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Bad Russia! The Limits of Shaming

Send this boy to his room
Send this boy to his room AFP/Getty Images

Banishment and ostracism can be successful strategies—depending on who's being punished

I stepped too close to the edge of a subway platform not long ago and a small Australian boy, visiting New York with his family, turned to me and scolded, “Naughty!” His parents and I shared a laugh; they had prepared him for the city well.

And there, for better or worse, is the main pillar of the world’s reaction to Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.

It’s a shopworn trope to call the world a family of nations, but the description is no less accurate for that. There are the overachievers and the underachievers, the elitists and the artists, the brawlers and the outlaws and the loonies most of us haven’t seen in years but can’t resist gossiping about (North Korea, we’re looking at you). Is it any wonder that the global equivalent of Thanksgiving dinner—the annual meeting of the U.N. General Assembly—often turns into such a psychodrama? As with families, too, what all of the relatives—good and bad—really want is a little acceptance, a little respect. That’s what makes makes the sanction of international shaming seem like such a powerful one.

Throughout human history, banishment and other forms of ostracism have been effective tools for enforcing group norms. When you’re living in the state of nature, being told to stand outside the circle of light that the campfire sheds—out where the wild things are—can be a terrifying prospect. That primal fear stays with us and finds a different kind of expression among the leaders of nations, for whom exclusion from alliances, global markets and other international institutions is its own kind of punishment.

In some ways, the strategy works. Iran has been obstreperous for a long time and current negotiations over its nuclear program may still come to naught, but there’s little doubt that, at least in the short term, global economic sanctions squeezed its economy enough to make the pain of stubbornness seem worse than the surrender of sitting down at the conference table. American and European Union sanctions directed at individuals within Vladimir Putin’s inner circle (“cronies,” as the White House is calling them—a bad-boy term if ever there was one) may be little more than bee stings, but bigger institutional punishments are being threatened.

That strategy can work out a few ways, as a study just released by the University of Copenhagen reveals. Rebecca Adler-Nissen, an associate professor of political science, has studied the history of shaming as a geopolitical tool and has identified three different ways the target country tends to respond: acceptance, rejection and counter-stigmatization. She uses Germany, Austria and Cuba as her poster children.

After World War II, Germany was nothing short of the global community’s Charlie Manson—a monster responsible for unfathomable things. Unlike the real Manson, however, Germany accepted the description, embarked on a generations-long effort at good global citizenship and has re-emerged as one of the world’s most powerful and respected countries. Austria rejected any connection to the horrors of Naziism and made a somewhat less even return to international esteem. It had never plunged anywhere near as low as Germany, but has not risen as high since either. (It didn’t help when, in 1985, former U.N. Secretary General Kurt Waldheim, who was then running for Austrian President, was found to have been part of the Wehrmacht during the Second World War, something he left off his resumé.)

Then there’s counter-stigmatization. Cuba has been a pariah in the U.S. since 1959 and has suffered under a decades-old economic embargo, but, in a sense, it has pariah-ed us right back, using U.S. enmity as a rallying point. Iran has historically capitalized on our global cold shoulder the same way.

So far, alas, it seems Russia is following that example. Putin’s 47-minute address Tuesday at the Grand Kremlin Palace was steeped in the language of grievance. “They cheated us again and again,” he said of the West, “made decisions behind our back, presenting us with completed facts.” Internal dissent—whether in Ukraine or Russia—has been fomented by the same Western powers, according to Putin. “Some Western politicians already threaten us not only with sanctions, but also with the potential for domestic problems,” he said. And about those sanctions? “If you press a spring too hard, it will recoil,” the Russian president promised.

So for now, not good. But the thing about shaming is that it can take a while to work. When the heat cools, when the bravado fades, when one more Christmas eve is spent alone—or one more year passes on the sidelines of a G-7 meeting that used to be a G-8—the banishee often wants to make amends. Russia has come in from the cold before. Eventually, it may again.

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