International relations is a common place for the politics of offence to arise. Properly speaking, the politics of offence could be understood as the discursive procedure of doing evil within the realm of security. The creation of the Evil-Other is the main purpose of the politics of offence, which operates through outspoken offensive statements carried out by powerful political leaders.
Before we start exploring some examples of discursive acts of security aimed at provoking offence against an Evil-Other, we should first observe that the politics of offence is deliberately produced by those political leaders of powerful states and reproduced by the mass media. These are the propositive actors for evildoing, particularly because they seem engaged in provoking and spreading out discursive offence for achieving or preserving pre-established interests in terms of political, ideological, cultural, military and economic power.
Our critical view about the issue of evildoing in the Western world revolves around what we call the double standard of the politics of offence, which is articulated by a particular “legitimated right” of the West to offend other identities who seem to not comply with the Western democratic values. Not that we support the non-Western political leaders and their regimes, oppressive policies and human rights violations. Rather than that, our critique lies on the fact that the politics of offence became a deliberate act of Western security that serves as a political mechanism exclusively against those whose being is different than the Western-Self.
Understanding the issue of evildoing means to bring into light some discursive evidences able to prove that the politics of offence has a double standard. As it is intended to show in this analysis, evildoing is an exclusionary practice of security oriented only to those identities considered as representatives of a competing civilization whose values and principles risk undermining the Western civilization. Besides, evildoing is neither a natural nor a given practice of security. It is rather a biased and exclusive security effort undertaken by powerful actors to shape our understandings of reality in a narrow logic of state-survival.
Exploring discursive evidences
As previously explained, evildoing is a discursive practice of security based on a legitimated right to offend those who do not comply with the democratic values established by the West. Evildoing is not merely about creating threatening evils through the politics of offence, but also about reinforcing a benevolent and civilized Self. Therefore, when we push this logic to the limit, we might be able to investigate discursive evidences in which share similar types of conventions and narratives, and that form the security language for the acting on evildoing.
Once there are many discursive evidences of evildoing throughout the long history of the politics of offence, we decided to explore some of the most remarkable security narratives produced and reproduced after the Second World War. In this manner, we shall begin with the creation of the “Soviet-Enemy.” There is no doubt that the construction of the Soviet-Enemy was carried out by the White House and Western allies during the Cold War period. It is also obvious that the US security language was rooted in a Realpolitik tradition, which was firmly described in Hans Morgenthau’s most influential work of Politics Among Nations (1978).
The main concern of the critique established here does not indicate the necessity to investigate the theory and practice of the Realpolitik tradition during the Cold War period, but rather to demonstrate that the politics of offence served as a tool for this tradition to prevail. So to speak, for the Western states to pursue with their pragmatic policies and achieve their power interests in a more coercive way against the Soviet Union, the legitimated right to offend became indispensable. Not surprisingly, the construction of the Soviet-Enemy occurred through a series of discursive practices aimed at arousing public distrust against the very nature of the Soviet’s totalitarian regime and its large-scale expansionist intentions.
Harry S. Truman, the first US President after the onset of the Cold War, took at face value the ‘Russian Report’ produced for him by White House aides, hence beginning with his ‘tough policy’ against the Soviet Union. This Report was a series of questionable worst-case scenarios suggesting that there was a clear Soviet desire for global conquest by subversion and force. As a consequence, and in the first demonstration of his politics of offence against the Soviet Union, Truman stated, in 1946, that “the Russians understood only an iron fist.”
The Cold War warrior Harry Truman came to office in 1945 convinced to make an aggressive start by reinforcing the Winston Churchill’s famous speech of the Iron Curtain at Fulton, Missouri, which had condemned the expansionist policies of the Soviet Union. Churchill’s Iron Curtain Speech – the phrased originated with Dr. Goebbels, warning of the same red peril – reflected the great warrior’s view of the Soviet menace. Following this, Truman adopted an aggressive attitude to Russia, implementing a doctrine based on righteousness.
The so-called Truman Doctrine may have been intended to rouse the public and US Congress to national security expenditures. The Truman doctrine vastly overstated the global-ideological aspects of a potential Soviet-American conflict, and set an unfortunate precedent for subsequent US interventions in conflicts across the globe. There could be “no compromise with evil.” Since the American foreign policy was aimed at the Soviet rule in Eastern Europe, the evil that Truman had in mind was definitely plain. Then, two identities were formed by opposition, permeating the narrative disputes of the Cold War. In this West versus East panorama, discourses contributed to a so-called Self-Other dichotomy.
Truman argued that no one would be allowed to interfere with US policy in Latin America. But Russian interference in countries essential to its safety was evil, and exclusive US domination of its own sphere of influence was righteous. In any case, a doctrine based on “no compromise with evil” is a preposterously naive basis for a foreign policy, destining a powerful state to permanent warfare. Such a biased and deliberate effort of creating the Soviet-Enemy shaped the public understandings of security during the Cold War. As we might be able to observe, evildoing is a longstanding practice of the West that prevails over time, doing so much more than simply creating representations of Others and evils.
The next example of evildoing is the Iraqi-Other. After the Cold War, the negative symbols and offences offered to non-Western identities were not limited from major world powers. Between 1979 and 2003, Iraq was ruled by Saddam Hussein, who supported pan-Arabism and the end of European influence in the region. During his authoritarian regime, the country was involved in major conflicts. Among them, the Gulf War was the most resonated by the Western media, standing out in conventional news outlets, such as the New York Times.
In a sort of government-sponsored demonization directed against political leaders of unfamiliar Middle East societies, Western leaders and the mass media decided to compare Saddam Hussein to Hitler. This was a clear attempt to demonize him to Western viewers, cooperating with the prejudice against Arab peoples based on xenophobic caricatures. Properly speaking, the American discourse portraying Saddam Hussein as akin to Adolf Hitler revealed to be the perfect strategy to display a securitizing purpose by drawing upon the script of the good war. In making a very complex situation simpler by comparing a non-Western ruler to Hitler, the US and the mass media saturated the public with moral reasoning, as if the West had the duty to bear arms in a defense of a higher moral order against the evil.
Attempts to vilify the leaders of Middle East countries have not ceased with the Iraqi case. The Syrian War was widely documented by the Western media based on the American narrative that featured Baschar al-Assad as the great murderer, though the violence was not one-sided. Only in 2016, the administration of the US President Barack Obama carried out 12.192 bombings in Syria. Of course, the violence of the Assad regime should neither be discredited nor questioned. But the representation of Assad as the major murderer received more attention in the media than the Western attacks on the place over the years. Perhaps the Western interests came to be more oriented to offending and accusing Assad, whereas the multiple bomb drops and blind air strikes carried out by Western coalitions barely made the news.
Still in the beginning of the last decade, and in another demonstration of being the Benevolent-Self carrying the moral duty to bear arms against an evil, Barack Obama said, in the Address to the Nation on the Situation in Libya, in March 2011, that “for more than four decades, the Libyan people have been ruled by a tyrant, Muammar Qaddafi, who has denied his people freedom, exploited their wealth, murdered opponents and terrorized people around the world.”
These are true facts about Qaddafi’s regime. Indeed, the former Libyan’s ruler was far from being willing to give freedom to his people and opponents, and he should have been held accountable for his crimes. But it is also true that the demonization of Qaddafi as the great evil of the West was what Robert Murray convincingly called as “(…) the rational strategy of facing with prospect of oil and gold reserves for all those actors involved in the military intervention.”
Obama also stated that “there was no question that Libya and the rest of the world would be better off with Qaddafi out of power.” Nowadays, we all know that what followed Obama’s discourse, in particular the NATO intervention, culminated in a fragile humanitarian situation in the North Africa and exacerbated the complex emergency in the Mediterranean Sea. In other words, the politics of offence against Qaddafi was involved by humanitarian credentials to convince the public about the atrocities and human rights violations committed by his regime, but also, and more importantly, it gave a free pass to military coalitions to carefully calculate an intervention that would be beneficial for Western interests.
More recently, the US President Joe Biden said in an interview that his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, is a “killer.” In this case, the politics of offence and discursive acts against Russia and/or Putin are traces of a past that remains alive in today’s world politics. As we could observe, many other evils were created over the years after the Cold War in ways that enriched and widen the spectacles of the Benevolent-Self versus the Evil-Other. But Russia continued to be framed as the preferred character representing the Other, the main target of evildoing.
In IR history there was always present a sort of asymmetrical distribution between opposing identities. The dichotomy between different identities comes to determine what is understood by security. In a critical view, this leads us to acknowledge that security is also about fear and unease, a social construction that comes into being through discourses undertaken by a Benevolent-Self responsible for denunciation, offence and accusation of a barbaric and persecuted Other.
When the logic is not applied
Exploring the logic of evildoing and its politics of offence helps us to think further about how security and world politics actually work. For this to happen, it is fundamental to reveal the double standard of evildoing, so that we can grasp why and how this logic is not applied to the West, its friends and allies. What particularly determines evildoing and its purpose of serving only against those whose being is different than the Western-Self is the construction of power relationships between identities. Put simply, these power relationships are involved by a number of shared ideas, interests and understandings, whether cooperative or conflictual, in terms of cultural, racial, geopolitical, military and economic aspects.
To begin with our first example where the logic of evildoing is not applied due to cultural and racial aspects, we highlight one of the most emblematic cases of contemporary democratic ruptures in Europe: the rise of Viktor Orbán in Hungary. Orbán has been the country’s Prime Minister since 2010, a position he had already occupied between 1998 and 2002. Among Orbán’s main measures, there is the relaxation of legislation to protect women, and ideological attacks of LGBTQI+ populations, like banning content that mentions the group in schools.
But Hungary is not alone in the European scenario when it comes to the democratic deficit. Poland has also been facing an illiberal transformation due to authoritarian measures, albeit in a different process compared to the Hungarian context. Following the rise of the Law and Justice Party (PiS), judicial and legal changes were initiated. The main change consisted of the introduction of a legislation concerning the functioning of the Court without a previous constitutional assessment of the laws, insofar as it came into effect right after its enactment.
In addition, the party’s exacerbated Catholicism has favored anti-immigration ideals which despised other religions. The strong anti-immigration and anti-refugee rhetoric orchestrated by PiS across the Polish public sphere has also played a pivotal role in countenancing xenophobic as well as racist sentiments in wider public discourse and society. In the meantime, the demands made by the European Parliament to withdraw funds from Hungary and Poland remained blocked in the European Council because of the lack of the qualified majority. Only in July 2021, for instance, and after years of pressure made by European civil society groups and activists, that EU decided to sue Hungary and Poland over LGBTQ discrimination.
Apparently, it takes a while for European institutions to start applying legal steps against EU members that constantly violate fundamental rights of people. However, when it came to offending and accusing Qaddafi’s regime of humanitarian and human rights violations, the launching of military campaigns in Libya were carried out in an efficient and rapid fashion. Our concern is not to compare Libya with Poland and Hungary, but rather to reveal that the Western willingness to commit resources to condemn and take action against oppression and violation of individual liberties presents different paces of progress, always depending on the cultural, racial, geopolitical, military and economic relations between identities.
One more example where the logic is not applied due to cultural and racial aspects consists of the EU migration management regime, which has been accused by humanitarian and human rights organizations of employing extreme policies. The European border management agency, Frontex, often faces new accusations in its handling of migrants in distress at the Mediterranean Sea. Even amid the COVID-19 pandemic the situation in the Mediterranean Sea continued to deteriorate, and the Frontex plays a major role in this, mostly because of its structural violence of indifference and lack of assistance to boats in danger.
An annual report drafted by Sea-Watch Organization (a non-profit organization that conducts civil search and rescue operations in the Central Mediterranean Sea), monitored and detected at least around 4493 people in distress throughout 2020. The same organization also reported that, until the end of February 2021, three times as many people died in the Mediterranean Sea as the number of days on the calendar. While images of people in distress barely circulate in public venues, there is no discursive evidence of any leader accusing Frontex of failing to fulfill its duties and obligations with the European and international law.
There is no evildoing against Frontex, once this logic is not applied against those authorities and institutions that actually help to establish a sort of security myth of Western cultural homogeneity. Joe Biden or any other Western leader would never appeal to the politics of offence against a border regime that corresponds with a pre-supposed cultural homogeneity that is often challenged by those people and states representing a competing civilization. Rather than an evil, Frontex is considered a protector of a security regime that, among other things, comes to amplify our fears against those who do not belong to Western cultures.
Nonetheless, there are some exceptions when it comes to creating an evil of those belonging to a different culture. This only happens due to the military and economic aspects, as for example the US muted responses to Saudi Arabia’s humanitarian and human rights violations. It is evident that what makes the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia a friend and not an evil of the West is the simple fact that the Saudi government is an historical ally and oil provider to the US. According to the US Energy Information Administration, Saudi Arabia, the largest OPEC exporter, was the source of 7% of US total petroleum imports and 8% of US crude oil imports.
In addition to be the historical ally and oil provider to the US, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia remains on the top of the list as one of the biggest importers of American weapons. The BBC News revealed that, between 2016 and 2020, 47% of US arms exports went to the Middle East, with Saudi Arabia alone accounting for 24%. While alleging that they need more weapons for counter-terrorism, the Saudis continue committing violations in Yemen with the full knowledge of the West.
Still in the Middle East, another example of a Western ally that violates individual liberties is Israel. Since its founding, the State of Israel has been denounced for its politics of segregation and ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people. In addition to persecutions and disregard for the division agreed in 1967, the Israeli government constantly carries out demolition orders in the West Bank and mass bombings in the Gaza Strip, where a significant portion of the Palestinian people lives. The reason for this, according to the Israeli government, is the attacks conducted by members of the group Hamas. Yet, attacks on areas where Palestinians live are periodically as the Israeli’s military continues to unleash air strikes on Gaza that have been causing hundreds of civilian causalities, including children.
Just as we do not see any official accusations made by the American government concerning the Frontex’s (and EU’s) structural violence of indifference and lack of assistance to overcrowded boats in danger at the Mediterranean Sea, or the historical Israeli violations against the Palestinian people, we do not see European leaders condemning the increasing militarization of the border along the US-Mexico, where thousands of migrant families have been arrested in the last years due to a so-called though-on-law American immigration agenda.
Except the humanitarian and activist organizations, we barely see discursive acts of Western political leaders in the mass communication channels condemning the US recent policies of detention in which have endangered migrant children’s health by separating them from their parents, and sometimes even caging them in unsanitary, deplorable and unsafe conditions. This is because of the ideas, understandings and interests shared by Europeans and Americans and that constitute their power relationships. In the Western security conception, the violations committed by Western states and allies are less threatening than the violations committed by Russia, Syria, Libya, Iraq and other countries whose being is different to us.
Rethinking the politics of offence by revealing its double standard seems to be an interesting exercise for IR students to become more familiar with critical theory and related approaches that question the reality constructed by those privileged actors possessing power over representational practices and discourses. Our intent in this analysis was, therefore, to present a scenario of which forgotten tragedies, like the migration crises in Europe and along the US-Mexico, revolve around a process of making the suffering of certain people invisible to us.
The main purpose here was to call attention to the fact that the logic of evildoing is something intentionally articulated to serve as a means to shape our political attitudes and imagination about the way we see, think and act on security issues. The logic of evildoing and the politics of offence are neither natural nor given practices. On the contrary, they are established in an intentional way to serve and preserve the power interests of a Self-superior that acts to impose a sort of moral order over the Other-inferior. For a better understanding of this argument, constructivism and post-structuralism are some of the approaches that form the critical theorizing of IR by giving priority to a reflexive view of the world system.
The argument exposed here sought to follow some of the premises of these critical approaches, consequently questioning evildoing by indicating that its double standard constitutes the functional character played by the Western actors in the international arena. In a metaphorical way of speaking, evildoing operates as stage material of a tragic play, whereby the politics of offence is neither natural nor benign, but rather a discursive practice articulated through strong interactions between privileged actors, such as the states, mass media and economic elites.
In closing our argument, it is possible to conclude that the tragic play of evildoing shapes the global power regulations, defining the enemies that we should defeat, and determining the crises and violations that we should pay attention to. As long as evildoing decides the security issues we should care about, the privileged actors will continue to exercise their power over society by promoting modes of thinking. As students, and as members of democratic societies, we should look beyond the tragic play to understand whose power interests might evildoing being serving.
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