Whataboutism and Geopolitics

As China, Russia, Iran, and Turkey hypocritically but accurately call out the United States. for its various social and political dysfunctions—usually as a snide counterpoint to whenever we do the same to them—I am reminded of the old Soviet Cold War strategy of “whatboutism“.

In 1947, when William Averell Harriman, the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, mentioned “Soviet imperialism” in a speech in Seattle, the official Soviet publication Pravda wasted no time in punching back. To paraphrase its response: “American warmongers want to drop bombs on the Soviet Union because they don’t like its social order, but the Soviet people, though they consider U.S. laws on race to be insulting to human dignity, “do not intend on that account to turn modern weapons against Mississippi or Georgia.”

In short, you want to bomb us for human rights abuses, but by your standard we could just as well do the same to you.

This exchange is indicative of a rhetorical strategy in international relations known as whataboutism, which Olga Kazan explains in the Atlantic “occurs when officials implicated in wrongdoing whip out a counter-example of a similar abuse from the accusing country, with the goal of undermining the legitimacy of the criticism itself. (In Latin, this fallacious rhetorical defense is called tu quoque, or “you, too.”)

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Courtesy of the Altlantic: A cartoon from a 1967 issue of Pravda depicts racial tensions in U.S. cities. Under the Statue of Liberty, armed troops are marching with labels reading, “Newark, Detroit and Milwaukee,” the sites of riots. A caption underneath read, “Shame of America” 

This strategy is also encapsulated by the Soviet / Russian catchphrase, “And you are lynching blacks!” This stems from an old Russian political joke about a dispute between an American and Russian. After receiving criticism of his country because of the deadly 1903 anti-Jewish Kishinev pogrom, the Russian Minister of the Interior Vyacheslav von Plehve pointed out “The Russian peasants were driven to frenzy. Excited by race and religious hatred, and under the influence of alcohol, they were worse than the people of the Southern States of America when they lynch [blacks]”.

Unsurprisingly, the Soviet government continued deflecting from their own sins by highlighting America’s, and we gave them plenty to work with:

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“This guy has an honest, open face”
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To this day, similar strategies are used by America’s rivals to undermine our position while strengthening their own. China went so far as to attack our own bumbled response to COVID-19 (through LEGO blocks no less).

Of course, hypocrisy is not unique to the United States, nor any society for that matter; the “great powers” of the world have always had their skeletons, which are all too easy to expose and criticize given the presumptions that come with being a leader (real or perceived). But pronouncing yourself the greatest country in the world and blustering through every international effort or organization makes your pedestal all the higher to be thrown from.

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