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.

A Multipolar Post-COVID-19 World?

Russia now has the third highest number of COVID-19 infections after the U.S. and Spain, with Putin reportedly seeing a drop in his usually high approval ratings. (Though the country seems to be faring relatively well otherwise.)

It is interesting how virtually all the major world powers have been brought low by this pandemic. Meanwhile, countries like Germany, South Korea, Taiwan, New Zealand, Vietnam, Costa Rica, and Greece (among others) have seen their geopolitical stars rise, to varying degrees, from their effective responses.

The first three have become especially more influential, with leaders across the world turning to them for guidance and assistance. Taiwan, which is officially shunned by all but fifteen countries, now has more friends in the world fighting for its inclusion in the international system. Germany’s economic and political policies are seen as the gold standard by rich and poor countries alike.

Obviously, different countries were hit in different ways, and larger nations like the U.S., China, and Russia would ostensibly have a harder time containing an outbreak. But that doesn’t matter: These nations—especially the U.S.—claim to have the superior political model with which to lead the world; they also generally have more resources than smaller countries. Thus, they have raised the standard by which they are judged.

Since the turn of the 21st century, there has been much talk about whether we are entering a “multipolar” world, one in which no country really dominates. It’s hard to imagine the U.S. and China not being the most influential nations, but it’s likely their influence will continue to fall in -relative- terms: Not a decline so much as the rise of everyone else.

But I’m just thinking out loud.

COVID-19 and Glass Houses

China deserves criticism for its initial handling of the COVID-19 outbreak, its continued air of secrecy that makes it difficult to verify its alleged success, and its blocking of Taiwan—a major pandemic success story—from the W.H.O. and other international institutions.

But I feel a lot of American criticism is of the “glass houses” variety. Our response to the virus, both initially and still now, has hardly been stellar. The behavior of governments at all levels, as well as by private citizens and businesses, makes it difficult to claim any moral high ground over the Chinese response (and no, this isn’t to say we’re the same in terms of totalitarianism, etc.).

Insurance companies will reportedly be raising their premiums next year. Many of those treated are left with bills in the tens of thousands. Profit-centered hospitals are actually laying off well needed staff because treating COVID-19 is too costly. A man in Brooklyn was raided for hoarding precious medical equipment, while a Georgia man was fraudulently going to sell $750 million in nonexistent masks to the Veterans Affairs Department. Doctors have been censored and even fired by hospitals for speaking out against the lack of protective equipment, which of course shouldn’t be happening in the first place. Masks are being sold at marked up prices. Many of our “essential workers” are still dying and underpaid; millions are illegal immigrants (ironically the Dept. of Homeland Security reminds them of their essential status while targeting them for their illegal one).

Our economy of nearly $20 trillion, home to most of the world’s billionaires, top innovators, and tech companies, somehow cannot allocate its resources to test and treat people and ensure they don’t starve during the lockdown. Our rapacious and hyper-individualistic attitude to money and self interest is somehow intact, if not thriving, in the face of senseless death and suffering ( notwithstanding the many touching and inspiring stories I’ve acknowledged and shared here about the better side of our society.

Yeah, the Chinese government (among others) has several times dropped the ball on this virus. It’s used it as an excuse to tighten its grip and even to bully Taiwan. The cultural practice of the wet market is problematic on a lot of levels. There are probably many more sordid stories we don’t know about.

But given how our far wealthier and better resourced country has mishandled this—across both the public and private sectors, and as a society—I’m not sure we would have done much better with an outbreak of an unknown disease.

I wish the folks putting all their energy and focus on China would hold businesses, healthcare companies, and government officials accountable—or, at the very least, direct some scrutiny and ire their way—and engage in some introspection about our own problematic practices and values (lack of community engagement and concern, hyper-individualism at the expense of others, employer-sponsored healthcare that leaves us at the mercy of unaccountable and disengaged bosses, etc.)

The Flawed But Indispensable World Health Organization

Withholding funding (even temporarily) from the World Health Organization—in the midst of a pandemic and while it has been providing supplies and training to vulnerable nations, including our own—is foolhardy and utterly without merit.

The W.H.O. is accused of having been too deferential to China at the start of the outbreak. But around the same time, on January 24, the president praised the Chinese response on Twitter, stating that “China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus. The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency.”

When confronted about this tweet yesterday, Trump stated he “would love to have a good relationship with China”—which is ironically why the W.H.O. handled China the way it did.

The organization is run by 194 countries (including the U.S. and China), which also elect its Director-General. In order to facilitate global cooperation and knowledge sharing, it has to strike a delicate balance between providing science-based health information and making sure countries aren’t antagonized or allowed to squabble with each other; otherwise the world might lose out on key information and research.

In fact, the U.S. received vital early epidemiological data from China only because the WHO used its good relations to broker access. That’s the same reason the otherwise secretive Chinese eventually opened up and even published the first genetic profile of the virus for the world to use.

Trump himself seemed to acknowledge this with gratitude. In late February, he tweeted “Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA. We are in contact with everyone and all relevant countries. CDC & World Health have been working hard and very smart…”

Furthermore, against initial resistance, the W.H.O. managed to pressure China to allow observers into the country; in early February, an international team led by the agency visited Wuhan, including two Americans, (one from the C.D.C. and the other from the N.I.H.).

Of course, it’s totally fair to debate whether the W.H.O. struck the right balance with China. It could have said more about China’s suppression of independent scientists, lack of transparency and human rights violations. It certainly could have been more open to Taiwan and the crucial information it provided. But again, it’s a hard balance to strike given the need to keep China on board (and recall that most of the world, including the U.S., also avoid official relations with Taiwan out of deference to China, too).

From the beginning, the W.H.O. issued urgent advisories throughout January about the potential dangers from the virus and announced that it constituted a “public health emergency of international concern” a day before the U.S. made a similar declaration. The W.H.O. repeatedly said “all countries should be prepared for containment, including active surveillance, early detection, isolation and case management, contact tracing and prevention of onward spread.”

From January 22, Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus held almost daily news briefings to warn the world that the virus was spreading and that countries should do everything they could to stop it. Every day he repeated: “We have a window of opportunity to stop this virus. But that window is rapidly closing.”

The W.H.O. has also been criticized for its decision in January not to impose restrictions on travel from China, which the organization warned would be ineffective— and they were right. We imposed travel bans in February on all foreign nationals who had visited China, but as we know, this did not stop the virus from spreading; we now have more reported cases than anywhere in the world. Meanwhile, countries that did not enact a ban, such as Canada, South Korea, and Taiwan, have fared better those that did.

Finally, the W.H.O. has been taken to task for not declaring a global emergency sooner. But when it made this declaration on January 30, there were still relatively few reported cases outside China. World leaders still had the info and updates to act, and some countries responded immediately; South Korea implemented an effective blend of policies that has made it one of the top success stories. The W.H.O. cannot be blamed for our slow response.

There is no denying that the World Health Organization is a flawed institution. But that’s to be expected of an organization made up of 194 countries, each bringing their own baggage, rivalries, and self interest. For all its problems and missteps, on balance it has done a good job in the face of a very complex and difficult pandemic—one that even the world’s richest country has had a hard time handling.

Perhaps the biggest irony in our abandoning the institution (albeit allegedly temporarily) is that it will give ample opportunity for China to fill the void, as it has been doing throughout the last few years. We bail out of global leadership time and again and then wring our hands at the Chinese for doing the obvious geopolitical thing of stepping in.

The “Wuhan Virus” and Human Progress

Believe it or not, the saga of the “Wuhan coronavirus” demonstrates a considerable amount of human progress since the days that diseases would claims tens of millions of lives (which wasn’t that long ago).

First, it was identified and determined to be a new strain of the coronavirus family at record speed. (Coronaviruses are best known for causing the “common cold”.) Just one week after it was discovered, Chinese authorities had already sequenced the virus and shared it with labs around the world; an Australian lab did the same not long after, allowing the whole world to pool its resources together to learn more about this pneumonia-like virus and develop a possible treatment.

“Something that’s remarkable here is that within a week, the RNA sequences of the virus are available on the internet, and many can look at it and begin to understand it,” Richard Martinello, an associate professor of infectious disease at the Yale School of Medicine, told Business Insider. “That’s something that’s never been done before.”

Second, since the discovery of coronaviruses around 60 years ago, medical technology has come a very long way, advancing to the point that we can conduct far more in-depth research into the way these viruses work. For example, while it was known that coronavirus could infect humans, the SARS outbreak marked the first time a coronavirus was traced back to animals. We will likely learn a lot from this experience as well.

And that leads to my third point: Thanks to the advent of institutions like the U.N. World Health Organization, there is unprecedented cooperation, monitoring, and exchanging of data and resources across the world. Just as diseases do not adhere to borders, so too are we humans learning the value of cooperating and coordinating to prevent or contain these pandemics.

To that end, Americans are presently far more likely to catch the seasonal flu than the Wuhan coronavirus. Plus, the preventative measures for both are the same: wash your hands frequently, avoid touching your face, and keep away from anyone who is sick.

None of this is to promote complacency, but to prevent unwarranted or possibly counterproductive panic.

How the World Views China, Russia and the U.S.

Researchers at Pew asked populations in different countries about which countries they saw as their biggest allies and threats.

Nearly a quarter of Americans saw Russia as the country’s greatest international threat, which put it on par with China.

One in ten Canadians named Russia as their greatest threat — but one in five said the same about the U.S.

The number of people who see Russia as the greatest threat has decreased as Putin has helped the country achieve more visibility on the international scene. Across 25 nations, 42 percent of people believed that Russia had become more influential globally; more than half of Americans concur.

Of course, this didn’t mean more people seeing Russia more positively: With the exception of India and Turkey — at 15 percent and nine percent, respectively — no more than four percent in any country named Russia as their most dependable ally.

As for China, the majority of people in most countries agree that its influence on the world stage has grown considerably, in particular seeing China as the world’s biggest economic powers alongside the U.S.

But only a median of six percent considered China their most reliable ally, compared with 27 percent who named the US.

Moreover, China is considered a threat by many neighbors: 62 percent of Filipinos, half of Japanese, 40 percent of Australians, 32 percent of South Koreans and 21 percent of Indonesians. Among the last two, the perception of China has worsened, though among the Japanese, it has gotten better.

In Canada, 32 percent of people saw China as a threat, the biggest figure for any state there.

Finally, as for the U.S., things are rosier than one would think. Many countries saw the U.S. as their biggest ally, including China’s neighbors (South Korea at 71 percent, the Philippines at 64 percent and Japan at 63 percent). Unsurprisingly, Israelis are the most enthusiastic in this regard, at 82 percent.

The caveat: Though large numbers of Canadians, Australians, and South Korean saw the U.S. as an ally, many also saw it as a big threat, making the country’s place in the world more polarizing.

Source: TRT World

The Asian Giants Leading the Fight Against Climate Change

NASA finds that Earth is greener than two decades ago thanks mostly to China and India—the world’s two most populous countries, which together make up 36% of humanity.

Despite being considered bad actors in environmental policies and climate change reduction, both nations have significantly ramped up efforts to be more eco-friendly; for example, India has engaged in record tree planting, with 800,000 Indians planting 50 million trees in just 24 hours.

The European Union and Canada have also seen significant improvements in this area. The U.S. ranks seventh in the total growth in vegetation percent by decade.

Although not mentioned in the study, Ethiopia, which is the world’s 12th most populous countries, has entered the fray in reforestation, beating India’s already-astounding record by planting 350 million trees in one day.

Bear in mind that a country that largely kept its forests and vegetation intact would appear to perform worse in re-vegetation than a country that had heavily deforested and thus has more room to grow.

These efforts are far from token: Research suggests that planting trees—lots of them—can significantly help mitigate the effects of climate change, to say nothing of their contributions to human well being.

If these two heavily populated and developing countries can find the will and resources to pull this off—despite the heavy demands to bring economic prosperity to their people—there is some hope, and certainly no excuse.

Source: Forbes

China’s CRISPR Babies

According to Chinese medical documents posted online this month (here and here), a team at the Southern University of Science and Technology, in Shenzhen, has been recruiting couples in an effort to create the first gene-edited babies. They planned to eliminate a gene called CCR5 in order to render the offspring resistant to HIV, smallpox, and cholera.
The clinical trial documents describe a study to employ CRISPR to modify human embryos, then to transfer them into the uterus of mothers and deliver healthy children.

It is unclear if any children have been born. The scientist behind the effort, Jiankui He, did not reply to a list of questions about whether the undertaking had produced a live birth. Reached by telephone he declined to comment. However, data submitted as part of the trial listing shows genetic tests have been carried out on fetuses as late as 24 weeks, or six months. It’s not known if those pregnancies were terminated, carried to term, or are ongoing.

The birth of the first genetically tailored humans would be a stunning medical achievement, for both He and for China. But it will prove controversial, too. Where some see a new form of medicine to eliminate genetic disease, others see a slippery slope to enhancements, designer babies, and a new form of eugenics. 

Source: MIT Technology Review

Tyrus Wong

Today I learned that the lead artist for Disney’s “Bambi” was a Chinese-born illegal immigrant who drew inspiration from the art styles of the Song Dynasty.

Tyrus Wong was born Wong Gen Yeo on this day in 1910, in Taishan, Guangdong, China. When he was nine, he and his father immigrated to the United States, where they were initially detained, separated, and questioned due to the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited immigrants from China. They assumed false identifies as “paper sons”—relatives of Chinese Americans already legally resident in the U.S.—and were subsequently released, ultimately settling in L.A. Continue reading

The Battle of Liaoluo Bay

On this day in 1633, China’s naval forces decisively defeated the Dutch East India Company’s fleet in the Battle of Liaoluo Bay, the largest naval encounter between Chinese and European forces before the First Opium War more than two centuries later. The battle was part of a wider conflict against Dutch efforts to dominate maritime trade and colonize the Chinese coast.

Governed by the Ming Dynasty for nearly three hundred years, China was at the time perhaps the wealthiest and most powerful civilization: its population of 160-200 million was about one-fourth the world’s population; its GDP is estimated to have been a third of the global economy; and its governance is considered to have been “one of the greatest eras of orderly government and social stability in human history”, with entrance examinations, a meritocratic philosophy, and several dedicated departments and ministries (such as for revenue, justice, and public works).

For its part, the Dutch East India Company (VOC in Dutch) was the world’s first multinational company and megacorporation, pioneering practices and organizational methods that presaged the rise of modern capitalism (such as issuing stock, directing foreign investment, and diversifying into commercial and industrial activities). It was also a de facto arm of the Dutch Republic, a commercial superpower that utilized the VOC to take on powerful empires in both Europe and Asia. The VOC possessed quasi-governmental powers, including the right to maintain a powerful military, wage war, imprison and execute convicts, negotiate treaties, produce its own currency, and establish colonies.

The Battle of Liaoluo Bay was something of a last hurrah for the Chinese; while they would score several more military and diplomatic victories against European powers, and would maintain an advanced military, China would eventually be overtaken and dominated by its Western rivals—though never wholly colonized or controlled—especially beginning from the First Opium War with the British Empire, by then the world’s new superpower.

Source: The Company’s Chinese Pirates: How the Dutch East India Company Tried to Lead a Coalition of Pirates to War against China, 1621-1662