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3 June 2020

As the politics of the United States turns ever uglier, stand by for a wave of autocratic whataboutery

A militarised over-reaction by the US government to legitimate domestic protests is a gift to dictators across the world. 

By Jeremy Cliffe

The latest events in the US have been deadly serious, but it is still impressive that the frontmen of certain foreign regimes have managed to keep straight faces as they voiced their concern. A spokesman for China’s foreign affairs ministry urged the US to “safeguard and guarantee the legal rights of ethnic minorities”; the Russian foreign ministry said that the incidents were “far from the first in a series of lawless conduct and unjustified violence from US law enforcement”; and an Iranian diplomatic spokesman assured the American people: “The world has heard your outcry over the state of oppression.”

Donald Trump’s reactions to the protests across the US following the death of George Floyd, a black man killed by police, have gravely undermined the country’s moral voice in the world. The image of a pluralistic, democratic US of strong individual rights was already on the floor after more than three years of a cynical and demagogic presidency. The scenes of recent days – the killing of Floyd, Trump’s incitements to violence, attacks by police on peaceful protesters and bystanders, soldiers on the streets – are surely the killer blow.

It could yet get worse. With timing that could hardly be better suited to China’s relativising overtures, as it tightens its grip on Hong Kong ahead of a sensitive Tiananmen Square anniversary, on 1 June Trump threatened to use “civilian and military” force to restore order to American streets.

A militarised over-reaction by the US government to legitimate domestic protests is the stuff of foreign autocrats’ dreams. So too is the prospect of a chaotic election campaign marked by violence, polarisation, political thuggishness and race-baiting. And then there is what would be the ultimate gift to dictators and wannabe dictators the world over: the scenario – thinkable now, as the president marshals his arguments about illegitimate postal votes and social media bias – of Trump losing on 3 November but branding the result bogus and trying to cling on to power.

The chorus of often disingenuous crowing at the state of US democracy and rights has also played out on Twitter, where Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has called the US police’s approach “racist and fascist” and Iran’s former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has declared: “The killing of #GeorgeFloyd was deeply disturbing & upsetting and is the result of the current world order which we all must unite against” (he went on quote the rapper Tupac). They are all a taste of the retorts, set to footage of American police beating up protesters with Trump’s seeming approval, that will be played back at future US leaders whenever they protest state violence elsewhere in the world.

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These responses are and will remain, of course, utterly hypocritical. The tactic of “whataboutery” involves responding to accusations of wrongdoing with counter-accusations that muddy the water. It goes back to classical rhetoric (the tu quoque, or “you also”, fallacy) but was particularly widely used by Soviet diplomats and propagandists (who would often change the subject to the US’s endemic racism when challenged about their own society’s pathologies).

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The method lives on particularly prominently in today’s Russia. The default response of Kremlin allies when challenged with a tricky question about its failings and abuses, such as, “Why did Russia interfere in Ukraine?” is something like: “But what about the US’s interference in Iraq?” Whataboutery works on three main levels. First, and most simply, it changes the subject. Second, it sets up a moral equivalence that often minimises and always relativises the accusations levelled at the one changing the subject. The images coming out of the US are appalling but are in a different category to, say, Erdogan’s ethnic cleansing of the Kurds and China’s mass internment of Uighurs in Xinjiang (by some measures the largest internment of an ethno-religious minority since the Second World War).

Yet equations are drawn, however unhelpful or inappropriate. On 31 May China’s top diplomatic spokeswoman quoted Floyd’s plea “I can’t breathe” over an American diplomatic tweet criticising Beijing’s crackdown in Hong Kong. Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif published a US statement opposing the suppression of protests in his country with all the references to “Iran” crossed out and replaced with “America”. The differences, of degree and character, between evils are blurred.

Third, this blurring sets up a simplistic binary: the world as the hypocritical West claims it should be vs the world as it is in reality. If your answer to problems in one place is just to point to problems in other places you are making an implicitly defeatist, even nihilistic argument: every government is corrupt, oppressive and autocratic, every society is prejudiced and unjust; some are just better at hiding it and so it is not worth trying to change things. Even American democracy is a sham, so reformists in Russia trying to emulate its freedoms are wasting their time. Even the US oppresses its minorities, so the internment of Uighurs or the persecution of the Kurds is not so outrageous. Even the US’s constitution is open to abuse, so why protect the Brazilian one? The corollary of “What about…?” is another, darker question: “What’s the point?”

It is unforgivable that the US president and other parts of its state and media are giving the world’s autocrats so much material for their whataboutery. These are dark times. But if there is a tiny glimmer of light for friends of the US, it is this. When China crushes dissent or Russian journalists are beaten up (or worse) no one says “even China does this” or “even Russia does this”. The US still gets an “even” because – for now – the world expects better of it. 

This article appears in the 03 Jun 2020 issue of the New Statesman, We can't breathe