In defence of whataboutism

A frequent complaint about ‘Russian propaganda’ is that it engages in ‘whataboutism’: the response to complaints about the behaviour of the Russian government or about some social, economic, or political ill in Russia is ‘what about the bad behaviour of the West?’

The anger which whataboutism provokes in some Western commentators suggests that it hits a raw nerve, possibly because it bursts their bubble of moral superiority. This week, in his blog Russia Without BS, Jim Kovpak describes the finger pointing involved in whataboutism as ‘one of the most irritating memes, for lack of a better word, that one encounters in discourse on Russia.’ This retaliatory finger pointing, Kovpak writes, is an example of ‘“fractal wrongness”, i.e. wrong on every conceivable level’. Furthermore, he says, ‘The culprit is almost always someone wholly ignorant about Russia and commenting on some news story, or it is a pro-Russian expat who attributes their privileged lifestyle to Putin.’ ‘If you have a problem with a claim in some article,’ he concludes, ‘put up or shut up. Make a damned argument and while you’re at it, bring some evidence.’

Kovpak’s view, and I suspect this is an opinion held by many others, is that only one side may legitimately ask ‘what about?’ The West can point fingers at Russia, because it is objectively better, but Russia has no right to point fingers at the West, because Russia is objectively worse than the West. The comparisons Russian whataboutists make are therefore invalid.

However, even if Kovpak is right that the West is objectively better than Russia, it still seems to me to be completely valid to point out hypocrisy where hypocrisy exists. For instance, when people like Michael Weiss of The Interpreter Magazine denounce the Russian media for their bias, it is surely entirely fair to comment, as I have, that Weiss and The Interpreter are hardly bastions of balanced reporting themselves.

In addition, Russia isn’t always and in every way worse than the West. Don’t get me wrong here. Quite obviously, Russia is not a properly functioning liberal democracy. It has a serious problem with corruption, and its foreign policy does not always respect international law. Often, when Russians point fingers at Western countries, and argue that things are as bad if not worse over there, they are wrong. But sometimes they are right.

When, for instance, people respond to complaints about ‘Russian aggression’ by pointing at American and NATO aggression elsewhere, they are making a fair point. Western commentators often claim that Russia is a ‘revisionist’ power; that in Ukraine it is trying to tear up the existing international order. Whataboutism allows us to see what a ridiculous claim this is, since the people making it are citizens of states which have done more to undermine that order than anybody else, through actions such as the invasion of Iraq and the bombing campaign against Libya.

In a recent episode of RT’s Crosstalk show (yes, I know, RT, lackey of the Kremlin, propaganda, lies, blah, blah, blah), Dmitry Babich commented that the real problem in international politics was not whataboutism but ‘let’s move on-ism’. I like this. Take the example of the torture carried out by Americans during the War in Terror. Nobody apart from whistleblowers has been jailed. Why? According to President Obama, because ‘we need to look forward, not back’. Likewise, consider the invasion of Iraq. ‘I know a large part of the public wants to move on’, said former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, ‘I share that point of view.’ And so on. Nobody is ever held to account.

In these circumstances, it is a good thing that somebody somewhere is willing to do a bit of finger pointing. Instead of rejecting criticism, we in the West should start taking it a little more seriously.

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17 thoughts on “In defence of whataboutism”

  1. The other thing in defence of “whataboutism” regarding international law is the following:

    International law has no enforcment, other then the most powerfull states. It is, de facto (de jure it is something else), the sum of the recent precedents which the most powerfull nations created.
    It goes without question that the most powerfull nation today is the USA, when they broke international law by invading Iraq, without consequences from other nations, they didnt actually break international law, they changed/rewrote it.

    Now, moralist US-apologists will claim that only the USA has the “moral standing” to break international law whenever or wherever it wants, because it stands taller and sees farther then others or something like that. Unsurprisingly, the Russian authorities (and not only they) do not agree with this definition.

    Hard IR Pro US persons may claim that only the USA is “truely powerfull”, and that other powers such as Russia are not in the “powerfull enough to blatantly ignore international law” league. To them, Russia is currently proving the opposite, and since this is a matter of force, they do so on the battle field.

    Speaking completely honestly, the big differences between Russia and the USA are, from the perespective of a minor nation, the following:

    -While the Russians are harsh enemies, they are only a threat to nations they more or less border. The US is a global threat.
    -One has to openly antagonize Russia to become their enemy, the US is far more capricious.
    -One can stop being Russias enemy. With the USA, this is actually really difficult and may take decades.
    -It used to be that Russia had a very good track record in honoring important agreements (Ukraine is the first crisis in which they broke major ones), while the US record of upholding treaties or agreements with people they do not like is actually incredibly bad. Still, when it comes to credibility in terms of upholding bargains and contracts with disliked actors, the Russians blow the USA out of the water.
    It is kind of interesting that the usual “CREDIBILITY!!! BOMB SOMEONE OR NOONE WILL TAKE US SERIOUSLY!” never seem to give much thought about the credibility of the USA to not bomb/regime change/sanction someone after they told that they wont do so.

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    1. regarding your last point — for this reason, I like to make a distinction between “Credibility” and “Trustworthiness”.

      Credibility emphasizes action, and present claims about future actions, such as threats of punishment or offers of rewards.

      Trustworthiness, or just Trust, emphasizes reputation for truth, present claims about past events, and consistent and honest and treatment of claims made in the past.

      Using one word for both of these things invites a lot of sneaky equivocation.

      Also looking forward I fear that the word Trust itself is going under the knife, with a hidden distinction between honesty and predictability… but that’s still to come.

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      1. I would agree with your distinction, though I tend to regard both credibility and trustworthiness as subsets of honour, and I tend to use honour as the lens through which to analyze human action. People are often uncomfortable using the word honour nowadays as it seems archaic, but without reference to it a lot of what goes on doesn’t make sense.

        I have tackled the foolishness of the obsession with credibility in another post, here: https://irrussianality.wordpress.com/2015/03/18/crackpot-theory-4-credibility-is-a-vital-interest/

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  2. Kovpak used to be adequate blogger, providing a real and much needed insight into modern Russia (without any BS).

    But now he became a true svidomite, to a point of rabid Russophobia.

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    1. Exactly. I used to read and enjoy his blog, for the insight and balance. Now it has devolved into madness. All that can be gleaned from it these day is his seething contempt for anyone who isn’t as brilliant and fantastic as he is.

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  3. I posted this on the Kovpak’s site (it’s still awaiting moderation):

    “But looking at some article critical of Russia and saying “That sounds like America” isn’t one of those exceptions. It’s not even an argument. It’s a cowardly retreat from debate.”

    It wouldn’t be an argument – in ordinary times. These days, however, I’m not looking at “some article critical of Russia”. I’m looking at a full scale demonization campaign, where every insignificant incident (like your 14yo girl) is paraded all over western mainstream media, blown completely out of proportion (as you demonstrate) and made into some metaphysical evidence of Russia’s evil nature. And if there is no convenient incident in sight, one will be invented.

    So, let’s consider ‘whataboutery’ in this context, and not in the irrelevant context of just “some article critical of Russia”.

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  4. Do as I say, not as I do is the maxim of the West – specifically that of the Anglosphere.

    I really liked your reference to Babich’s term “lets move onism” – this fits perfectly with the conceited and hypocritical nature of the West. Whatever errors, crimes and calamities the West has caused, the invasion of Iraq, Libya NATO air campaign, recognition of Kosovo, farcical GWOT, extraordinary rendition, Abu Ghraib, NSA mass surveillance, etc must be forgotten and forgiven.

    Regarding international law, I am afraid that no longer exists (if it all ever existed); the US and UK have long ago promulgated their right to defend their “national security and interests” come what may.

    The US, UK and West hold themselves to different standards, Russia is viewed as inferior culturally and politically therefore has no right to criticise its Western betters.

    The US, UK and West often use the word “behaviour” when referring to Russia’s policies and alleged misconduct – as if the US, UK and West are adults admonishing a delinquent.

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  5. I dont really get Russia without BS. When he made a post, largely correct, about why the UPA are basically scum, I was like “maybe this could be a Maidan supporter with whom one could have an educated discussion!” (there arent a lot of these).

    Then it went the other way.

    @ Paul, yes, Honor is actually a better description than credibility.
    It also used to be a pretty important thing, even in KGB/SVR/FSB culture, since making your word count is a pretty big thing, especially among spies.

    What I have heard as an explanation from people in Russia was the following: “The USA/West is so aggressive, and so much more powerful then Russia, and has actually broken the agreements we (Russians) also broke before we broke them (referring to the fact that the Budapest Memorandum, which Russia broke, also references the declaration of Helsinki which in turn proclaims noninterference in internal affairs, something the West clearly broke regarding Ukraine), but this lapse of Russian honor only applies to those more powerful then us, and that is only the USA. Towards anyone else, our word is still good.”.

    I tried to bring up Anatol Lievens point concerning the fact that the USA’s regime change apparatus basically runs on autopilot, and is effectively a beurocracy that self-perpetuates. The anwser was: “If this is true, then the USA is so inept/mis-managed that we not only have a right, but actually a duty to resist, since they literally cannot be trusted with the hegemonic position, and no one else can resist them like we can.”.

    I sometimes strongly doubt if the Beltway truly appreciates/understands what they are doing.

    The Russians are normally very pragmatic and business like, especially towards people they do not like, but once you push them far enough, they become the one enemy you never want to make.

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  6. Short response: And what about it?

    Long response: There are really both “legitimate” and “illegitimate” uses of whataboutism.

    Scenario 1: Some Russian problem is being discussed earnestly and in good faith, say corruption and how to fix it. Some hothead starts ranting about Goldman Sachs, revolving doors, lobbyists, Iraq contractors, Rotherham, MPs’ expenses, the Federal Reserve, Fort Knox, etc, etc. This is irrelevant, distracting, and a waste of everyone’s time.

    Scenario 2: Russia is an aggressor state that is undermining the fundamentals of the post-war international order. The world community must unite against the Kremlin. Impose sanctions, cut Russia off from SWIFT, no Mistral, confiscate bazillions in Russian assets to pay off the persecuted democracy activist Khodorkovsky, block Kremlin trolls from commenting. The aim here is clearly and pathologically anti-Russian, hence rigorous, uncompromising whataboutism (Libya, Iraq, Kosovo, Guantanamo, etc, etc) in this case is not only legitimate but positively imcumbent on anyone who isn’t a complete lackey of the Western establishment. The result is an idiot’s limbo of circular invective and tu quoque argumentation, but lying down and conceding is not a valid strategy.

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