Separating the Domestic from the International: Or Whatabout Whataboutism?

One of the great myths of our time is the idea that domestic and external politics are connected, in the sense that the nature of a given regime determines whether it is a benign or malign actor on the international stage. According to this myth, democracies are naturally peaceful and benign; authoritarian states (a very broad, and poorly defined, category) are naturally aggressive and malign. Authoritarian states are thus by their very essence threats to international peace and security and as such worthy targets of our foreign policy.

Reality, of course, is very different, as the recent case of Belarus shows.

Belarus, as you no doubt know, has been making news this week due to what has been called its act of ‘piracy’ against an Ryanair jet flying through its airspace. Whether this really was an act of ‘piracy’ I will leave to a neutral international arbiter to decide (which, of course does not exist). But the case neatly demonstrates that the domestic-international connection isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Domestically speaking, Belarus is far from a model of liberal democratic norms. Its president, Aleksandr Lukashenko, almost certainly owes his position to mass electoral fraud allied to occasionally brutal, though normally quite targeted, use of state violence. Given that the fraud and violence serve no obvious purpose other keeping him in power, one may say that much of the opprobrium directed against him and his government is deserved.

But is Belarus a threat to international peace and stability? Should we be concerned enough about it to warrant sanctioning it and doing what we can to promote regime change? Critics would no doubt point to this week’s events, and answer yes to all of the above. But let’s put it all in perspective. What were the effects of the ‘hijacking’ of the Ryanair jet (if that is what is was)? Did it infringe on the sovereignty of another state? Was anybody killed? Did people suffer other than having their flight delayed several hours? Was any property damaged? Was anybody bombed? Was anybody invaded? Were any fundamental principles of the international system challenged?

The answer to all the above is no. Even if could be shown that this was a breach of international law (and I’m somewhat sceptical about that), it’s fairly mild as these things go and poses no danger to any other country anywhere. In fact, despite its authoritarian regime, Belarus is about as harmless an international actor as you’re likely to find. As far as I can tell it doesn’t threaten anybody, never has, and probably never will.

Many liberal democracies, by contrast, have a lot of blood on their hands, and if you were to ask the questions above about some of their deeds, the answers would be a very emphatic ‘yes’.

At this point, people starting getting very angry at me and start accusing me of supporting dictators. Or, as happened after my latest RT article, start throwing the ‘Whataboutism’ charge in my direction. ‘How dare you point out that Western states are selective in their outrage and failed to object to other breaches of international law,’ they say, ‘‘Pure whataboutism.’

Maybe, maybe not, depending on how you define it. But as I’ve said before, there’s nothing wrong with whataboutism if it’s used properly. If the purpose is to excuse misbehaviour, then it is wrong – it’s a logical fallacy to say that it’s ok for me to commit some misdeed because somebody else has also done it. But if its purpose to expose hypocrisy or to analyze others’ true motivations by revealing discrepancies in their actions, then it’s perfectly valid. Say person X condemns ‘piracy’ by person A, but refuses to condemn obvious acts of piracy by person B. That gives reason for supposing that an objection to piracy per se isn’t the main reason for their indignation. Rather, they are driven by something else, such as a dislike of person A and a like of person B. That’s useful information, and there’s nothing wrong in pointing it out.

But for some reason, it really pisses people off. I think most likely this is because it bursts their moral bubble. But the moral bubble deserves bursting, because the reality is that, with some notable historical exceptions, there are generally no good guys or bad guys in international affairs, no liberal democracies and no autocracies, just states pursuing their interests. In that regard, there are just two types – powerful states and not-powerful states – and as Thucydides put it, “The strong do as they will, and the weak suffer as they must.”

The international system favours the powerful, as they can get away with more. The United States isn’t worse than Belarus, but it is more powerful, and so it misbehaves more than Belarus does. This isn’t a moral judgement; it’s just a fact. It does misbehave more. Russia misbehaves more too, because it also is more powerful, though obviously not as powerful as the Americans. As a results its misdeeds, though larger than those of Belarus, are not as large as those of the USA. This is just the way things are.

Selective moral outrage is mistaken, in other words. It’s mistaken when it targets the weak for their occasional breaches of international norms, because those breaches are both occasional and generally fairly mild. And it’s mistaken when it targets the powerful, because their more consistent, flagrant, and harmful breaches are a product of their power rather than some inherent malevolence. But on the whole, I feel that targeting the latter is more justifiable, simply because their misbehaviour is more consistent, flagrant, and harmful. In short, piling the outrage on Belarus is wrong, just as much as it’s wrong to pile the outrage on the United States (or the Chinese, Russians, or Brits). But if you’re going to pile it on anybody, the latter is a more justifiable target than the former.

Domestically, we in the West have some good reasons for preferring our own systems to those of authoritarian regimes elsewhere. But internationally, we’re no better (and no worse) than all the others we like to complain about. Condemn Lukashenko’s domestic policies as much as you please, but let’s not pretend that Belarus is an international danger. So when US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, or British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, start complaining about the evils of the Belarusian state, just ask them, “When’s the last time Belarus invaded anybody, sir?” Whataboutism? Sure. But fully justified.

37 thoughts on “Separating the Domestic from the International: Or Whatabout Whataboutism?”

  1. >Were any non-Belarusian citizens detained?

    Actually, answer to this is “yes” – in addition to Roman Protasevich, his girlfriend – russian citizen Sofia Sapega was detained from the same plane too.

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    1. Good point. I guess I should rephrase that. If anybody Though it’s interesting that the Russians aren’t making a fuss. If anybody should be outraged it’s them, but they’re not (although in private they may be cussing Lukashenko for his antics).

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    2. Was brought to my attention that the surname Sapega indicates roots on the core territory of what comprised the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

      This links provides newly uncovered documentation, indicating the the detained lad is a bonafide svido (short for svidomite, which is the derisive term used to describe nationalist Ukrainians with an extreme anti-Russian bias):

      https://thenewkremlinstooge.wordpress.com/2021/04/30/run-silent-run-deep-but-not-so-deep-that-the-halfwits-wont-get-it/comment-page-2/#comment-60073

      Especially for those harping on why Julian Assange is (supposedly) not as virtuous.

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  2. Classic example of Western mass media establishment whataboutism, which concerns a PC former Soviet:

    https://www.rt.com/news/524410-qureshi-cnn-antisemitic-slur/

    In totality (stressing what he said from start to finish), the Pakistani diplomat fell short of being bigoted. Given the hypocritical selective sensitivity out there, he should’ve chosen his words more carefully.

    Golodryga’s whataboutism with the Pakistani diplomat on the treatment of Muslims in China is pretty rich, given the permeating Western mass media and body politic double standards on global human rights issues. Alexey Navalny’s arrest gets a much higher profile concern when compared to the Kiev regime apprehending the leading Ukrainian political opposition figure Viktor Medvedchuk. Ditto the overall clear human rights issues in Kiev regime controlled Ukraine when compared to Russia.

    There’s also the ongoing situation with Julian Assange.

    Golodryga is better suited for an AIPAC position than a news host of a TV network truly professing some reasonable sense of objectivity. Isn’t it fair to say that AIPAC has “deep pockets”, when compared to most (perhaps all) US based orgs lobbying for the benefit of a foreign country?

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      1. Oh wow. They seriously try to defend grounding Morales’ plane because US has a *right* to arrest Snowden, but Belarus doesn’t have a right to arrest Protasenko because he is a harmless journalist? They truly have no shame.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Probably gets paid well for writing such BS. That source has been regularly propped at JRL, much unlike some others, who put out great originally thought out analysis. So, **** those sycophants, who gloss over that aspect.

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  3. “The United States isn’t worse than Belarus, but it is more powerful, and so it misbehaves more than Belarus does.”

    With great power comes great responsibility and the US likes to project power and likes to install regimes amenable to its geopolitical goals, but it never takes responsibility for the aftermath…see Iraq, Vietnam, Korea, Libya, Serbia and hundred of other places and nations. That makes those actions by the US worse,

    Does any other country in this and the last century since WW2 even come close to have inflicted pain and suffering similar to the US?

    Click to access Displacement_Vine%20et%20al_Costs%20of%20War%202020%2009%2008.pdf


    http://www.worldfuturefund.org/Reports/Imperialism/usmurder.html#:~:text=The%20total%20death%20toll%20of,together%20is%20over%2012%20million.

    To willingly choose war when other options were available – that is worse. Where do China and Russia (esp. since 1990) come even close to the country in which the ballpark is located ?

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  4. Very well stated, Professor. I like your logical explanation of why whataboutism can be a perfectly valid debating tactic.

    I feel it should be used more often against the U.S., because American hypocrisy really boils my grits.

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  5. “Its president, Aleksandr Lukashenko, almost certainly owes his position to mass electoral fraud allied to occasionally brutal, though normally quite targeted, use of state violence.”

    Says who? In 2019 Ukraine, for example, Luka was the most popular world leader, 66% positive vs 15% negative:
    http://ratinggroup.ua/research/ukraine/dinamika_otnosheniya_ukraincev_k_mirovym_lideram.html

    Where’s the evidence that in Belarus he needs mass electoral fraud and state violence to get elected?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good point, Mao. We don’t know for a fact whether or not there was any fraud in Batka’s election. Opps assert there was, but they can’t prove it factually. The best they can come up with is something like: “Well, everybody I know voted for Tikhanovskaya.”
      Which is not exactly a scientific proof.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. What happened to the ballots and to the ballot boxes? Was an independent third party allowed to do an unhindered analysis? One would think that receiving 80% of the votes requires confirmation.

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      2. I know, but who would be that independent third party? The EU? The United States? I don’t think there is anybody out there who is so neutral they wouldn’t lie to serve their own objectives. Now, if they had given that job to ME, then I would tell the truth no matter what, because that’s just the kind of person I am. But nobody asked me.

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    2. I don’t know if receiving 80% of the votes requires some special confirmation. That’s irrelevant.

      My point was that it’s not obvious at all to me that he needed mass electoral fraud and state violence to get elected (as in “…Aleksandr Lukashenko, almost certainly owes his position to mass electoral fraud…“). To get elected one doesn’t need 80% of the votes.

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    3. Darling Sveta tried to get elected on false platform and implement a Zmagar programme once she was safely in office, an important part of which would have been the legal repression all Russophiles and Russophile institutions. Her campaign had foolishly referred in a footnote to the website where their actual plans were located, and deleted them when they realised that they had been noticed by people in the Russian internet sphere and could be linked back to Sveta (Too late!). It is entirely moral to cheat such a candidate out of her victory, supposing she had won the vote, since she would never have stood a chance if she had campaigned on her real platform.

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  6. i think I prefer Tacitus as more appropriate for Western hubris, smoke and mirrors:

    “They have plundered the world, stripping naked the land in their hunger… they are driven by greed, if their enemy be rich; by ambition, if poor… they ravage, they slaughter, they seize by false pretenses, and all of this they hail as the construction of empire. And when in their wake nothing remains but a desert, they call that peace.”

    We all know what the West wants! Belarus onside so that it can have another shot at a Ukraine style coup (seeing as they made such a mess of the original) all this hoohah is built towards this end, coup, colour revolution, whatever, the plan is for EUroNATOisation of Belarus, to park troops and Nukes on Russias borders. They have failed, Belarus is ethnically and culturally Russian and having seen at close quarters the failed corrupted nazi state that Ukraine has become in the hands of the ‘western liberal rules based order’ are not much interested in going down that road. A lot of people would like to get shot of Lukashenko, no.doubt, but it doesn’t follow that they will want him replaced by an allotted Western approved puppet.

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  7. Thanks for this post. I agree that “Whataboutism” can be a useful form of critique if it exposes double standards, selectivity, or other inconsistencies in how people apply moral/legal standards. I do have two significant reservations about the practice, though.

    The more minor reservation is that people can sometimes invoke Whataboutism not to offer a serious moral critique but simply to change the subject of a discussion. If I say “Aren’t these injustices committed by country X so terrible” and someone angrily replies “Countries Y and Z do just as many, if not more, terrible things–why aren’t you attacking them? What are your real motives here?” then my main reaction isn’t to think “What an intellectually clear-eyed analysis of international affairs.” My main reaction is to think “This person clearly doesn’t like talking about Country X’s misdeeds and is trying to divert attention elsewhere.”

    The more significant reservation is that I am not sure I agree with the position that, because weak nations’ misdeeds are so much less consequential than those of strong nations, it’s wrong to target weak nations for their misdeeds. If a head of state or other policymaker acts unjustly I think punishing that injustice is a good thing (provided some prudent and appropriate means of punishment is available, which of course often it is not). I think punishing such a misbehaving policymaker is worthwhile even if we cannot punish all policymakers who act unjustly.

    Also, I am not sure it is always the case that weak nations’ misdeeds are so much more minor than those of strong nations. For example, Democratic Kampuchea was an extremely weak state and even a comparatively unaggressive one, yet the Khmer Rouge regime committed some of the worst crimes of the 20th century.

    None of this is to say that the US or other strong nations should start treating Belarus as a serious threat to international security. I do have concerns about Whataboutism in certain contexts, though.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. JohnW: It’s true that the Khmer Rouge were murderous genocidal maniacs. But what about the fact that the U.S. supported them both militarily and diplomatically against Vietnam, and even insisted Pol Pot should get the Kampuchean seat at the UN?

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I should add that the Khmer Rouge atrocities were domestic not international, and as such they don’t invalidate what I was saying, as I was talking about misbehaviour in the international arena.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Although, in this case, once the Vietnamese army intervened to liberate the Kampucheans from Pol Pot, then I reckon it would be an international event, because an army crossed a border (?)

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    3. According to Charles Tilly, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coercion,_Capital,_and_European_States,_AD_990%E2%80%931992, a state may follow a capital intensive path or a violence intensive path to develop. Poor countries are unable to do the first, they have to do the second. They can not afford paying people to do what they want, they have to force them.

      It is for that reason somewhat inherently hypocritical for rich states to blame poor ones for doing the only thing that remains for them to do. Not least because rich states often put a lot of obstacles in their way to make everything more difficult for them. They are for example not allowed to do what rich states used to do a hundred years ago to become rich, for example protect their own vulnerable industries…

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      1. Perhaps I should add:

        It is for that reason more appropriate to attack rich countries that use violence and suppression, because they have fewer reasons to do so. They have the means to co-opt awkward oppositional people, for example. But did you ever hear any leading EU politician blaming Spain for sentencing the Catalan government to long prison terms, some of them up to 16 years, for arranging a referendum? In my view, this is a bigger crime than if a poor state had done the same thing.

        Liked by 1 person

    4. Babbling:

      . I think punishing such a misbehaving policymaker is worthwhile even if we cannot punish all policymakers who act unjustly.

      Hmm, won’t that get us to double standards somehow? Somewhere?

      Admittedly, I may have struggled somewhere around this core …

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  8. > it’s a logical fallacy to say that it’s ok for me to commit some misdeed because somebody else has also done it.

    I think there are limits to that. At some point, in regards to the number and severity of misdeeds commited by others, they simply become another “norm”. It’s not limited to high-profile international relationtips either (for example, in some highly corrupt coutries’ bureaucracies petty officials take bribes because everyone does and because salary for an honest job is not enough for living). If most sportsmen in an event use doping, the honest rest would simply lose.

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  9. Pot calls kettle ‘black’.
    “Joe Biden almost certainly owes his position to mass electoral fraud allied to occasionally brutal, though normally quite targeted, use of state violence. “.

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  10. ‘The United States isn’t worse than Belarus, but it is more powerful, and so it misbehaves more than Belarus does’; Isabella’s line from Measure for Measure comes to mind: ‘it is excellent to have a giant’s strength, but it is tyrannous to use it like a giant’.

    A historical comparison of states doesn’t, I think, present a tight correlation between power and bad international behaviour, not least because empires tend to start behaving worse precisely when they are past the peak of their power and worried about losing it altogether: Britain post 1880s and USA post 1980s are examples.

    Also, surely it’s not only more justifiable but in fact morally-obligatory to criticise states for bad behaviour (international or otherwise) if a) these states are our own, and b) these states are to some degree democratic, and we face minimal consequences for making this critique.

    Finally, states – whatever their degree of good or bad behaviour – vary sharply in the extent to which they preach good behaviour. Russia and Belarus don’t preach; the USA, which indeed inflicts far more harm, preaches incessantly; and there is a connection between its moralism, its exceptionalism, and its infliction of harm.

    I entirely agree with you about whataboutery; I tried to think this one through – in relation to a visit to the former Gulag site Perm-36 – here: https://catherinebrown.org/whataboutism-in-the-gulag/

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Whataboutism is moronic – particularly since so many of those using this trope are literally paid actors (both literally and indirectly) by the nation-states they defend.

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