In Defense of Whataboutism
Even during wartime—maybe especially during wartime—you should be allowed to ask uncomfortable questions.
Twice over the past two decades I’ve felt outraged by a massive invasion that violated international law. One time was last week, when Russia invaded Ukraine. The other time was in 2003, when the US invaded Iraq.
You’re not supposed to talk like that! To bring up America’s past wrongdoing as if it’s comparable to some other country’s wrongdoing is called “whataboutism”—as in “Yeah, they did something bad, but what about the time America did something that was bad in kind of the same way?” Most American foreign policy elites hate whataboutism, and they especially hate it at times like this, when a war is going on and you’re expected to focus all your rhetorical firepower on the enemy.
Consider Michael McFaul, the highly hawkish former ambassador to Russia who has been a fixture on MSNBC lately. Last week, on the day Russia invaded Ukraine, he tweeted to no one in particular, “Keep your BS whataboutism off my @twitter feed tonight.” That got him more than 600 retweets and 6,000 likes.
I think I speak for my fellow whataboutists when I say that it brings us no joy to practice our craft at a time when McFaul finds it so deeply annoying. Plus, we don’t enjoy being called Putin apologists or Kremlin stooges or the other charges that fly so freely in the direction of whataboutists in times of war.
So why do we persist? Well, speaking only for myself, I’d put it this way:
One of the main things I whatabout about is international law. I consider it important, for reasons I’ll get into, to make Americans aware of how their country has repeatedly and consequentially violated international law. In fact, I think such awareness could, in the future, make tragedies like the Ukraine war less likely to happen.
But Americans seem not to care much about international law. In fact, they rarely even hear about international law—except when some other country violates it and the US government condemns the violation. Like now.
So I figure: Seize the moment. Do some international-law whatabouting while international law is in the air.
Which I’ll do shortly. But first, I want to launch a brief defense of the very idea of whataboutism.
Now, you may be among the seemingly few people who consider the validity of whataboutism self-evident—and therefore may not see the need for me to mount a defense of it. But I’m guessing you don’t appreciate how deeply defensible whataboutism is. I’m not exaggerating when I say that whataboutism is part of the essence of our humanity—one of our species’ proudest possessions.
If you ask what things most distinguish humans from mere beasts, high on the list of answers is morality. I don’t mean that we necessarily behave better than other animals (though at our best we do). I just mean we spell out what we mean by “better.” All human societies have codes of conduct—behaviors considered good and behaviors consider bad. Moral codes.
The philosopher Peter Singer has written about an obligation that is part of living in a community with a moral code—the obligation to justify certain kinds of discrepancies:
A dog may growl at one stranger and wag her tail at another without having to justify the apparent discrimination; but a human being cannot so easily get away with different ethical judgments in apparently identical situations. If someone tells us that she may take the nuts another member of the tribe has gathered, but no one may take her nuts, she can be asked why the two cases are different. To answer, she must give a reason.
In other words, she is subject to whataboutism. People are allowed to ask her: What about the time you took his nuts? How is that different from the time she took your nuts?
Such exercises in whataboutism force people to mount what Singer calls “a disinterested defense of one’s conduct.” They have to articulate a general rule—or a general exception to a general rule—that applies to everyone in comparable circumstances. As David Hume put it: When someone justifies his behavior in moral terms he must “depart from his private and particular situation and must choose a point of view common to him with others.” He’s not allowed to say, “Because I’m me and you’re just you.”
Whataboutism, then, is critical to the health of a moral system. It’s a challenge everyone is allowed to make to anyone else, and these recurring challenges help keep the rules that constitute the system clear and strong. Indeed, these challenges may be what led the rules to be rules in the first place; whataboutism can force the articulation of general principles that didn’t previously exist.
When you view whataboutism like this—as an essential constituent of our moral fabric, as a fundamental ingredient of our very humanity—it starts to seem amazing that anyone could deem whataboutism a generally bad thing.
And yet… Here is another Michael McFaul tweet, this one from a year ago: “Whataboutism is always a sign of weakness.” Sigh.
The rest of this piece will be devoted to arguing that McFaul is not just wrong but dangerously wrong; that at this critical juncture in world history, we need more whataboutism, not less; that you owe it to your species to defy the Michael McFauls of the world and, even in times of war, whatabout like there’s no tomorrow—because, without lots of whataboutism, there may not be.