Does your position on the war in Ukraine help predict your position on the military campaign in Gaza? Are they related? Or are they both part of a pattern of events, instances of the same grand battle taking place in today’s world? Some might argue the two ongoing conflicts should be looked at on their own terms, and that any comparison will not do justice to either the victims or the attempts to find an end to the fighting.
My opinion is that we must indeed try to find a common pattern holding the views on the two conflicts together. The reason being that only by appealing to general principles can one, in fact, have a principled position on both Ukraine and Gaza. It is by testing our convictions in different cases and situations that we develop something deserving of the term “values”. Anything else is just expediency.
The best response to the scourge of “whataboutism” is to develop a theory that holds up in different situations. The exercise is always tricky and easy to criticise, but here is a rough attempt to articulate that intellectual and political intersection.
Imagine a quadrant chart. The two axes in my chart map are the two opinions where I find great disagreement in the global debate. The first axis is on Ukraine: do you believe in Ukraine’s rights to freedom, sovereignty and territorial integrity or, on the contrary, do you believe these rights can be sacrificed for a greater good? The second axis represents the spectrum of opinion on the project of a Palestinian state. Do you believe in the Palestinian right to a free and sovereign state, or do you think it can or should be sacrificed?
The top right quadrant in my chart represents those voices in the debate who believe equally in the two sets of rights. These are the people equally committed to the idea of a free Ukraine and a free Palestine. I call them “universalists” as they tend to stress the same principles must be applied universally. You might think there are a lot of people who hold these opinions but, in fact, they are extremely rare. I can think of the Spanish government, Chilean president Gabriel Boric, and an exceedingly small number of public intellectuals such as Slavoj Žižek. They have all gone out of their way to defend both Ukrainians and Palestinians in their national struggles, while stressing that Israel has a right to defend itself against Hamas.
The quadrant that is most heavily populated is the bottom right one. These are the Westernists. It might have seemed during the two years this cohort were passionately defending Ukraine’s struggle for independence that they believed in a universal principle of national freedom. Think again. When it comes to the Middle East, the Westernists suddenly regard the Palestinian flag as a symbol of terror, adamantly refuse to criticise the Israeli settler movement in the West Bank and argue that the current conflict has nothing to do with Israel’s occupation.
The Westernists can watch the destruction of Gaza with equanimity because nationhood is, in their minds, conditional on other things. They firmly believe that Ukraine and Israel belong to the West and must be defended as such. Palestine does not, so its interests can be sacrificed. This group includes a vast array of actors, from Nikki Haley and Antony Blinken in the US to the Spectator magazine in the UK and the Green Party in Germany.
In the top left quadrant you will find the anti-Westernists, who are, needless to say, the reverse image of the Westernists. Reduced to its core, their position is that the West must be opposed. And since the West is defined with reference to US power, both Ukraine and Israel are highly suspect.
One representative of this position is the Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Though seen recently in great distress commenting on the plight of Palestinians, he has long been inclined to blame Ukrainians for their own troubles. Vladimir Putin, hardly the idealist, makes an implausible exception for the Palestinian cause, even arguing that “only those who have a heart of stone can quietly look at the events in the Gaza Strip”. The group includes intellectuals on the left and far left that are too numerous to name.
The strangest quadrant of the four is the bottom left, represented by those who smile favourably on the extinction of both the Ukrainian and Palestinian national dreams. I say strange because to oppose the aspiration of people to independence out of principle, rather than political expediency, seems to reveal a dark mindset. Yet those people are not that rare. You can find them among Republicans in the US, such as Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has shown contempt for both Ukrainians and Palestinians. A similar combination can be found in the Indian nationalist right. I call this quadrant the Darwinists in recognition of their apparent belief that in world politics the strong should be allowed to prevail, be it Russia or Israel.
Ultimately, what the chart reveals is that our positions tend to be based on two main motivations: principle and party. Some people prefer to appeal to general principles to make sense of the world. Others look to see where their friends and enemies stand before they decide. Charting these positions is an attempt to classify four geopolitical tribes and that is exactly where we find ourselves, in a world of tribes. As Western power declines and our societies polarise, a growing number of people are jettisoning the old aspirations to global rules and finding comfort in the support of their own tribe, their own leaders and their own “kind”.
This article appears in the 15 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Desperate Measures