Anti-imperialists often respond to criticisms of the West’s official enemies (China, Russia, Iran, etc.) by pointing to the crimes of Western governments and their non-Western proxies. In the West, responses of this nature are frequently denounced as ‘whataboutism.’
What does ‘whataboutism’ mean and where did this term originate?
According to Wikipedia:
Whataboutism or whataboutery (as in “what about…?”) denotes in a pejorative sense a procedure in which a critical question or argument is not answered or discussed, but retorted with a critical counter-question which expresses a counter-accusation….
The communication intent here is often to distract from the content of a topic (red herring). The goal may also be to question the justification for criticism, the legitimacy, integrity, and fairness of the critic, which can take on the character of discrediting the criticism, which may or may not be justified. Common accusations include double standards and hypocrisy, but it can also be used to relativize criticism of one’s own viewpoints or behaviors…[Emphasis added.]
According to Wall Street Journal columnist Ben Zimmer, the term ‘whataboutism’ originated in the United Kingdom and Ireland in the 1970s. Zimmer cites a 1974 letter published in The Irish Times in which a history teacher from Northern Ireland, Sean O’Conaill, complained about “the Whatabouts,” people who defended the IRA by pointing out the misdeeds of their enemy.
Thereafter, the British press seized upon the phrase and began to use it liberally to discredit critics of the Anglo-American empire.
It should surprise no one that ‘whataboutism’ is a creation of the British commentariat, whose cheerleading for the Anglo-American empire knows no bounds.
The time has come for anti-imperialists to dispense with this nonsense: in my submission, ‘whataboutism’ has been given a bad name by apologists for Western imperialism in order to discredit and marginalize those of us who choose, for perfectly legitimate and even compelling reasons, to focus our criticisms and the public’s attention on the crimes of our own governments.
For the reasons that follow, I contend that ‘whataboutism’ is a perfectly logical and ethical response to Western condemnations of non-Western governments.
The sordid reality of the West’s “rules-based international order”
The U.S. government and its Western allies relentlessly proclaim their commitment to the “rules-based international order”, but they never tell us what that term actually means.
According to the Lowy Institute, which describes itself as “Australia’s leading think-tank”:
Although the “rules-based international order” is central to Australian strategy, what exactly this concept means remains a work very much in progress. For Australia to achieve its objectives for the order, it will have to get more specific.[…]
But what does “rules-based order” mean?
The unsatisfying answer is that the concept is used in official discourse to mean many different things, and they’re not always complementary.
Whatever “rules-based international order” may mean, it certainly does not mean Western government respect for democracy, international law and human rights.
On the contrary, the historical record leaves no doubt that the U.S. government and its Western allies are utterly contemptuous of democracy, international law and human rights.
The West’s wars on Vietnam, Cambodia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia and a litany of other sovereign states were launched and conducted in brazen violation of international norms.
By Obama’s own admission, the Bush administration engaged in torture, yet Obama refused to hold any of the torturers accountable. Meanwhile, no Western leader demanded that the torturers in the Bush administration be prosecuted.
Moreover, the U.S., Britain and their Western allies have propped up and armed to the teeth the most brutal regimes, including the apartheid state of Israel, Saudi Arabia’s genocidal autocracy and Egypt’s sadistic dictatorship.
Western states have repeatedly crushed or subverted democratically elected governments and democratic movements, including the Haitian government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the Congolese government of Patrice Lumumba and the Iranian government of Mohammad Mossadegh – whose sole ‘crime’ was that he sought to use the oil resources of Iran for the benefit of the Iranian people.
Given the historical record, Western journalists should fall over in uproarious laughter whenever a Western leader claims to be acting in furtherance of democracy, international law or human rights. Yet that is not what they do. On the contrary, the Western mainstream media generally treat these laughable claims as serious, and repeat them obsequiously, without a hint of scepticism.
I maintain that Western leaders are intentionally ambiguous about the meaning of the “rules-based international order”. They won’t tell us what that term means because they don’t want us to know what it means. Mainstream ‘journalists’ are only too happy to let them get away with conscious obfuscation.
If “rules-based international order” means anything, it means that Western governments make the rules. It also means that Western governments are free to violate their own ad hoc and self-serving rules with impunity, even as they impose the harshest of consequences on those who refuse to comply with their rules.
The useful idiots of the Anglo-American empire
Despite overwhelming evidence of Western government contempt for democracy, international law and human rights, the U.S. and its Western allies routinely justify their military misadventures and economic warfare on the basis of democracy, international law and human rights.
They cynically invoke these principles to distract us from their true objectives, and to build public support for their reckless, exploitative and destructive foreign policies. If they told us the truth — which is that their military and economic aggression is designed to maintain Western global hegemony and to impose upon the whole world a radically neoliberal economic order that profits the Western oligarchy — then Western governments could not muster the public support that is necessary to sustain their aggression. Western governments generate the requisite degree of public support by convincing their constituents that foreign governments which refuse to submit to Western domination are the embodiment of evil and constitute a dire threat to all that we hold dear in the West.
Those who repeat Western, mainstream condemnations of the West’s official enemies sometimes have noble intentions, but the effect of their actions is to amplify and legitimize fraudulent claims about our leaders’ true foreign policy objectives. By criticizing the West’s official enemies, they are helping, whether wittingly or unwittingly, to build public support for Western military aggression and economic warfare, all of which causes immense suffering abroad and diverts precious public resources from the domestic needs of Western electorates.
Westerners who condemn the West’s official enemies turn themselves into the useful idiots of the Anglo-American empire.
I, for one, refuse to be a loudspeaker for the Anglo-American empire. So should you.
Don’t throw stones from a glass house
I am a Canadian. I reside in Canada. I have the right to vote in Canada and to contribute my hard-earned money to Canadian political parties and candidates. Moreover, the Canadian government purports to speak in my name.
By contrast, I do not have the right to vote or to make political donations in states of which I am not a citizen, nor do the governments of those states purport to speak in my name.
I and my fellow Canadians are responsible for the conduct of the government which we have empowered and which claims to represent us. Conversely, we are not responsible for the conduct of governments which we have not empowered and which do not claim to represent us.
Accordingly, with respect to foreign policy, the overarching priority of all Canadians should be to ensure that Canada’s government, and the states with which our government has allied Canada, scrupulously respect democracy, international law, human rights and the environment.
Moreover, when the whole world can see that Canada’s government and its allies routinely exhibit utter contempt for the values they claim to uphold, the Canadian government and those whom it purports to represent have no moral authority whatsoever to criticize the West’s official enemies.
At best, our condemnations of the conduct of non-Western governments carry little to no weight in the non-Western world. At worst, those condemnations exacerbate resentment against the West in the non-Western world, because the non-Western world increasingly understands that we Westerners apply a much lower standard to our own governments than we apply to non-Western states. More and more, our moralizing to the non-Western world smacks of arrogance and white supremacy.
These considerations are neatly encapsulated in the maxim ‘don’t throw stones from a glass house’: unless and until we have ensured that our own government and its allies live up to the lofty standards they regularly and solemnly invoke against others, then we have no business telling our official enemies that they must comply with those standards.
Westerners achieve nothing by repeating condemnations of the West’s official enemies
When those of us living in the West adopt and repeat mainstream criticisms of the West’s official enemies, what exactly do we accomplish?
Consider the cases of Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. In the West, few if any leaders have been vilified more than Putin and Xi in the past twenty years. In Western mainstream discourse, Putin is routinely compared to Hitler while Xi is routinely accused of presiding over a genocide against Uyghurs (among other alleged atrocities). Condemnations of Putin and Xi appear daily in the Western media and Western political discourse. Furthermore, those condemnations are accompanied by Western government sanctions against Russia and China, as well as military interventions and provocative military build-ups in eastern Europe and the South China Sea.
In light of these realities, what, exactly, do Westerners achieve by adding their voices to the cacophony of Western condemnations of Putin and Xi? No rational and objective observer would seriously believe that Western-based commentators improve the behaviour of the West’s official enemies by repeating the condemnations constantly hurled against them by Western leaders and mainstream media.
Conversely, anti-imperialists living in the West can and do contribute to the betterment of our world by highlighting the crimes about which little or nothing is said in Western society. The crimes that are neglected in the Western mainstream discourse are precisely the crimes of our own governments and their allies. With respect to those crimes, there’s a gaping hole in the public discourse that can and must be filled if we are ever to create a just and peaceful world.
Westerners who condemn the West’s official enemies are either promoting the hegemonic agenda of Western governments or they are virtue-signalling: they seek to immunize themselves from smears that they are ‘Putin apologists’ or ‘Communist sympathizers.’ There is no reason to believe, however, that their condemnations of the West’s official enemies improve the conduct of those governments.
The time has come for anti-imperialists to flush the ‘whataboutist’ smear down the rhetorical toilet.
The primary impediment to the objectives of anti-imperialism is the Anglo-American empire
By crushing the popular will, propping up tyrannies and waging military and economic wars of aggression, the Anglo-American empire has demonstrated that it is the primary impediment to all that anti-imperialism holds dear: peace, democracy, human rights and planetary health. The reality is that we anti-imperialists cannot achieve our primary objectives without the demise of the Anglo-American empire. Our highest priority should therefore be to resist that empire’s project of global hegemony.
The multi-polar world that is sought by the West’s official enemies might not be a panacea, but it will at least open the door to diplomacy, mutual accommodation and the rediscovery of our shared values.
Once again you speak my heart. I often use the following example (copied from the above) in my own ‘Whataboutism’… “the Iranian government of Mohammad Mossadegh – whose sole ‘crime’ was that he sought to use the oil resources of Iran for the benefit of the Iranian people.” It is a perfect example of most of the not only unjust but absolutely stupid American foreign policy and the destructive meddling done by USA in countless countries. I often challenge Americans, and Canadians for that matter, to give me even one example of where USA has ever brought democracy to any country in which they meddled. I invite with anticipation the whataboutist response to my comment.
Who is at the center of the hive? Who is in the Western Oligarchy? It sounds kind of like a Conspiracy Theoryist thinking to me. But it sounds plausible. But the Members of the Oligarchy don’t see it that way. That’s the thing. Most people don’t see it that way. There are definitely special forces in our military. I know one. I don’t ask and he don’t tell.
But you’re right. Just as in the other power-blocks in the world, there are no saints among the leaders of the west. A Pox on all their Houses.
Thanks for coming to visit Port Alberni.
I agree mostly with what you are saying here, Dimitri. “the non-Western world increasingly understands that we Westerners apply a much lower standard to our own governments than we apply to them” is certainly true and hypocritical. It is disingenuous. And yes, we should be the best critics of our own countries wrongdoings. I think we do need to criticize other countries as well, however, especially those that our country, Canada, aligns with politically, economically, and militarily.
As for the BRICS and other countries, they too should be criticized. Whataboutisms are unintentionally underlining that no country is perfect, and I think that is an important truism to have in the discourse. It is not a justification in any argument, although most often used this way, it still serves the purpose to see that every country has their dark corners, their faults, and they all need a light shinning on them too. We must see with both eyes, wide open, see the world as it really is, broken.
We need to come to the realization that the global powers are pretty much a cesspool of corruption, not unlike a bunch of mafia crime families, and devoid of any rules based international order that is meaningfully or justly applied across the board. When might is power and money is the incentive, little good can come of such a system, a system designed to create the winners and losers will always be out of balance. We need to create a better world system, if we are not critical of all the ways all countries fail, we will not be inclined see the need to reimagine something better.
The news propaganda is global, and better knowledge is increasingly global, everything is connected. We absolutely must be critical of our government and our allies, at home and abroad. Anti-Imperialism, to me, is transitional. I don’t support it for the west, nor do I want to see it shift to other alliances. I tend to focus my criticism on my country and it’s allies, and the most powerful and dangerous manifestations I see occurring. I also will criticize any country and their wrongful doings. I don’t think in doing so that it will change the behavior of any country, but it adds to the needed discourse, that in this so called global sovereign system, this shit ain’t working, the global system, if it ever functioned justly, is certainly now broken.
I think the world needs to recognize the problems are global before they will admit that the changes that are needed are also global.
Thank you Dimitri again for brilliantly exposing Canada and it’s media’s hypocrisy! The CBC Sunday Magazine with Piya Chattopadhyay just interviewed Catherine Belton of The Washington Post who virtually demonized Putin and totally dismissed western responsibility for any role in provoking Russia’s actions in Ukraine. No mention of NATO expansion, no critique of arming Ukraine for years and destabilizing the country and helping overthrow a democratically elected government. Just how right the western cause is and how Putin must be overthrown. The stunning display of ignorance by the CBC and its lack of journalistic credibility is stunning.