Ferguson, whataboutism and American soft power

Daniel W. Drezner
August 20
Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts University and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Protestors march down West Florissant Avenue in Ferguson, Missouri, August 19, 2014.  REUTERS/Mark Kauzlarich

Two days ago Roger Cohen wrote the following in the New York Times:

The magnetism of Silicon Valley may suggest that the United States, a young nation still, is Rome at the height of its power. American soft power is alive and well. America’s capacity for reinvention, its looming self-sufficiency in energy, its good demographics and, not least, its hold on the world’s imagination, all suggest vigor.

Cohen goes on to fret about the waning of U.S. geopolitical power, but let’s stay on the soft power side of things.  The events in Ferguson, Mo., have given rise to a new wave of “whataboutism,” a term coined by the Economist to describe Russia’s tendency to respond to criticisms of its policies with tu quoque replies of “what about Iraq?” or “what about race relations in America?”

Events in Ferguson have caused whataboutism to go global.  As Robin Wright notes in the Wall Street Journal a whole bunch o’ authoritarian states have seized on Ferguson to criticize the United States:

The U.S. investment of billions of American dollars to promote democratic values around the world has been undermined by the racial unrest in Ferguson. “US can’t tell other countries to improve their records on policing and peaceful assembly if it won’t clear up its own human rights record,” Amnesty International tweeted this week.

Several countries that have faced severe criticism in the State Department’s annual Human Rights Report are now boldly engaging in a kind of diplomatic touché-to-you in their condemnation of the U.S. Some may be expected from autocratic regimes. But the crisis in Ferguson undermines the moral high-ground that the U.S. has long claimed.

Robert Mackey provides even more detail in the New York Times:

While the unrest has also shocked American observers and foreign correspondents from other Western democracies — including British and German reporters who have been struck by the “sounds of battle” andendured arrest — some of the most strident criticism of the police violence in Ferguson has come from authoritarian nations where the police are often venerated and dissent is scarcely tolerated.

Coverage that echoes the broadcasts from Moscow has also appeared on Iran’s state-run Press TV, in reports about the use of force “to suppress protests in Ferguson,” that also make no mention of how demonstrations are dispersed in Iran….

Not to be outdone, a spokesman for Egypt’s foreign ministry, Badr Abdel-Atti, told the official news agency MENA on Tuesday that his country was “closely following” the protests in Ferguson. According to the state-owned Ahram Online, Egypt “called on U.S. authorities to exercise restraint and deal with the protests in accordance with U.S. and international standards.” The statement came just days after the first anniversary of the massacre of hundreds of peaceful protesters by the same military-backed government.

So how big if a deal is this for American foreign policy and the promotion of American democratic values?  Is Ferguson yet another blow to America’s waning hypocritical power?

There are some reasons for real concern.  It was The New Republic’s indispensable Julia Ioffe who first observed the application of whataboutism to Ferguson — and she found it very sobering:

Watching the riots in Ferguson, Missouri, it’s hard not to wince… at our foolish idea of our country. Russian police arrested journalists at protests, not American cops. And, even if the chances are higher that heads will roll here for something like this than in Russia, it’s hard not to notice one thing: Even at the height of the race riots in Moscow, at the height of the crackdown on the opposition, even the Russian police did not use rubber bullets.

And, like it or not, this is what the world is seeing, the world to which we strive to be an example.

Another issue is that that Amnesty International has “sent delegates to support and observe a community in the middle of a crisis” in the United States for the first time.  Given that the Ferguson PD has conducted itself in a manner that makes the Hazzard County police look like comparative beacons of professionalism, I fear that both Amnesty and the global media will continue to have plenty of fodder for further reporting.

But there are three important caveats to this.  The first is that this kind of tu quoquery doesn’t necessarily last all that long when it comes to foreign affairs.  If I had told you a decade ago that the United States would be conducting airstrikes in Iraq with the approval of just about every NATO and Middle East ally, and that Germany was considering supplying arms to the Kurds in Iraq, you would have laughed pretty hard.  As I have argued elsewhere, even gigantic policy clusterf**** don’t dent American influence all that much.

The second is that the basic feature of whataboutism is that even if Ferguson hadn’t gone global — which it has — authoritarian leaders would have seized on some other flaw in the United States to hype.  I mean, when Foreign Affairs produces this cover, it’s easy to remember that Ferguson is just the latest blemish on a country that has plenty of political blemishes:

 


The final and most important point is that, as bad as things have been in Ferguson over the past week, they can get better.  Indeed, they were getting better at the end of last week until the Ferguson PD played the “How Can We Release Information In The Most Inflammatory Manner Possible?” game.  The comparative advantage of countries that have democracy and the rule of law is their resiliency to negative political shocks like what happened in Ferguson.  If the legal system does its job and adjudicates exactly what happened to Michael Brown, if the political system nudges some alterations of police tactics, and if civil society groups manage to filter out anarchists from peaceful protestors, then the political narrative will look much better six months from now.

I’ll grant that those are a lot of “ifs” — but the odds are better that it will happen in this country than in the countries engaging in whataboutism right now.

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