There is little dispute that Russia are not the good guys. Russia is a corrupt, authoritarian country. And regardless of what factors led to Putin’s invasion, there can be no justification for firing missiles and artillery shells into civilian areas, racking up thousands of casualties.
Many commentators seem to believe the U.S. must therefore be the good guys. ‘Russia is bad. The U.S. stands up to Russia. Therefore the U.S. must be good.’ But this doesn’t follow. Judging on objective criteria like violations of international law, or number of civilian deaths caused, the U.S. is at least as bad as Russia.
By “the U.S.”, I don’t mean the American people, but rather the foreign policy establishment. And when I refer to “Russia”, I mean the Russian state, not the citizens of that country.
So while it might be in the strategic interests of less powerful countries to ally with the U.S. against Russia, this doesn’t mean they have the moral high ground – far from it. As John Mearsheimer notes, “The U.S. is one of the most ruthless great powers that’s ever walked the planet.”
The latest example of this concerns America’s conduct since the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Recall that the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001, occupied it for twenty years, and in the process got about 200,000 people killed. What’s less well known is that, after withdrawing its forces last year, the U.S. froze more than $7 billion of Afghanistan’s central bank assets.
There’s a technical term for this: stealing. As political scientist Daniel Drezner argues, “no matter what legal rationale is being provided, the federal government is stealing Afghanistan’s money”.
Now, there are justifications for stealing: to feed your starving family, perhaps. Only in this case, the starving party is the one being stolen from. Afghanistan is one of the world’s poorest countries, while America is one of the richest. On top of that, the former is teetering on the edge of famine: according to the UN, almost 9 million Afghans face “emergency levels” of food insecurity.
The U.S. government’s supposed reason for freezing the assets was to stop the Taliban getting access to them. Does this make sense? We can all agree the Taliban are ‘bad’, but they’re the closest thing Afghanistan has to a government, and it’s unclear how freezing a huge sum of public money helps ordinary citizens.
Shah Mehrabi, who sits on the Supreme Council of Afghanistan’s central bank, has explicitly asked for the money back. “The choice for the US government is simple,” he wrote in January, “continue down the path that would lead to total economic devastation for millions of people or do what is needed to help the Afghan people.”
More recently, a group of 70 economists (including Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz) signed an open letter to Joe Biden calling for the funds to be released. The signatories correctly note that Afghans are being made “to suffer doubly for a government they did not choose”.
However, reports now suggest the U.S. will not release the money. What’s more, about half the sum – $3.5 billion – may be diverted to a fund for the families of 9/11 victims. This is despite the fact that 9/11 wasn’t carried out by the state of Afghanistan, and none of the people involved were even from Afghanistan (they were mostly Saudis).
To summarise: the U.S. invaded a country, got 200,000 people killed, and then stole $7 billion (after leaving the country in more-or-less the state they found it in).
‘Okay, the U.S. is bad – so what?’ Well, it raises important questions like whether it’s any more ‘moral’ to do business with America than with Russia. Or to put things another way: why is Europe sabotaging its own economy to sanction Russia when it still does business with America (and China and Saudi Arabia)?