Community. The word gets thrown around a lot. Take, for instance, the term “diplomatic community”. This particular community operates under a very particular set of rules. Diplomats abroad are afforded special rights, the most special being immunity from prosecution for breaking the laws of their host countries.
As we see from time to time, this exception (remember that word) leads to what we, in the host country, might call bad behavior. You know, like unpaid parking tickets. It is illegal for them to park where and when they should not and it is illegal not to pay tickets given for breaking the law, but because they cannot be charged for not paying diplomats find themselves succumbing to the temptation to park in loading zones during street cleaning.
In New York and Washington D.C., as well as consulate and embassy filled cities around the world, unpaid parking tickets are a problem, although not a big enough problem that the host countries threaten to violate the sanctity of diplomatic community ettiquette and send the diplomats home. Host countries usually reserve that for espionage. Or murder.
Yes, even then, the diplomat may be immune. Sure, the diplomat’s country may wave his immunity, but odds are they won’t, not unless doing so might cost them something more valuable. With no leverage, the host country can only open the door and ask the guest to leave, and even then they can only ask nicely.
That’s the trouble with throwing words around. Calling something a community is fine, but you can’t deter bad behavior from an outsider. Deterrence requires an individual or group’s acceptance of the authority of a community, and no one on the outside wants to hear the word.
When we see what we think of as bad behavior, such as political corruption, corporate abuse, police brutality, rioting, terrorism, or military invasion, these actions are taken by men and women who do not accept that they are part of the community they are harming. This is to say, they do not accept that those they are harming could have authority, moral or otherwise, over them.
Either they feel excluded from the community - common feelings in cases of police brutality, rioting, and terrorism - and use that to justify bad behavior, or they wish to behave badly - that would be political corruption, corporate abuse, and military invasion - and attempt to exclude themselves from the community preemptively.
This latter group has a name for their choice: Exceptionalism. Like diplomats with parking tickets, these people want to believe the rules of common people simply do not apply to them. In the short term, they get away with it, like all criminals do; in the long term, they and everyone else in whatever community they’ve touched pay a very high price.
What’s happening in eastern Ukraine and in Syria and Iraq right now is rightly described as “exceptionalist” behavior. Russian President Vladimir Putin has guided his people, wherever they may live, to the belief that rules imposed by others, the United Nations and the United States in particular, do not apply to them. To hear Putin or one of his lackies speak, international opinion is just a means of keeping the Russian people down.
Likewise, the group calling itself Islamic State of [ ___________ ] has gone out of its way to violate any international sense of human decency, in great part to remove themselves from having to accept being part of a community that disapproves of their violent invasion of Iraq and the atrocities committed there and in Syria. They dress is up as a war for islamic traditions, but their cruel, taunting videos of executions show them to be outside just about every other Muslim community on Earth. And that, to be sure, is fine by them.
Both groups have committed violent, cruel atrocities, both have thumbed their noses at international outrage, and both have used identification with those atrocities and nose-thumbing as a means of tightening bonds within their own communities. This is what exceptionalism is.
And here’s the uncomfortable bit: what’s happening in Ukraine and the Middle East right now is part of the price to be paid for America’s dalliance with exceptionalism. To be clear, this is not to say that America is directly at fault for what has been done by masked people in Ukraine and Syria. Their aggression was always going to find a target, and they wear masks for the same reasons bank robbers and kidnappers do.
No, this is what happens when one country decides that the rules of a world community in which they reside, such as those regarding the invasion of another country, do not apply to them. That is what the United States did in Iraq. That is what the United States was perceived to have done elsewhere. At some point to a lot of people the United States became the biggest bully on the block. Is it any wonder that American diplomacy in dealing with Russia and ISIS (ISIL?) only seems to make things worse?
Think back to Benghazi. Think back to attacks on embassies, consulates, and diplomats in the ten years prior to that, and then the ten years prior to that. Think about the targets. Many of them weren’t even American. The people who attacked had convinced themselves that they did not belong to the same community as their victims, that embassies and consulates are spearheads of foreign invasion, that whatever community their victims belonged to they the justified and righteous attackers did not want any part of it.
The point is, we can’t deter people who choose to consider themselves outside of our community, especially when to them we are the outsiders. They more they need us to be outsiders, the harder it becomes.
A quarter century ago we had the certainty and, oddly, comfort of mutually assured destruction (aka, MAD). At any moment thousands of nuclear missiles could rain down on us all, devestating the entire planet. That kind of power made it essential that we see ourselves as being part of a world community. All we have left of that is the rhetoric and the still-dangerous weapons, ones no one seriously believes anyone will ever now use. At least, not in a missile.
What we need to deter that horrifying spectacle is to remind everyone, including ourselves, that we belong to that greater community. Having convinced ourselves, we then have to start acting like it. That means no exceptionalism. That means accepting the authority of a greater community, morally if not legally. That means the rules must always apply to us, even if we’re just parking.
- Daniel Ward