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Pirates and Emperors

Saint Augustine, the renowned Christian theologian and philosopher, was one of the Latin Fathers of the Church and among the most significant Christian thinkers.

In fact, his influence as a thinker was arguably unrivalled in the early history of the Church. Of his numerous written works, those generally regarded as the most important and influential include Confessions and The City of God (fully, The City of God Against the Pagans), which both helped lay the foundation for much of medieval and modern Christian thought. In The City of God, written in Latin in the early 5th century AD and considered a cornerstone of Western thought, Saint Augustine tells the story of a pirate captured by Alexander the Great. The Emperor angrily demanded of him, “How dare you molest the seas?” With bold pride, the pirate answered, “How dare you molest the whole world? Because I do it with a petty boat, I am called a pirate and a thief. You, with a great fleet, molest the world and are called an emperor.”

Although written centuries ago, this story remains especially pertinent today as it helps illustrate the many glaring double standards apparent within modern international relations and the global political order. Consider, for instance, the issue of corruption. Over the years, the media, international organizations, development institutions, and analysts have devoted considerable time to covering the issue of corruption in developing countries. We incessantly hear and read about how many developing countries and their leaders are invariably corrupt. Quite often, of course, many are. Throughout the course of the discussion, however, one significant thing notably missing is any mention of Western corruption. Therein lies the crux of the problem since the simple fact is that corruption is not unique or restricted to developing countries. Furthermore, many of those quick to point out the faults of others cannot credibly claim to be entirely f r e e of misdeed.

A clear case in point is the global financial crisis and how it was precipitated by considerable corruption within Western banking and finance. Speaking after the 2008 global crash, American economist Jeffrey Sachs captured the blatant double standards, describing how corruption in Western banking and finance, which helped lead to the crash, was overlooked and went unpunished: “They’ve completely walked away with billions and billions of dollars in this financial fraud. And this is nothing but impunity. If we saw it in an African country, if we saw it in a Latin American country, you’d be writing fulminate essays about how corrupt these countries are, and how they can’t govern themselves, and this is an explanation for their poverty and so forth.”

While there were multiple causes of the global financial crisis, the point is that one cannot overlook how powerful Western companies and individuals (including bankers, politicians [many of whom were previously bankers], regulators, credit ratings agencies, managers, and academics) bent regulatory, policy and legal institutions for their private benefit, including through lobbying and influence peddling.

Aswell , although it is certainly the case that corruption plagues many developing countries, it is important to recall that much of the corruption is often driven by Western structures or only made possible with the active involvement, support, and close coordination of Western bankers, accountants, lawyers, and government officials. Western banks and financial institutions, which are located in numerous Western locations, beyond just the Caribbean and Switzerland, facilitate the large outflow of illicit revenues and serve as secret havens. Moreover, tax avoidance by international corporations often costs developing countries far more than the corruption of “local” politicians or civil servants. In fact, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) estimates that illegal financial flows and tax fraud or avoidance by international corporations cost Africa tens of billions of dollars per year, representing far more than the amount of money that African states receive as development aid and assistance from Western countries or international financial institutions.

Another area with blatant double standards is foreign policy. We regularly hear of how the West and its high-minded, virtuous political leaders place ethical a n d moral considerations at the heart of their foreign policy. They ostensibly emphasize the importance of upholding human rights around the world, while frequently and loudly proclaiming the virtues of peace. However, compelling research has shown the “organized hypocrisy” underlying the self-declared ethical policies of Western countries. In stark contrast to their characterization or rhetoric, major Western arms supplying states have generally not exercised export controls on the basis of normative ethical and moral benchmarks. Rather, arms have been exported to countries which serve supplying states’ domestic economic and security interests (Perkins and Neumayer 2009).

Moreover, Western countries’ regular proclamations and championing of peace seem to ring hollow when set alongside their actual practices. Earlier this year, for example, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), an independent international institute dedicated to “research into conflict, armaments, arms control and disarmament,” released a highly-detailed report titled, “Trends In International Arms Transfers.” The report, which lists the world’s largest weapons exporters between 2013 and 2017, revealed how the majority of the world’s top arms exporters are Western countries. In fact, 8 of the top 10 exporters are Western countries, and they account for approximately 62 percent of the total global volume of export s of major weapons. Note that this is only countries that made up the top ten. If other Western countries were included, the figure for the total global volume would be even higher.

It is important to point out that while this brief discussion of double standards has focused on corruption and international weapons transfers, it can easily be extended to a large number of other topic areas, including human rights, state surveillance, torture, global trade, migration, democracy, conflict, and international law, among others, and remain just as valid.

As a final point of clarification, this discussion should in no way be seen as an attempt to blithely dismiss or simply “gloss over” the serious challenges faced by developing countries. Undeniably, they merit great attention. That said, however, one cannot overlook the glaring and hypocritical double standards that operate within modern international relations and the global political order. They also need addressing.

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