Must It Be Always the Case That “the Strong Do What They Can and the Weak Suffer What They Must”?

The Russian invasion of Ukraine violates the laws and norms of the international order set forth in the Charter of the United Nations.  I am quite certain that such use of force in Europe opens up a new era in history, one that puts an end to the efficacious implementation of the idealism of the post-World War II effort to build an open, global community for humanity, respecting the individual and the rule of law.

Russia’s use of force to achieve its political goals, though, is quite in line with ancient practices. The Greek historian Thucydides reported Athenian conquerors telling the newly subjugated people of Melos: “The strong do what they can; the weak suffer what they must.”

Just as the Ukrainians now, the leaders of the island of Melos faced this choice: have their people die as free men or live on as slaves.  The Athenians had a fleet of 38 shops off the coast of Melos ready to land heavy infantry and archers.  They waited while the Melians debated what to do.

The Athenian advocacy that “might makes right” denies the alternative moral stance that right must follow the good, the true and the beautiful.  Thus, the Athenian ethical regime would have no room for the Caux Round Table’s Principles for Business or Government.

The cultural politics of social Darwinism built on the thinking of Herbert Spencer that humans, like animals, had no significant moral sense, only a will to survive and master their environments.  In late 19th century, regimes of “survival of the fittest,” a brute capitalism, colonialism, racism and honor and prestige for those who could become masters, all gained prestige and social power.

Russia today, thus, challenges as presumptuous the Caux Round Table’s advocacy of moral standards applicable to all persons and nations.  The Caux Round Table effort, from this point of view, is to be discarded in Trotsky’s famous “dustbin of history.”

Just prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, on February 4, President Vladimir Putin met in Beijing with Chinese President Xi Jinping.  The two agreed to an alliance looking towards a new world order suitable to them.

The historic precedent to this Russia/China Pact, I suggest, is the Hitler/Stalin Pact of August 1939 on the division of Poland, implementation of which started World War II in Europe.

The Putin/Xi Pact lays out, with great care and serious thought, a new regime for our world, one in which great powers with long histories and myths of ethnic superiority can do as they please.  The rest, accordingly, must suffer what they must.

The Putin/Xi Pact begins with an observation that “humanity is entering a new era:

Today, the world is going through momentous changes and humanity is entering a new era of rapid development and profound transformation.  It sees the development of such processes and phenomena as multipolarity, economic globalization, the advent of information society, cultural diversity, transformation of the global governance architecture and world order; … a trend has emerged towards redistribution of power in the world.

The Pact shrewdly honors past ideals:

Russia and China call on all States to pursue well-being for all and, with these ends, to build dialogue and mutual trust, strengthen mutual understanding, champion such universal human values as peace, development, equality, justice, democracy and freedom, respect the rights of peoples to independently determine the development paths of their countries and the  sovereignty and the security and development interests of States, to protect the United Nations-driven international architecture and the international law-based world order, seek genuine multipolarity with the United Nations and its Security Council playing a central and coordinating role, promote more democratic international relations and ensure peace, stability and sustainable development across the world.

Russia and China benevolently affirm that democracy is a universal human value, rather than a privilege of a limited number of States, and that its promotion and protection is a common responsibility of the entire world community.


The sides [Russia and China] underline that Russia and China, as world powers and permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, intend to firmly adhere to moral principles and accept their responsibility, strongly advocate the international system with the central coordinating role of the United Nations in international affairs, defend the world order based on international law, including the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations, advance multipolarity and promote the democratization of international relations, together create an even more prospering, stable and just world, jointly build international relations of a new type.

But then, Putin and Xi announce a new dispensation for world governance – universal idealism has no place in our global community.  We are to turn back to Hitler’s notion of the sovereignty of the “volk” – the ethnic or national community.

The Putin/Xi Pact proclaims:

There is no one-size-fits-all template to guide countries in establishing democracy.  A nation can choose such forms and methods of implementing democracy that would best suit its particular state, based on its social and political system, its historical background, traditions and unique cultural characteristics.  It is only up to the people of the country to decide whether their State is a democratic one.

In other words, collective will, acting through the state, determines what rights individuals have. Individuals find their meaning in the collective.

This pollical philosophy was first set forth with intellectual finesse by Jean-Jacque Rousseau in his prescription that freedom is to be found in obedience to the general will, an abstraction and that the more an individual does not align with the general will, the more force is necessary to repress such dissent.

In the 1760s, Johann Gottfried Herder advocated a “nationalgeist” or a “volkgeist.”  In Germany, the concept of volksgeist has developed in the literary field with August Schlegel and the Grimm brothers; in political history with Friedrich Hegel; in the field of law with Friedrich von Savigny and in the field of psychology or national character studies with Wilhelm Wundt.  One of the founders of modern sociology, Ferdinand Tonnies, distinguished folk communities (gemeinschaft) from modern, secular, individualist, rational/legal communities (geselleschaft).  Germans in World War I rallied behind the concept of “volksgemeinschaft” or people’s national community, which undergirded Hitler’s national socialism.

Hitler legitimated his rule over the Germans with the monopolistic principles “ein volk, ein reich, ein further.”

In the early 19th century, German philosopher Hegel idealized the state as the source of value and rights.  Friedrich Nietzsche built on Hegel’s rationalism to argue that reason, taken to the extreme, contradicts everything, leaving us actually free to believe whatever we want and follow our will to power.  Socially and psychologically created narratives and nihilism each reciprocally empowered the other.

Today, the “volksgeist” ideal in politics and state practice is called “populist nationalism.”  As the state calls the tune, so the other social sectors must dance.

Building on this intellectual tradition, the Putin/Xi Pact raises up the “volksgeists” or the “volksgemeinschafts” of the Russian and Chinese people to world historical status:

The sides note that Russia and China as world powers with rich cultural and historical heritage have long-standing traditions of democracy, which rely on thousand-years of experience of development, broad popular support and consideration of the needs and interests of citizens. Russia and China guarantee their people the right to take part through various means and in various forms in the administration of the State and public life in accordance with the law.  The people of both countries are certain of the way they have chosen and respect the democratic systems and traditions of other States.

The sides note that the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights set noble goals in the area of universal human rights, set forth fundamental principles, which all the States must comply with and observe in deeds.  At the same time, as every nation has its own unique national features, history, culture, social system and level of social and economic development, universal nature of human rights should be seen through the prism of the real situation in every particular country, and human rights should be protected in accordance with the specific situation in each country and the needs of its population.

The Russian side notes the significance of the concept of constructing a “community of common destiny for mankind” proposed by the Chinese side to ensure greater solidarity of the international community and consolidation of efforts in responding to common challenges. The Chinese side notes the significance of the efforts taken by the Russian side to establish a just multipolar system of international relations.

Here, the Russian and Chinese governments are rejecting any need to subordinate their decisions to what is right for humanity to standards and decisions of the United Nations or traditional international law.

The Putin /Xi Pact directly and expressly denounces efforts by nations to impose moral and political standards on other nations:

The sides note that democratic principles are implemented at the global level, as well as in administration of State.  Certain States’ attempts to impose their own “democratic standards” on other countries, to monopolize the right to assess the level of compliance with democratic criteria, to draw dividing lines based on the grounds of ideology, including by establishing exclusive blocs and alliances of convenience, prove to be nothing but flouting of democracy and go against the spirit and true values of democracy.  Such attempts at hegemony pose serious threats to global and regional peace and stability and undermine the stability of the world order.

The sides reaffirm their strong mutual support for the protection of their core interests, state sovereignty and territorial integrity and oppose interference by external forces in their internal affairs.

The sides believe that the advocacy of democracy and human rights must not be used to put pressure on other countries.  They oppose the abuse of democratic values and interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states under the pretext of protecting democracy and human rights and any attempts to incite divisions and confrontation in the world.  The sides call on the international community to respect cultural and civilizational diversity and the rights of peoples of different countries to self-determination.  They stand ready to work together with all the interested partners to promote genuine democracy.

Here, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping propose to form alliances and partners with those countries (governments?) which share this volkgeist perspective.

To put a fine point on Putin’s and Xi’s adoption of the will to power as an acceptable ethic, their Pact replicates the conquest of other lands which was the objective of the Hitler/Stalin Pact:

The Russian side reaffirms its support for the One-China principle, confirms that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China and opposes any forms of independence of Taiwan.

Russia and China stand against attempts by external forces to undermine security and stability in their common adjacent regions, intend to counter interference by outside forces in the internal affairs of sovereign countries under any pretext, oppose colour revolutions, and will increase cooperation in the aforementioned areas.

In moral opposition to the principles advanced by the Putin/Xi Pact, the Caux Round Table Principles for Government affirm:

Just as the Principles for Business, these Principles for Government derive from two ethical ideals: “kyosei” and “human dignity.” The Japanese concept of “kyosei” looks to living and working together for the common good, while the moral vision of “human dignity” refers to the sacredness or value of each person as an end, not simply as a means to the fulfillment of others’ purposes or even of majority demands.

Power brings responsibility.  Power is a necessary moral circumstance in that it binds the actions of one to the welfare of others.

The state is the servant and agent of higher ends; it is subordinate to society.  Public power is to be exercised within a framework of moral responsibility for the welfare of others.  Governments that abuse their trust shall lose their authority and may be removed from office.

Public power, however allocated by constitutions, referendums or laws, shall rest its legitimacy in processes of communication and discourse among autonomous moral agents who constitute the community to be served by the government.  Free and open discourse, embracing independent media, shall not be curtailed, except to protect legitimate expectations of personal privacy, sustain the confidentiality needed for the proper separation of powers or for the most dire of reasons relating to national security.

Public power constitutes a civic order for the safety and common good of its members.  The civic order, as a moral order, protects and promotes the integrity, dignity and self-respect of its members in their capacity as citizens and, therefore, avoid all measures, oppressive and other, whose tendency is to transform the citizen into a subject.  The state shall protect, give legitimacy to or restore all those principles and institutions which sustain the moral integrity, self-respect and civic identity of the individual citizen and which also serve to inhibit processes of civic estrangement, dissolution of the civic bond and civic disaggregation.  This effort by the civic order itself protects the citizen’s capacity to contribute to the well-being of the civic order.

At this time, I am most vividly reminded of the words of an old song we used to sing in the American Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, a song which was taken over from movements to organize unions in American companies:

Everybody now, which side are you on?
Which side are you on? Everybody
Which side are you on?

If our choice today is a Manichean one between the dark side or the better angels side of our natures, I choose the angelic.

It would, therefore, seem that principles for moral government and moral capitalism are needed now more than ever.  I trust you will agree with me.