Having evolved steadily throughout the history of Russian-U.S. relations, whataboutism has become the favorite response by Moscow to America’s increasing moralism in foreign policy.
In response to American moralism, the Kremlin came up with whatabotism. Photo: AP
The protests in Ferguson have rekindled Russian whataboutism, a propagandistic tool deployed by Soviet journalists and politicians. Having evolved steadily throughout the history of Russian-U.S. relations, it has become a response by Moscow to America’s increasing moralism.
The rather clumsy word “whataboutism” has suddenly come into vogue. It all started with a small piece by Edward Lucas, published in The Economist in 2008, in which he reminded readers of a ploy adopted by Soviet propagandists, who, in response to U.S. criticism, instead of justifications and explanations, usually posed the question: “And what about you?” In such a way, Soviet leaders were able to shift the discussion to another subject, such as racial discrimination, unemployment, or the Vietnam War.
Lucas said that Russia was increasingly resorting to whataboutism in today’s dialogues. As a typical example, he cited a phrase spoken during a live Russian TV show by Alexei Pushkov: “How can you accuse us of saber-rattling when you yourselves are using such weapons in Iraq?” In 2008, Pushkov was just a TV reporter, but now heads the State Duma Committee on International Affairs.
Pushkov’s career growth suggests that reasoning in the spirit of whataboutism is considered one of the most irrefutable methods of debate in modern Russia. On state TV channels and in government media you would be hard-pressed to find a journalist or commentator on the West who did not spend a fair amount of airtime or column inches on savoring the problems, predicaments, and foreign policy failures of the U.S. and Europe.
The English-language TV station RT (formerly “Russia Today”) also actively employs this tactic, which is why any crisis in the U.S. always boosts its rating — many people worldwide do not like America and openly rejoice at its failures. Moreover, whataboutism is one of the favorite rhetorical devices of President Putin and his speechwriters. From his famous speech in Munich in 2007 to recent statements on Ukraine and Crimea, Putin has increasingly justified his controversial political steps by juxtaposing the behavior of Washington and Brussels.
How does one go about explaining this resurgence of a supposedly forgotten Soviet propaganda stunt?
After all, it is no secret that the method has long been recognized as a logical absurdity, a primitive argument aimed at simpletons able to be wrong-footed simply by changing the topic. Even in the Soviet Union, people poked fun at the efforts of propagandists, joking that in response to a question from Washington about poor living conditions in Russia, Moscow’s reply would be: “But you lynch blacks.”
Today in Russia each new example of whataboutism is usually greeted by a wave of enthusiastic applause. What happened? Have the Russian people, together with the political elite and expert community, lost the ability to perceive anything other than cheap propaganda tricks? Or is something really going on in the world that is causing Russians to prioritize external events over domestic disorder?
In Russian-U.S. relations, contrary to popular belief, whataboutism first appeared not in the 1960s, but much earlier. In his book “America Faces Russia” published in 1950, U.S. historian Thomas Bailey mentions Russia’s first use of the “irresistible” argument about the lynching of blacks in the United States. It happened in the early 1880s in response to an official protest by the U.S. government about the Jewish pogroms in Russia and the subsequent first wave of immigration of Russian Jews to the United States.
This first example of whataboutism did not catch the Americans off-guard, and they quickly found a retort: Yes, in our southern states such tragedies happen, but black residents there are not moving in the tens of thousands to the banks of the Volga and not creating unnecessary problems for the Russian government.
Despite many subsequent changes in U.S. and Russian policy, both foreign and domestic, whataboutism was firmly embraced by the Kremlin and actively used during periods of tension.
One sizeable reason for this is that the U.S., on becoming the world’s preeminent power, was far keener than any of its predecessors in this role to cite moral arguments in relations with other countries, especially with Russia.
Even in tsarist times, Russia was well suited to play the role of U.S. antagonist, and after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, became an almost ideal target for moral reproach.
It is important to note that the administrations of the two U.S. presidents most inclined to moralizing about foreign policy — Woodrow Wilson and Ronald Reagan — coincided with the emergence and the decline of the Soviet empire.
It could be argued that the Soviet Union was at first the catalyst for the affirmation of moralism in U.S. foreign policy; later, the Soviet Union met its demise when this moralism reached its zenith. It is not surprising that throughout the history of the Soviet Union, ideologists there had to constantly fight off attacks from Western counterparts. Soviet ideology was largely defensive, and relied upon quick and effective counter-propaganda tools.
Whataboutism offered a far more rapid response to America’s moral condemnation than any amount of refined self-justification. But its initial effectiveness nosedived in the face of public irony. Come the end of the Soviet era, no self-respecting journalist or politician dared point a finger at America instead of addressing the question head-on.
And then a new round of the old game began. As Putin’s Russia became more authoritarian domestically and increasingly assertive abroad, the West renewed its criticism from the standpoint of moral superiority.
In these circumstances it was inevitable that whataboutism would raise its head once more, but in its earlier, potent incarnation, when the power of emotion overrides common sense and discretion. Modern Russian whataboutism is a triumph of emotion over logic, the irrational over the rational. The same can be said of Russian foreign policy.
Ultimately, as its leaders openly declare, Russia is engaged in dismantling the U.S.-centric world order, with little regard as to what might replace it. When the aim is to destroy, primitive tools work far better than precision instruments.
It is difficult to say whether history will repeat itself, whether America will succeed in proving its right to moral sermons, and whether Russia will renounce its customary irrationality (“Russia cannot be understood with the mind alone,” famously wrote the poet Fyodor Tyutchev in the 19th century) in favor of treading the path of logic and rationalism.
Anyway, moralism and whataboutism will remain to be a part of bilateral relations, as something deeply entrenched in the way that the U.S. and Russia view each other.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.