Azerbaijan's president reminds us that we don't have any of the high ground we used to, moral or political.
The interview is a dead medium, mostly because nobody alive today—whether interviewer or interviewee—is interesting enough to hold most people’s attention. Occasionally, a public figure comes along with enough of a personality and intellect to almost merit watching (think Boris Johnson); or an host presents enough raw energy to draw a captive audience and hide the lack of substance (like Joe Rogan); or the sheer weirdness of a subject reels a few people in (
Bruce Caitlyn Jenner on Hannity).
Every once in a while though, somebody actually says something worthwhile, and the rarity alone of such occurrences means that people will take notice. The source of such a standout, too, is often unexpected—as in the case of Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev, a clip of whose November interview with BBC journalist Orla Guerin went viral last week on Twitter. Aliyev—who, despite his reputation as a pro-Western moderate Muslim, is hardly known as a champion of civil liberties and democratic values—is not the first person one would expect to speak with moral clarity about the state of free society in 2021.
Saul was not a likely prophet either.
Guerin, who was born in Dublin in 1966 but has chosen a career reporting for the royally chartered network of the British crown, had challenged the Azeri leader on alleged censorship of media under his 18-year (and running) administration, particularly concerning the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict that was then ongoing with Armenia. With an almost Trumpian opening, Aliyev let loose:
Absolutely fake, absolutely. We have free media, we have free internet. Now, due to martial law, we have some restrictions but before there have been no restrictions. The number of internet users in Azerbaijan is more than 80 percent. Can you imagine the restriction of media in a country where the internet is free, there is no censorship, and there is 80 percent of internet users? We have millions of people on Facebook. How can you say that we don’t have free media? This is, again, a biased approach. This is an attempt to create a perception in Western audiences about Azerbaijan. We have opposition, we have NGOs, we have free political activity, we have free media, we have freedom of speech. But if you raise this question, can I ask you also one? How do you assess what happened to Mr. Assange? Is it a reflection of free media in your country?
“For journalistic activity, you kept that person hostage,” Aliyev continued, “actually killing him, morally and physically. You did it, not us. And now he’s in prison. So you have no moral right to talk about free media, when you do these things.”
Of course, the most important thing here may just be that he’s right, that none of the limits Aliyev has placed on the flow of information in his nation are any worse than those imposed by his interrogator’s own government and its allies in the Anglosphere and beyond, to say nothing of the informal and self-imposed restrictions of non-governmental voices there. The Western powers that be are every bit as jealous in defending their own status as a smalltime central Asian strongman whose entire domain is hardly more populous than New York City proper.
The powerful establishment media of the West will point out the motes in their neighbors’ eyes not just because they cannot see the beams in their own—though the credulity of such journalists concerning their own governments’ should not be underestimated—but because they would never imagine a non-Westerner could point out the beam.
Until now, the assumption has largely been correct. Make no mistake, it is not because abuses like the persecution of Assange had not been taking place until recently; that kind of thing has been the stock-in-trade of the U.S. and U.K. governments at least since the height of the Cold War. But before 2021 no minor statesman from a small regional power would have risked running afoul of the Western hegemons by saying forcefully on TV what most people already new to be true. Aliyev—who is effectively a client of the informal Western empire with headquarters in Washington, London, and Jerusalem—clearly sees that the balance of power has shifted. With China poised to overtake the U.S. as a geo-economic superpower, and with American domestic politics in rough shape, the soft empire that the U.S. and its Western allies have been overseeing across the globe looks likely to collapse. With rich oil fields and a valuable strategic position between Russia and Iran, Azerbaijan may well be more important to the United States now than the inverse.
Thus we find ourselves, for the first time in decades, with practical vassals who have no qualms about denouncing the empire itself. Whatever some people might like to tell you, we have not had the moral high ground for a very long time; now, we barely even have the political high ground, and without either one our position is far more perilous than we realize. This time, the world actually is watching—and taking notes.
Elsewhere in the interview, Aliyev took an even more Trumpian turn. Guerin accused his troops of using cluster munitions in a populated town, a charge which the president flatly denied. When the reporter insisted that her BBC colleagues and other Westerners such as NGO observers had seen it with their own eyes, the president turned to a classic: “So what, they were there? That doesn’t mean anything. That could be fake news. . . .because it was a biased approach to the conflict, because of the black propaganda against Azerbaijan in international media.”
Guerin tried to push him: “So everything is fake news?” Aliyev, with a chuckle: “Of course, why not?”
Now, I don’t trust Aliyev as far as I can throw him; just because he’s right about Assange does not mean he is not corrupt and repressive, with a strong dictatorial streak. But it’s important to note that—whatever else in his words may be untrue or dishonest—Aliyev is correct in pointing out Guerin’s hubris. The mere fact that he is willing to point it out, together with the spectacular virality of the exchange, is a sign that tides are turning. Since the effective collapse of the formal British Empire in the last century, the vast majority of the imperialism of the West has been soft power: political sway bereft of force or serious threats thereof; massive and unavoidable economic influence; cultural hegemony that turns even formally unaffiliated nations into practical social vassals (just look at what Aliyev is wearing); and, perhaps more than anything, the ability to exercise near-unilateral control over the global political narrative.
No more. As Donald Trump realized long before most, the narrative has failed. As Ilham Aliyev has demonstrated, the rest of the world is catching up to the growing domestic recognition of that failure. This means, in all likelihood, a rocky road ahead, and a sea change before long.
In the oft-quoted evaluation of an overrated French novelist, the near future is likely to look the same, but worse. Politics will stay brutal, media will stay biased, and doubt will not disappear any more than hostility will. Sectarian wars in distant lands will wage on, and the West will continue its efforts to meddle wherever it sees fit. The facade, though, will continue to crumble. As the narrative falls apart and decline becomes apparent, the emissaries of the late globe-spanning empire will not be treated with the same deferential fêting to which they have grown accustomed—and we will all know, as Aliyev does, that they did not deserve it in the first place.
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