assholish. Having voluntarily joined the International Whaling Commission and (eventually) signed up to its moratorium on whaling, Japan's government effectively raises a middle finger to the international community's collective concern to protect these endangered species by not only issuing fake ‘scientific research' permits to its whaling fleets but also providing them with millions of dollars of subsidies per year.
Yet Japan is generally a pretty well-behaved member of the international community of nations. In many respects, most notably in its commitment to its pacifist constitution and its funding for development aid, it takes care to recognise the moral reality of other nations. Its assholish behaviour is limited to a relatively few areas like whaling (and import tariffs and school history books that gloss over its brutal S. East Asian empire). Japan is not a completely unreasonable country: One doesn't have to worry constantly about what new self-serving stunt it will pull; and one can hope, eventually, to reason with it even on those subjects where it presently refuses to listen to criticism. Like a good many other countries, Japan is only a partial rather than a complete asshole nation.
The Half-Assed Asshole
There is also the incompetent or ‘half-assed' asshole nation, that aspires to be an asshole but doesn't quite have the self-delusion and moral blindness necessary to pull it off. One might place Britain in this category, as a country with an historic sense of its own moral and civilisational superiority, built up over the 19th century to rationalise its global empire, and of its independence from its neighbours as an island nation. British governments up to the present have often been eager to play up the theme of British exceptionalism – for example Britain appears proud of its reputation as the asshole of the European project.
And yet, this is mostly political theatre. Britain hasn't seriously attempted to live up to its asshole aspirations since the humiliation of Suez in 1956. British governments of whatever party are actually quite aware of the fact of Britain's relative insignificance, that it depends on its cooperative relationships with other nations for its prosperity and to further its international projects. Despite its politicians' posturing for the benefit of Daily Mail readers, Britain is generally pretty well behaved in practice. For instance, notwithstanding its endless vocal complaints about intolerable affronts to its sovereignty, Britain keeps up its treaty obligations as a member of the European Union better than most others. There is something blameworthy of course about wanting to be an asshole, something twisted in one's soul. But curmudgeonly recognition of the moral status of others and one's obligations to them is better than none. One can also take some hope from the fact that Britain appears to be on a trajectory that will eventually bring it to a more civilised ‘normal' state.
The Complete Asshole
The worst type of asshole is fortunately the rarest. Complete across the board asshole nations are so dominated by their moral pathology that they may even be proud of it. They take ruthless and systematic advantage of cooperative norms and institutions intended for the general benefit, as N. Korea takes advantage of international conventions such as diplomatic immunity and the freedom of the seas to smuggle drugs, weapons, and counterfeit US currency around the world. In this enterprise the asshole's strongest weapon is his shamelessness, his practised skill in walling off moral complaints in such a way that they never touch his entrenched sense of entitlement. From his moral throne he looks down upon them and laughs them off as beneath his dignity, or treats them as a merely strategic problem to be managed away, or even becomes genuinely indignant that his moral superiority has not been respected.
Take the asshole nation of the moment. Putin's Russia has spent the last 15 years rebuilding its reputation as a force to be reckoned with, after the brief gap of the 1990s, by waging war on its insufficiently loyal Muslim majority republics; bullying its former colonies from the Baltic to central Asia into reaccepting its regional hegemony; supporting or fomenting civil wars in those ex-colonies, such as Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine, that reject its hegemony; and providing diplomatic cover and arms to the malevolent regime of Bashar al-Assad, apparently merely to spite the moral consensus of the international community.
Recall that the true asshole doesn't have a problem recognising and understanding the moral rules of international relations, only in recognising that they apply to him. Here is Putin lecturing America in a New York Times op-ed on the importance of respecting international law and procedures, and therefore not launching unilateral military strikes against Bashar al-Assad's chemical weapons.
We must stop using the language of force and return to the path of civilized diplomatic and political settlement ... It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord's blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.
Five months later, Putin's little green men took over Crimea under the pretext, created by his own propaganda machine, that ethnic Russians were somehow in danger. Once we recognise that Russia is an asshole nation this kind of inconsistency is no surprise. Asshole nations are not genuine partners in cooperative relationships and institutions and should not be treated or reasoned with as if they were. In the short term, the only thing one can do is try to contain them so that the damage they can do is limited.
A Side Note: America
Some readers may be puzzled – or even outraged – that I have not yet referred to our global hegemon, America, self-appointed world policeman and serial invader and destroyer of Muslim countries. Of course you are welcome to apply my typology to America yourself and come to your own judgement. But, in case you were wondering, I don't think America is a complete asshole nation. At least not at present. A strong case can be made that for the 4 years or so following 9/11, the unchallenged height of Bush's "Either you're with us or you're with the enemy" moral unilateralism, America was a pathological asshole or something very close to it. (Provoking that moral blindness was Al Qaida's greatest achievement.)
America certainly has significant asshole tendencies, as apparent in its attempts to dominate Latin America (over 150 years); its pouting rejection of international institutions that don't let it have everything its own way - refusing to pay its membership dues to the United Nations, and rejecting international projects like the International Criminal Court or climate change mitigation treaties; and, not least, its personalisation of and ghastly failures in the war on terror. And this misbehaviour has a clear source in Americans' popular belief in their country's moral and civilisational exceptionalism.
But America also has significant anti-assholish tendencies, which usually predominate, and this is what differentiates it from countries like Russia. America's exceptional power is generally exercised in the service of preserving the world order, as a self-appointed global policeman, rather than to get away with moral exceptionalism. In contrast to Russia, America often acts on the principles it espouses even when that isn't convenient. They aren't merely a rhetorical ploy to manage complaints and obfuscate what it is doing.
I think this understanding of America's moral character is implicitly held by its critics. The reason America gets so much moral criticism from around the world is that criticism of America is not futile. America is not completely unreasonable – it is not fully immunised against moral challenge, and it does - eventually - change its behaviour as a result of it, for example on torture. The few implacable critics of America are those who don't want America to do a better job of serving the peace, but have ideological reasons (political or religious) to despise the world order it defends.
That America the global policeman nevertheless behaves in morally blameworthy ways seems to me to have much to do with its overweening confidence in its moral judgement - as if it were a character in a Western who relies on his essential good guyness and sharp shooting skills to triumph over the baddies of the world without having to do too much thinking about it. In other words, the problem isn't so much that America refuses to recognise its basic responsibilities towards other states, but that the position of global hegemon comes with additional complex and demanding responsibilities, which countries like Italy and Canada don't have, and which America could do a whole lot better at living up to. (Though America's job performance is rather better than that of Imperial Britain, its predecessor as hegemon.) Perhaps we need a special category in the typology of assholishness to reflect the different character of America's situation? Something along the lines of Team America's diagnosis that America is a dick, but not an asshole.
IV Containment not Punishment
The defining characteristics of the complete across the board asshole nation are obnoxiousness and unrealisticness. Fortunately enough, these are also what make assholism self-defeating in the long-run. Assholishness in countries, as in individuals, reliably messes up other people's lives but it doesn't reliably operate to the advantage of the asshole himself. As the people of Russia will hopefully realise before too long, the complete asshole is as much a curse to himself as to those around him.
If the infractions of cooperative norms and international rules are relatively minor – such as Japan's asshole whaling policy – a country can get away with this kind of thing indefinitely. Other countries will generally make the rational decision that the costs and risks of trying to organise themselves to collectively enforce the rules by means other than moral exhortation are greater than the benefits, just as individuals confronted with everyday assholes like queue jumpers often swallow their righteous indignation and move on.
However, the pathologically asshole nation has a tendency to go too far. For example by threatening so much damage to essential international institutions like nuclear non-proliferation treaties that they can't function anymore. Or by threatening to unravel the ethos of international cooperation on which such institutions depend - such as by making other countries reluctant to continue making unreciprocated contributions and otherwise opening themselves up to exploitation, or by inspiring half-assed asshole nations to go the whole way. In these cases there will generally be some collective effort to 'punish' the asshole's misbehaviour (such as by financial and travel sanctions on its elite), or at least to contain the damage it can do by downgrading its privileges as a member of the international community (such as its access to weapons technologies, or its participation in international institutions, or trade sanctions).
The reason asshole nations go too far relates to the same self-delusions from which their moral blindness springs. Because assholes genuinely believe that their exceptionalist interpretation of international norms is justified by their moral superiority they are unable to see how obnoxious they appear to others. At the same time, asshole nations' confidence in their own magnificence leads them to make unrealistic demands on other nations. They do not want merely to be allowed to get away with assholishness towards others; they want others to sincerely acknowledge their right to what they take. But even if one has the power to get away with bullying other nations into acquiescing to one's assholishness, like Russia, you will only ever have their fear, not the true respect that you really crave. And if you don't even have the power to frighten, like tinpot N. Korea, you will find yourself tortured by the studious indifference of other countries to your claims to specialness.
Asshole nations are thus not quite the amoral realists of International Relations theory, who see moral norms in purely strategic terms. The asshole nation is often driven by moral indignation rather than a prudent calculation of interests. Their moral blindness leads them to take what they believe they deserve and not to comprehend that the moral outrage they are causing can motivate other nations to combine to constrain them even at substantial cost to themselves. Assholes don't think of themselves as egoists outside the system of international norms but as especially entitled within it. If we don't realise that then our attempts to predict their behaviour in terms of their 'interests' will fail.
The moral blindness of assholes also has implications for the choice between containment and punishment. While it might seem appropriate – and deeply satisfying – to punish assholes for their horrid behaviour this can be a dangerous indulgence. In dealing with partial or half-assed assholes we can hope to change behaviour by explicitly moralising the issue, signalling the moral condemnation of the community of nations with UN resolutions and targeted travel bans and the like (such as the US recently slapped on several Hungarian politicians). But for complete assholes moralisation won't work. Asshole nations cannot see international sanctions as a legitimate punishment for their misbehaviour because they acknowledge no moral judgement superior to their own. Sanctions are perceived as a hostile illegitimate act fully deserving of a vigorous response if possible. Thus symbolic 'punishment' sanctions are apt to backfire; the only sanctions that work are those that significantly reduce asshole nations' freedom of action or directly remove the pay-offs of misbehaviour (rather than counterbalancing them with costs).
V. Can Assholes Nations be Cured?
In the short run containment is, rather disappointingly, our best strategy against pathological asshole nations. But in the longer run we may be able to do more, by targeting the source of the condition.
If nations can be said to have ‘interests' which motivate their actions as ‘rational agents', it does not seem unreasonable to impute moral character to them as well. Yet this is obviously a dramatic simplification, since there is an awful lot else going on in any nation that will tell against whatever moral character we diagnose. Japan, for instance, which I suggested was a mostly ‘normal' country, has a fervidly racialist mainstream political movement and its current prime-minister is determined to remove pacifism from the constitution. Such simplifications or 'idealisations' attempt to abstract dominant character traits from the larger story so that we can get at what is really driving how a country interprets and reacts to events and the actions of other countries.
Let me then introduce another big simplification. It seems to me that the seat of a country's moral failure to recognise others as morally real can be located either in the regime (e.g. N. Korea) or in the people (the popularity of 'asshole nationalism', as in China), or in some combination (e.g. Russia). The balance between these has shifted over time. It used to be mainly asshole regimes we had to worry about, and there were many more to worry about. Back when we had all those monarchies accountable only to themselves and God - like Henry VIII, making England an international pariah by his confusion of his interests with his country's - we had a lot more asshole nations and a lot less international cooperation.
Although one can still find some regimes that claim the right to rule because of links to magic mountains or whatever, even most non-democratic regimes these days rest their legitimacy on popular consent. Indeed, non-democratic regimes are often more reliant on popular approval than democratic governments – hence their obsession with controlling popular opinion with censorship and propaganda - because they have much less scope to deal with popular discontent. In a democracy citizens can disapprove of the actions or character of particular governments, like Obama's, without disapproving of the regime itself, America's constitutional liberal democracy. In contrast China's citizens cannot distinguish the party from the state – if one goes down, everything comes down.
The importance of popular opinion in driving and constraining modern regimes means that asshole nationalism is now the dominant force behind international assholishness. Asshole nationalism is not simply loving one's country the most, or believing in its ultimate goodness, or making a commitment of loyalty and service to it (i.e. patriotism). It is a belief in the moral superiority of one's country and its entitlement to have that superiority acknowledged. For example, asshole nationalists demand that everyone else revere the greatness of their country in the terms they dictate, and accept their right to set their country's interests above everyone else's. Those who disagree or even just raise critical points inspire ferocious condemnation and even violence, and that includes domestic objectors who are called out as traitors, sometime merely for the crime of being the wrong ethnicity and thus threatening to corrupt the nation's superior moral status (like the Roma in Hungary, or Kurds in Turkey, or Nepalese in Bhutan). Even the government itself may be accused of treason if it is perceived to have failed to force other countries to submit to the national myth of superiority.
There is something ghastly about the kind of love these people bear for their country. Not only because their love turns so easily to hatred of others, whether inside or outside their country, but because the idea of the nation that they treasure is itself hateful. Asshole nationalists live in a parallel universe. The country they love does not and cannot ever exist. That's what makes them so angry and so dangerous. But even if it did exist, it would be ghastly – a land under the rule of the morally blind.
In this light the Chinese Communist Party's deliberate promotion of asshole nationalism as a foundation for its own legitimacy is particularly disturbing. After the countrywide protests in 1989 revealed that the broken promises of communism had run out, the Party drastically revised school curriculums to indoctrinate the young into a myth of national superiority cruelly thwarted by dastardly foreigners. The Party now justifies its rule in large part (i.e. aside from the success of the crony economy) by its sacred mission of bringing the rest of the world to recognise China's moral and civilisational supremacy, even basing new territorial claims on ancient maps of tributary relationships. The legitimacy of the entire regime has come to depend upon its success in bullying its neighbours into submission, a rather worrying echo of Wilhelmine Germany.
Nevertheless, the rise of asshole nationalism also presents opportunities. The moral character of a people can be addressed directly, by talking with them, and indirectly, by promoting democratisation.
We, and not only our governments, can engage directly with the people of asshole nations about what it is to love one's country. We can challenge the futility, incoherence, and nastiness of asshole nationalism. And, far more important than lecturing, we can show by example how an alternative honourable patriotism functions and how it flourishes. National pride should take the form of a challenge not to others but to ourselves, and not merely to perceptions but to reality [previously]. We should hold our ideals of justice up before us and then look hard and honestly at how our country measures up to them, as President Obama argued in his speech at Selma. Where our country's leaders, institutions, norms, and character fall short we should determine to bring them up to those standards.
Liberal democracies certainly behave badly at times, even assholishly, for which they should be confronted and chastised. But they are rarely complete pathological assholes, or at least not for long - see my discussion of America above. (This is the real reason democracies don't go to war against each other.) Although democracies are governed by popular opinion, the creed of asshole nationalism struggles to dominate societies where its moral blindness can be challenged and rival, morally superior, notions of the love of one's country are allowed to circulate. Democracies have a conscience that can be pricked - their politics are a public affair and their publics can and do respond to moral arguments. They can be shamed into recognising their misdeeds and changing their behaviour and their thinking, as America changed its mind about various aspects of its war on terror.
This puts us in an odd position as far as the use of the term 'asshole' goes. Genuine assholes are unreachable by moral arguments and challenges - they may even make things worse. But exactly because they are quite capable of reforming themselves, the misbehaviour of democracies - like Australia's ghastly treatment of refugees from war zones - should be moralised. Non-asshole nations may actually respond positively to being called an asshole, because they retain enough integrity and moral sense to care that they never become worthy of that term.
The ability of democracies to correct themselves makes democratisation, a change in the character of regimes, the surest long-term solution to the global problem of asshole nations. Such transitions are not in the international community's power to engineer at will, but we should maintain a constant level of readiness to support democracy building whenever the possibility arises, as it did in the Soviet Union in 1991 and the Arab world in 2011, so that we can have more Spains, Tunisias and Polands, and fewer Libyas and Russias. Democratisation has been under-resourced in the past because it is so expensive, lengthy, and fraught. We should recognise that democratisation is not only justified by considerations of other peoples' dignity and human rights - as if that wasn't enough - but also by our interests in a better world for us. Democracies make better partners for solving global problems like climate change, epidemics and international terrorism, and for advancing global goods like prosperity and justice.
This is a significantly revised and extended version of an essay that appeared on 3 Quarks Daily.