In a speech on 3 May 2017 to the employees of the U.S. Department of State, Sec. of State Rex Tillerson made a statement that might surprise observers of the U.S.’s military actions abroad since the 1960s:
Now, I think it’s important to also remember that guiding all of our foreign policy actions are our fundamental values: our values around freedom, human dignity, the way people are treated. Those are our values.(1)
Tillerson’s words were no doubt well-intentioned, but in uttering them he ignored the troubled socio-political history of the country whose government he represents.
The question arises: Are the above-mentioned values reserved only for Anglo-Saxon white-skinned people, and not for the people of color in the Middle East, Asia, and other predominantly non-white parts of the world? Starting from the post-World War II period, when that cataclysm produced a world order favoring the United States, this superpower’s values were increasingly subsumed by its political interests. It is a sad fact that even before the 1950s most of the U.S.’s history manifests a will to subjugate peoples whose traditions or very existence stood in the way of American expansion. The tragedies of the Native American tribes, Cuba, and Puerto Rico provide examples of this mindset. Closer to the present time, the U.S.’s military interventions in El Salvador, Guatemala, Vietnam, and Honduras continue a foreign policy gone awry. So much for the practicing of the values “around freedom, human dignity, the way people are treated.”
More recently, the U.S.’s and its European allies’ regime change projects in the Middle East and Ukraine have brought about millions of deaths and the wholesale destruction of the infrastructures of those parts of the world. Regime change and the politics of oil and natural gas pipelines, rather than the introduction of freedom, have been the real drivers behind these projects. It did not and does not matter to American elites that the peoples of Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Ukraine are in far worse straits now than before their countries were destabilized. What matters is that the ensuing chaos and privatization of resources and industries create conditions for currency speculation and plunder by oligarchs and politically-connected actors eager to cash in on other peoples’ misfortune. The U.S.’s stated project to dominate all parts of the world pushes aside the values of compassion for the Other and the accompanying sensibility of empathy-the intellectual and emotional attempt to place oneself in the Other’s position, to proverbially walk a mile in the Other’s shoes.
Can it be that the real decision makers steering the U.S. government-the neo-conservatives and their allies on Wall Street-have become so jaded, or distant, or uncaring concerning the carnage taking place in Yemen alone-an enormous humanitarian disaster that has spawned mass starvation, cholera, and other forms of human suffering–that such values as compassion no longer matter? Have these individuals ever stopped, even for a moment, to imagine the appalling circumstances of famine and preventable disease? Hunger is surely one of the worst ways to die, but to helplessly stand by and witness the slow, excruciating deaths by hunger of members of one’s family is far worse. Where is the value of compassion, of “the way people are treated”? How on earth can the U.S. Congress justify more arms sales to Saudi Arabia, when each member of that body knows that those weapons will be used against Yemen, one of the poorest nations on earth whose people have never done anything to hurt the United States? (2) Where is the courage among members of Congress to take a stand against such unethical decisions? How do the U.S.’s values support this genocide?
By contrast, compassion is actually a national value of Russia: this attitude derives richly from Russia’s Orthodox Christian theology of humility, asceticism, and brotherly love. Spirituality in general in Russia, expressed as well by her other heritage religions of Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism, influences everyday life in ways connected with compassion and empathy: mysticism with its understanding of the sacred, kindness to all living creatures, and almsgiving to the less fortunate all play a role in how the citizens of the Russian Federation interact with each other. These observations do not amount to idealizing Russian culture, but rather recognize spirituality as an essential feature that has existed on Russian soil for over one thousand years-and which was itself inherited from Christian Greece through the Eastern Roman Empire with its center at Constantinople. Among Russians a mystical, metaphysical acknowledgment of some higher, non-human-made system of values pervades their thoughts and actions.
Russia’s compassion and empathy derive not only from her spirituality, however. Even during the approximately seventy-year period of communist rule (1917-1987), the concept of the “collective” as a group of close-knit members of a specific workplace included more than how a “network” of colleagues is understood in the U.S.(3) In the Soviet collective its members supported each other not only emotionally, but also economically: if, for example, butter was available at a local store, one member would stand in line and bring back enough for the others. Because Russian culture by tradition is a spiritual and communal one, it follows that its citizens are guided by ethical and moral values that focus on each individual, but understand that individual as functioning within the whole of society. In contrast to many Americans, Russians do not self-centeredly promote themselves at the expense of everyone else, nor do they elevate the incessant acquisition of material things as the surest path to inner happiness.
It is well-known to anyone studying Russian and American social history that Russian community organization originated in the village (a communal structure), while American communities developed out of the family farm (an individual unit). In the Orthodox Christian East the individual views him- / herself in relative terms, as part of the collective whose needs are on the same level as the individual’s own. In the Protestant West the individual elevates his / her own needs as an absolute, in the spirit of fulfilling the self, of being the “self-made man” (as the expression goes), of being materially rich as the embodiment of the American Dream. Put more bluntly, while Orthodox Christianity emphasizes humility and moderation, Protestantism (especially of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries) foregrounds the values of the successful capitalist businessman-optimism, self-confidence, and prosperity. It stands to reason that the individual within the collective has a more unmediated access to compassion and empathy-for the Other is ever-present in the group. The individual within him- / herself focuses first on the self, and later on those outside that self.
The American pioneering spirit and culture of individualism, to be sure, possess many appealing characteristics, including strength of will and resourcefulness. However, over time and particularly in the late twentieth century the pioneering, conquering spirit darkly metamorphosed into that of the grasping, exceptional American and exceptional nation. Attentiveness to the desires of the self became the individual’s raison d’être, and the aggregate of individuals striving for satisfaction broke up into even more separate human beings whose separate wills clashed with each other. Compassion and empathy had no room in these clashes, for the Other remained invisible. By the early twenty-first century, particularly among Republicans disaffected by the rise of Bill Clinton, “another spirit, more troubled and less humble” emerged, as Godfrey Hodgson elaborates in his The Myth of American Exceptionalism:
Their sharpest barbs were directed at the powerless. Their shibboleths were loyalty to corporate America, demonization of elected government, a libertarianism that focused especially on the abolition of taxes, indifference to the poor, and often a professed contempt for idealism.(4)
On the individual level the drive for money and self-sufficiency sidelined sustained care for others. Volunteerism, a tangible extension of compassion, as of September, 2014 dropped to a ten-year low in the U.S.(5) On the state level the U.S. government privileged tax breaks for the wealthy one per cent, but failed to provide viable funding for health care, education, and the infrastructure of America’s cities for the remaining ninety-nine per cent.
During the years of Barack Obama’s presidency the middle class and small businesses were hollowed out. As the family farm gave way to corporate factory farms, it became harder for individuals to be “self-made” or self-sufficient. Opportunities for individuals to show compassion for the livestock they raised disappeared as corporations invented new ways to exploit the animals for profit-even if it meant appalling confinement and torture of those sentient beings. And all this does not even take into account the billions of dollars spent on the perpetuation of the U.S.’s war machine for profit.
The U.S. needs to restore to itself an attitude of compassion and empathy, for as a nation it has lost its way and its people cannot identify a cluster of values that align with the nation’s geopolitical behavior. Compassion and empathy for the Other can serve as foundations for core values, if they are accompanied by humility and honest self-awareness. Any U.S. policymaker possessing a conscience and the capacity for change can benefit from the spiritual wisdom of Russian Orthodox Elder Zosima in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (1881): “Loving humility is marvelously strong, the strongest of all things . . . Every day and every hour, every minute, walk round yourself and watch yourself, and see that your image is a seemly one.”(6) This inner orientation is neither naïve not unrealistic, for a humble awareness of one’s own failings, along with an openness towards others, are imperatives for peacemaking in today’s international climate of hardheartedness and nuclear posturing.
Does it say something about the U.S.’s national values when, after the devastation visited upon New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the government refused an offer from Cuba to send medical personnel to that city to help treat the ill and wounded?
Does it say something about the U.S.’s national values when, after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico in 2017, the island’s people had to fend for themselves for over two weeks in a shocking disregard for human life? Once again, the Cuban government offered to send electricians and engineers to its neighbor, but the U.S. refused this act of generosity. If U.S. decision makers were guided by compassion and knowledge about Cuba’s practices of offering help to Latin American countries, they would appreciate that Cuba with its highly-trained doctors and nurses could alleviate suffering-and that Cuban humanitarian assistance is given without ideological strings attached.
Does it say something about Russia’s national values when, despite the relentless demonizing in Canada of Russia’s president and its culture, Russia offered firefighting help and expertise to that northern country in 2016 to aid in managing the wildfires raging in Alberta? Although Russia was the first country to offer aid in this Canadian disaster, the aid was turned down-undoubtedly because Ottawa placed its prejudices against the Russians and its political alliance with the U.S. over the desperate needs of the Canadian people. Does this mean that the Russian government manifested compassion and empathy for the Other, while the Canadian government acted against the interests of its own?
Yes, it does. And Russia acted in a spirit of forgiveness, too, for all the undeserved humiliation and slights.
If the U.S.’s national values and interests were rooted in a genuine respect for humanity, its foreign policies-rather than promoting invasion and regime change-would promote compassion and empathy. If this were the case, the U.S. would join Russia’s efforts in de-mining parts of Syria and rebuilding the cultural treasure of Palmyra, rather than occupying the northeastern part of the country in order to control the oil fields there. If the U.S. were to abandon its ethno-centrism and militarism, it would be more closely aligned with its values, rather than diverging from them.
Saving the planet is still possible, but it will come through Russia’s model, with her initiatives for peace in Astana and Sochi, and on the Korean peninsula. And because Russia as a nation has retained her humanity.
(3) I thank culturologist A.V. Nabirukhina of St. Petersburg State University of Economics for her insights into this distinction.
(4) Godfrey Hodgson, The Myth of American Exceptionalism (Yale UP, 2009), 177-178.
(6) Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Constance Garnett (NY: Norton, 1976), 298.
Valeria Z. Nollan is a regular contributor to Russia Insider. She is professor emerita of Russian studies at Rhodes College. She was born in Hamburg, West Germany; she and her parents were Russian refugees displaced by World War II. Her books and articles on Russian literature, religion, and nationalism have made her an internationally-recognized authority on topics relating to modern Russia. She recently completed a new biography of Sergei Rachmaninoff.