The Buzz

Putin, MH17, and the Risk of Anomie

Vladimir Putin’s impenitent response to the killing of 298 innocent people last week crystallizes in dramatic fashion just how far his government is becoming isolated from the rest of the international community.  Disbelief and disgust in the West is being met by defiance and disdain from Moscow, with Putin seeking to shift the blame onto Kiev.  A worrying lack of intersubjectivity thus separates the two sides.  More alarming still, history shows that the implications of such estrangement, which may take years or even decades to play out, are potentially huge and extremely dangerous.

Almost all credible observers, including most western leaders and media, appear confident in two beliefs regarding the violent downing of MH17: (1) Russian military equipment was used to bring down the passenger plane; and (2) Russian-backed separatists pulled the trigger.  Although few officials are using John McCain’s language of culpability in reference to President Putin, the sentiments expressed by Barack Obama, John Kerry, David Cameron and others basically amount to the same thing—that is, unabashed criticism of Russian actions and direct challenges for Putin to take some responsibility for the attack on MH17 and do more to control his proxies inside Ukraine.

The problem is that Moscow’s response to the international opprobrium being heaped upon it has been characterized by a marked lack of contrition, resulting in a gaping mismatch between East and West over how to interpret and respond to what is, at base, a reckless act of aggression undertaken by armed insurgents against innocent civilians.  Taken in the immediate context of the civil strife in Ukraine, this failure of the world’s states to arrive at a modus vivendi is worrying enough, portending that the military stand-off on the ground in eastern Ukraine will become more entrenched instead of showing signs of abatement.  But even worse is the longer term prospect of Russia—a Great Power with awesome military capabilities and occupying a pivotal role in geopolitics—sliding into further international alienation.  A specter is haunting Eastern Europe—the specter of anomie.

Émile Durkheim defined anomie as the condition whereby the behavior of an individual becomes radically out of sync with prevailing societal norms.  Usually, any given society is able to regulate the actions of the individuals that exist within it.  Norms, values, beliefs, expectations and the anticipation of sanctions—all of these factors combine to shape and constrain the behaviors exerted by individual actors.  Logics of consequence and logics of appropriateness work in tandem.  Anomie occurs when this ability of society to order the behavior of its members breaks down.  Under a condition of anomie, individuals view society as an improper or illegitimate regulator of their actions.  Individuals become laws unto themselves—and dangerously so.

Of course, the international system (“international society”) does not exert the same level of influence over states or their leaders as domestic societies do over individual human beings.  Nevertheless, many scholars agree that a form of international society does exist—not least of all in the corpus of agreed upon public international laws that are supposed to regulate international conduct.  Even beyond codified laws, certain standards of behavior are expected of sovereign states—that emissaries be afforded diplomatic immunity or that civilians not be targets during war, for example.  States that fall short of these shared expectations suffer the consequences of being named, shamed, and potentially sanctioned and ostracized.

To be sure, many states have rebelled against the strictures of international society over the course of world history.  Indeed, norms are flouted, laws broken, rules refashioned or rejected outright with some degree of frequency.  Nevertheless, derogation from international expectations rarely is regarded as a good thing.  Nor does it tend to go unpunished.  There is even an assortment of unflattering epithets for states that defy international society wholesale or on a regular basis: “revisionists,” “spoilers,” “rogue states,” “pariah regimes” and the like.

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