Remaining a Moral Victor

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In the 1970s, Alexander Solzhenitsyn hoped that Russia would be cleansed by its suffering under communism and eventually emerge as a beacon for other nations, leading the West toward moral regeneration.

Alas, it didn't work out that way. Having lived under a morally bankrupt regime, most Russians became more cynical, not more idealistic. Whenever Americans, for example, talk about ethics, rule of law, or morality, Russians are likely to wink derisively.

From revisionist historiography, Russians seem to have learned only one lesson -- namely, that history is written by victors. Too many are convinced that the only reason the Soviet Union is now maligned by the international community is because it lost the Cold War. Or that Russia is feared and loathed by its neighbors for the same reason -- and not because they had chafed so long under Soviet domination.

It is true that atrocities committed by the Allies, such as the firebombing of Dresden, were conveniently glossed over after World War II. Similarly, as long as the Soviet Union remained among the victors, the Red Army's marauding march through Eastern Europe and Germany didn't make much of a splash beyond academic history. Only recently has the Soviet treatment of civilians in the Baltic states, Poland, Ukraine and Germany become a political issue in Brussels. The Kremlin now hopes that by flexing its energy muscle, it can restore the country's former might and rewrite history once more.

Ironically, official Washington has been enthralled by the same idea. As long as the United States is the world's dominant military power, the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush seems to believe that it can twist the truth whichever way it likes. The U.S. president himself routinely misleads the world and his own people, declaring, for instance, that the United States does not torture or that the bloody mess in Iraq is a path to victory. Since it will be writing history, Washington expects to skew the quaint nuances of good and evil in its favor. After all, only the losers are ever put on trial in Nuremberg or the Hague.

But Americans, just like Russians, have drawn the wrong lesson. Victors do get to write history, but only nations that behave morally remain victors.

What constitutes ethical behavior by a state and its responsibilities to other states and its own people have changed over time. There is no question that the strong write the moral code, but that doesn't mean that they can then break its rules with impunity. Having declared that all men were created equal, it was only a matter of time before the United States had to recognize this principle with regard to its own slave population.

The Soviet Union was a prime example of a state positioning itself above its own laws, but that was only part of its problem. The Communist Party called itself "the honor and conscience of our times," but in reality the Soviet Union was, quite literally, an evil empire. Men and women who rose through its hierarchy knew they were acting immorally, and they ended up despising themselves and bearing no loyalty to the system.

Many Bush administration officials know that they betray the principles on which their nation was built. This is why they are so similar to Young Communist League operatives from the Brezhnev era.

The United States was one of the modern world's early republics, and Americans became the first nation of citizens, not subjects. Not surprisingly, the stars-and-stripes motif of its flag has been emulated by many nations around the world striving for freedom and democracy. After World War II, the United States worked to create an equitable international community. Most of the world now subscribes to those principles and it holds Washington to its own standards.

Alexei Bayer, a native Muscovite, is a New York-based economist.