We need a more rigorous understanding of the phenomenon of whataboutism. There is a great deal at stake here since politicians and diplomats use this diversionary tactic to argue about everything from carbon quotas to wars, and this can blunt the moral impetus for political action. For example, some conservative politicians claim that efforts to reduce emissions in the west are meaningless given the proliferation of newly-built, coal-fired power stations in China. Likewise, when Russia invaded Ukraine, Russian diplomats defended Putin’s actions by pointing out that the United States also initiated a conflict that was condemned by a large portion of the international community: the Iraq War. “Yes, what we did was bad,” the diplomats seemed to be saying, “but what about the things you have done that are just as bad—or worse?”
The philosopher Benjamin Curtis regards whataboutism as an attempt at deflection from the accusation being made. He views it as a type of ad hominem attack that should be dismissed as a mere sneaky rhetorical strategy. The one exception is when the whataboutism reveals bias on the part of the speaker.
Not everyone agrees that whataboutism is generally bad, however. Ben Burgis argues that whataboutism can have benefits in highlighting the accuser’s hypocrisy, as the Russian diplomats do in the example above (although Burgis makes this point more generally and not in relation to this specific example). For Burgis, if US diplomats are uncomfortable when the subject of Iraq is raised, that is hardly Russia’s fault. The accusation of whataboutism is a deliberate ploy to shut down any discussion of the Iraq War that could tarnish the moral authority of the US negotiators.
In the examples Burgis chooses, this accusation is a “thought-terminating cliché” used by a stronger party as a tactic to discredit a weaker one. For Burgis, whoever controls the political discourse is liable to resort to the accusation of whataboutery as a weapon against those who have less power. The word whataboutery, Burgis correctly observes, first appeared in the pro-British media, where it was used to dismiss defenders of the IRA, who pointed out that the paramilitary organisation’s terrorist tactics were no more vicious than those employed by the British army. We could, then, see the accusation of whataboutism as a rhetorical tool used by empires who want to shore up their power against those who dare to resist their moral authority.
My view is halfway between those of Curtis and Burgis. Whataboutism can expose hypocrisy, be used as a deflection strategy, or do both at once. On a geopolitical level, the fear that opponents will use whataboutism to expose a nation’s hypocrisy can encourage great powers to act more ethically in the long run, if only to enhance their own moral authority. In the short term, however, it can create a situation in which no one is unsullied enough to speak out against current moral injustices. This can lead to a paralysing moral relativism: that is, a tendency to constantly defer moral judgement. Rather than acknowledging that a particular misdeed is morally wrong, some bad faith actors may ask “But is it really that bad compared to x?” Consequently, the actual exercise of moral judgement is constantly shifted to new contexts, confusing the issue, rather than clarifying it. Bad faith actors will choose examples that highlight the supposed hypocrisy of an accuser in order to invalidate their accusation.
Do such accusations of hypocrisy encourage ordinary citizens to be more thoughtful as to how they comment on political ills committed by other countries? Sometimes, perhaps—but it might also make people more hesitant to condemn injustices. It may also lead people to view the injustices perpetrated by foreign governments—such as Putin’s war of aggression in Ukraine—as outside their area of moral responsibility. Considering ourselves hopelessly morally compromised by the actions of our own governments, we westerners may decide the Ukraine War is not our concern. But if we were to hold all citizens personally responsible for the actions of their governments—even actions that took place before they were born or that they actively opposed at the time—all appeals to justice would be untenable. Morality and justice do not end at the political borders of one’s own nation state.
Isolationism is an understandable but potentially disastrous response to the US military misadventures of the past decades, particularly the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. These failures have led to a general distrust of US foreign policy. Leftists like Noam Chomsky and Jeanne Morefield blame the mistakes of the past on the west’s hubris and therefore think westerners should now refrain from theorising about the actions of foreign powers that might be used to bolster support for US military intervention. Some leftists now use US actions during the Iraq War as a reason to equate the US with Russia and China—two countries that enjoy neither democracy nor socialism. For example, in his book China Panic, David Brophy condemns the idea of intervention by the “American military empire” in favour of “demonstrations, strikes and coordinated international action.” But protestors in China do not have the same rights as we do in western liberal democracies. Likewise, it is unclear whether the beleaguered Russian peace movement can effectively influence Putin’s policymaking without our support. We cannot always expect local protestors to be able to solve their country’s own problems, especially when they are opposed by all the might of a totalitarian state.
The idea that whataboutism is a valid tactic is based on the idea of a moral ledger. The point of whataboutism is to engage in an argument about the relative moral record of competing power blocs. The division of the world into imaginary spheres of influence has come back into fashion lately. For example, John Mearsheimer’s argument that Russia is entitled to defend its backyard has been enthusiastically taken up by many on the left. But such archaic Cold War thinking should be rejected. This is the same argument that was used to justify the Monroe Doctrine, which stated that any foreign intervention in the political affairs of the Americas should be seen as a potentially hostile act against the US. The US later exploited the doctrine as justification for the CIA-backed coups that it used to help overthrow socialist governments in what it considered its own backyard. This policy has been rightly condemned by socialists as undue interference in the Latin-American countries’ right to self-determination. But if the right to democratic self-determination is inviolable in Venezuela, shouldn’t it also be inviolable in Ukraine? Ukraine was not involved in the decision to invade Iraq and has every right to resist Russian kleptocracy.
It would also be wrong to claim that the accusation of whataboutism is a recent phenomenon. Although the words whataboutery and whataboutism are relatively new, an awareness of the strategy itself dates back at least to Plato’s Gorgias dialogue, in which Socrates dismisses claims that he is a hypocrite for not always saying what he genuinely believes with the phrase: “well, if that’s true, it only makes me just as bad as you!” Whataboutism has more often been deployed in defence of great empires than in their criticism. The actions the Belgians took in the Congo, for example, have frequently been cited by other imperial powers who wanted to make themselves look better by comparison, as when Arthur Conan Doyle writes, in the preface to The Crime of the Congo (1909), that England’s actions in Ireland pale next to King Leopold’s crimes in the Congo. During World War I, German academics defended their nation against accusations of war crimes in Belgium by countering that their enemies were using illegal dumdum bullets. Meanwhile, Britain convened a task force to find dirt on Germany’s conduct in Africa. Whataboutism is a long-standing feature of international great power diplomacy and is not exclusively used by the more powerful protagonist in any rivalry.
As harmful as whataboutism can be, it is still preferable to an outright rejection of morality. When Trump defended Putin’s actions by asking Americans, “You think our country’s so innocent?”, he was conveying his disdain for the idea that national decision-making should be influenced by morality. The same attitude can be detected in Russian Foreign Secretary Sergei Lavrov’s declaration “Russia is not squeaky clean. Russia is what it is. And we are not ashamed of showing who we are.” Such brazenly immoral statements are terrifying. The knowledge that great powers will be accused of hypocrisy by their whatabouting critics at least provides states with an incentive to make more ethical decisions, if only to maintain their soft power in the long run. An awareness of the obfuscating strategies of governments will help citizens cut through the political rhetoric in real time. It is essential that we reflect on the hypocrisies and dubious moral records of our own governments, but this should not prevent us from condemning injustices wherever they occur.