Robin McAlpine – We won’t fix the world with ‘notaboutery’

A new world order looks like it is about to develop. If we have any chance of getting it right, first we need to look to ourselves

Robin McAlpine is the director of the Scottish think and do tank Common Weal.

Cross-posted from Robin’s website 

File:1-5 Marines in Fallujah 07 April 204.jpg

Photo: United States Marine Marines in Fallujah

A turning point in my life was in my mid-20s. I was facing a broken relationship with a friend and I blamed him. I spoke to another friend about it and I was adamant that he was the problem, not me. My friend said a very simple thing to me which led me to a lot of introspection and a change in the way I saw the world.

All he said was ‘what, not even a little bit?’. The second he said it I realised it was daft for me to say that I wasn’t any part of this problem in any way whatsoever. And as soon as I asked myself ‘how much of the problem am I?’ it lead to a growing realisation. It was more than I thought. Substantially more than I thought.

It led to a clear conviction on my part – if I’m demanding a resolution to some kind of conflict and I’m part of the conflict, it requires me to take action on my part of it first. Demanding others change first is self-evidently wrong. Your share of the blame lies with you first.

Thus it is not with intellectual anger but real fear that I look at the propaganda in the Ukraine war. Not Putin’s propaganda, ours. It feels as if any possibility for self reflection about whether ‘the West’ might need to look at its own behaviour in moving forward into the worrying new world ahead of us is gone.

Fear because we’re in a worryingly enclosed bubble if we believe the world is really on our side right now. It is a much more complicated picture than that.

If you look at the vote to condemn Russia in the United Nations it was pretty overwhelming – 141 out of 193 nations voted to condemn Russia. But if you look at what is happening in other ways, the picture is very different. Ask the question ‘who is in any way involved in the supply of weaponry to Ukraine or in the economic blockade of Russia’ and a much starker picture emerges.

Basically no nation in South America is getting involved in any meaningful way. The President of Mexico has explicitly stated that this isn’t their war and the majority of the commentary on that continent is in agreement.

The same is true of Africa. The same is true of most of Asia. If you look at the media reporting of the Ukraine war outside the west one of the most common recurring themes is the accusation of hypocrisy.

It really isn’t hard to see why. Look at the reaction in the West to the bombing of a medical facility in Ukraine. Then look at the reaction when the US bombed a clearly-marked Medics Sans Frontiers medical facility in Kunduz, Afghanistan, and then lied about it (42 people died). That wasn’t even ten years ago. Barely anyone in the West was asking for war crimes investigations.

Look at our reaction to the horror and brutality of what is happening in Mariupol. Now reflect that Fallujah was an economically successful, peaceful, prosperous, middle-class city in Iraq when the US started bombing it. Then the US occupied the city, forcing children out of a primary school it wanted as a military base. When local people came out in protest, asking for their school back for their children, the US soldiers opened fire killing 17 and injuring another 70.

Furious residents started fighting back, but of course were not celebrated as heroes. It escalate until there were four US deaths – not soldiers, Blackwater mercenaries. An “overwhelming” response was promised to “pacify that city”. Ariel bombing hit residential areas as 2,000 US troops surrounded the city.

The siege forced the closure of two hospitals and a third of the population fled the city in the first day. Things kept escalating. The western-backed government of Iraq called the American actions “unacceptable and illegal”. The Americans didn’t care and escalated further and further. The US insisted all journalists must be removed from the city to prevent reporting of what happened next.

If you were in a non-white-majority country, do you think there is any chance that you might actually see this as a doctrine of global white supremacy?

The US blockade prevented any humanitarian aid getting in. No-one really knows the details of what happened next but when independent journalists (not embedded in and managed by US army) eventually got into the city they found devastation and clear signs of seemingly indiscriminate shooting of civilians. A major academic study later concluded that it had been a “massacre” and an act of “collective punishment”.

Try and get to grips with the difference between what we saw and what the rest of the world saw. Our reporting made it sound heroic. The rest of the world saw what happened as much the same as or worse than what we’re seeing in Ukraine so far. No-one was ever held responsible in any way for what happened in Fallujah.

We celebrate the bravery of a dissident journalist as Marina Ovsyannikova protested against the war and was fined (though there are fears over her long term safety). But compare and contrast with the UK’s treatment of Julian Assange.

Most obviously, in the West we are condemning Putin with every ounce of rhetoric we have, but our leaders are actually going to visit Saudi dictator Bin Salman with open arms. It is unnecessary to list his crimes against humanity or the crimes he commits daily against his own population.

We think nothing of having a summit with China to persuade them of the immorality of providing military aid to the Russians while we’re selling billions of pounds of weapons to the Saudis in their appalling destruction of Yemen.

And if you want to think well of the West it really is best not to think too hard about the differential treatment we have meted out to refugees based solely on their skin colour. We like very much not to talk about what we have been doing to Syrian refugees trying to cross the ocean into Europe – but the world sees us doing it.

The world sees us doing all of this. It has seen us do all of this for decades. No, it has seen us doing this for centuries. Frankly since the First Crusades, predominantly white nations have been violently colonising or attacking any part of the world they wanted something from with impunity.

From the Crusades to the Spanish and Portuguese empires, the Belgian, German, Dutch and British ransacking of Africa, the colonisation of the Americas and the mass genocide that resulted, the British Empire or the ‘Pax Americana’, when anyone who isn’t white sees a white person arrive in a ship, things have always gone horrendously badly for them afterwards.

We’ve called it many things, from ‘civilising the natives’ through to ‘a stable world order’. We are, as one, adamant that there was a stable world order four weeks ago but that now Putin has totally ruined it. But from the Middle East through virtually everywhere else the West has visited in the last 50 years, stability is very much not the description people there would use.

And yet in the fervour of war propaganda we are barely able to say any of these things. If those of us who see a little nuance in our understanding of the world point out that it was the West that created Russia as a failed state (three million people died in Russia because of Western ‘Shock Therapy’ after the fall of the Soviet Union) and then supported Putin as the Hard Man to bring back order, we are called Putin apologists.

When we point out that we explicitly and deliberately tried to encircle Putin with Nato or that we interfered in Ukrainian politics to a degree that the respected Cato Institute think tank described as ‘breathtaking’ we are slapped down. We’re told Ukraine is a sovereign nation and has a right to join Nato.

But North Korea and Iran are sovereign nations so do we accept they have the same right as us to possess nuclear weapons? Afghanistan is a sovereign nation but we’re barely four weeks away from Joe Biden actually stealing $7 billion of money that belonged to Afghan citizens and giving half of it to wealthy Americans, based on no reading of any law domestic or international.

We can begin by understanding that we are not blameless, and that it is our duty to look to ourselves first if we wish others to look to themselves

If anyone calls for any nuance to understand why we are seen as we are on occasions like this awful war, how we have a central role in creating the conditions which lead to these events (and we’re not called traitor) we’re told it is ‘whataboutery’.

Liberals suggest that for now we must stop criticising the West. The West must ‘atone’ for what we have done at some point – but not now. When you might ask? Except you know the answer to that. So think about what that sounds like. Putin must be punished for doing what we did. So when will you be punished for doing what Putin is doing? One day. OK, actually never. God, Britain hasn’t even formally apologised for the British Empire. Reparations? Forget it.

This is just ‘notaboutery’. It is not about what we did ten minutes ago, it is only about what someone else is doing now. And ten minutes from now when we’re doing something else it will not be about us again then, or if it is it will be justified wholly and entirely based on what someone else did ten minutes ago. Can you not see the way that looks if you’re not us?

So finally, let’s just touch on the most difficult part of this. Who is us? Earlier I pointed out that most of the world isn’t aligned in this war (at least not practically). If you look at who is actively engaged in even economic sanctions against Russia right now you will find one or two like Singapore which break a consistent rule.

The rest abide by it; Canada, the US, Australia, New Zealand, the UK, the EU, Switzerland. What links these nations and blocks of nations? They are all predominantly white. They are mostly in the Nato military alliance and therefore they have all been complicit in aggressive military action against other nations. None of those nations have been predominantly white.

China, Brazil, Pakistan, Bangladesh, India – those are the five biggest populations in the world and their populations shrug at the idea this is an unprecedented war. It looks entirely precedented to them.

It goes without saying that white people aren’t inherently bad just as it goes without saying that people who aren’t white aren’t inferior. It is a trick of history and geography and conflict that made white countries particularly rich. And wealth makes countries particularly powerful. And the powerful use their power to increase their wealth.

In truth, that is the ‘world order’ we claim has been broken. If you were in a non-white-majority country, do you think there is any chance that you might actually see this as a doctrine of global white supremacy? If we are incapable of seeing that that is at least a realistic possibility, we are not equipped to play a properly constructive part in rebuilding a world order worth the name.

There is more nuanced writing and thinking out there and if you put it all together there is an actually encouraging version of the world opening up ahead of us (I hope to write about it next week). One of genuine peace and coexistence. None of the smart money is on that future coming to pass yet, but it is not impossible.

But the most powerful people in the world remain us, the white-majority world, the West, the ‘developed world’ – call it what you will. Its not just that we feel entitled to play an outsized role in shaping the world to come, we absolutely will play an outsized role.

With that unjustified power ought to come some responsibility. Like silly 20-something me, we can either have the arrogance to believe that we actually are blameless in this world and that it’s all those aggressive Russians or ‘shifty’ Chinese or militant Islamists.

Or we can begin by understanding that we are not blameless, and that it is our duty to look to ourselves first if we wish others to look to themselves.

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