Accessibility links

The East: Analysis from Washington -- A New Danger of Moral Equivalency

  • Paul Goble

Tallinn, 11 August 1997 (RFE/RL) - The old notion that the Soviet and American systems are somehow morally equivalent has resurfaced in an unexpected place, one where its widespread acceptance could have even more serious consequences than it has had in the West.

In an essay published in Tallinn on Friday, Estonian commentator Jaan Kaplinski argues that there was no fundamental difference in the moral standing of the two systems represented by the former Soviet Union and the United States.

Kaplinski suggests that both systems sought to impose their will on others, despoiling the environment at home and dominating satellite states abroad. Moreover, he suggests that both systems are inevitably doomed by their hubris and overreaching.

Because of this, Kaplinski suggests that Estonians should not view one of these systems as superior to the other or use the values derived from one to judge the other. Instead, they should develop their own ideas drawing from both sides.

This superficially attractive proposition revives a concept known in the West as the moral equivalence of the two systems. This point of view was widely advanced by a variety of political figures and analysts in the last years of the Soviet Union and sometimes since that time.

Most Westerners making this argument suggested that since their own countries were less than perfect, they should refrain from any demand that Moscow and its system be judged according to Western standards.

Anytime someone would point to an outrage in the Soviet Union, such people would insist on noting that there was some American action that was as bad or worse.

While such ideas may have contributed to a certain modesty, they also lead supporters of the idea of moral equivalency to argue that nothing should be done to promote Western values in the Soviet bloc as somehow superior and worthy of emulation.

And that attitude in turn often meant that not only was the West afraid to defend its own values but also that many in the communist bloc lost some of the faith they had in these Western ideals.

The collapse of communism in Europe and the disintegration of the Soviet Union have largely discredited this view in the West. Few people there were willing to insist on moral equivalency between a system that had failed and their own which is still very much alive.

But now the idea of moral equivalence between the two systems has reappeared in a country where one might least expect it, a country that has had experience with both systems and thus should be able to compare.

Consequently, if many Estonians come to accept the ideas advanced by Kaplinski in his article, that by itself could entail real dangers for Estonia and other countries in this region far greater than when this notion worked to restrain Western criticism of Soviet acts.

First, such acceptance could call into question for many people the value of the still unfinished and quite difficult task of reestablishing democracy in a country that saw that political and social system destroyed by the Soviet invasion in 1940.

Second, it could serve as a cover for the return of non-democratic forces to power. To the extent that Estonians are encouraged to think that there is no difference between systems, they would be more inclined to accept people whose commitment to democracy is anything but secure.

And third, the acceptance of this idea could easily contribute to a more general moral relativism that would make the recovery of the Estonian people far more difficult.

Consequently, all those concerned about the growth of democracy need to be worried when such ideas surface and remain uncontested. To paraphrase the great Russian memoirist Nadezhda Mandelshtam, unhappy is that country in which the despicable is not despised.