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The many trials of Donald Trump will have an unpredictable effect on American politics. But they are already having an all too predictable impact on world affairs. The various prosecutions faced by the former president are fuelling a global surge in “whataboutism”.
Trump tried to subvert democracy and he deserves to be held to account. But the spectacle of a leading candidate in the next US presidential election facing possible imprisonment is still a gift for authoritarian governments. They have long resented western lectures on human rights and democracy. Now they can say, “You criticise us for locking up our opponents? What about Trump?”
It is tempting for liberals to wave away these kinds of arguments as obviously insincere or absurd. But simply accusing the Russians or the Chinese of whataboutism, and changing the subject, is a mistake for two reasons.
First, whataboutery is often very effective. The US and its western allies are at risk of losing the battle for global opinion if they refuse to engage in the debate. America’s efforts to rally global support for Ukraine have foundered in part because of the failure to find a convincing reply to the question “What about America’s invasion of Iraq?”
Second, although whataboutism is an irritating style of argument, it is not illegitimate. When people make political and moral judgments, they naturally compare different situations to clarify their thinking. You think X is wrong? What about Y?
I had my own internal “what about” debates in Hong Kong last week. I am instinctively hostile to the many current prosecutions of activists who took part in the Hong Kong protest movement from 2019 to 2020. But what about the long sentences that have just been passed on pro-Trump activists who stormed the US Capitol on January 6 2021? At one point, during the Hong Kong protests, protesters stormed the legislative council.
So what is the difference? One crucial distinction is that the US rioters were seeking to overturn a democratic election. The Hong Kong protest movement was demanding democracy. The defendants in the huge number of cases brought under Hong Kong’s new national security laws face vague, sweeping charges of sedition and collusion with foreign powers. Their alleged crimes include such offences as running primary elections to establish a slate of pro-democracy candidates.
The fact that Trump’s prosecution will take centre stage in the coming year means that similar debates will keep coming back all over the world. When I referred in the FT recently to Turkey as a democracy “where leading opposition politicians are in jail”, a reader instantly shot back “Have you seen the news out of the US lately?”
Russian television is also delighting in Trump’s trials. Does that not make it harder for the Biden administration to criticise the imprisonment of the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny? Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian prime minister, recently used an interview with the pro-Trump pundit, Tucker Carlson, to tut-tut that it would be “impossible to imagine” indicting the leader of the opposition in Hungary.
So what about these cases? In every instance, there are good answers — but they require knowledge and the ability to make distinctions.
The imprisonment of Selahattin Demirtaş, a leading Turkish politician, has been condemned as politically motivated and based on flawed evidence by the European Court of Human Rights and the International Commission of Jurists. One of the jail sentences against Demirtas was for “insulting the president”. By contrast, no reputable international legal body has taken issue with the cases against Trump or the independence of the courts trying him.
There was never any doubt that Navalny would be convicted of the charges hurled at him because Russia’s courts are firmly under the control of the Kremlin. By contrast, Trump has a real chance of acquittal in the cases against him as his legal team tests the charges and evidence.
As for Orbán, he has spent the past decade gradually squeezing the life out of Hungary’s democracy. There is little need to jail his opponents when the political system is already thoroughly stacked against the opposition.
In the global south, the most potent form of whataboutism remains the Iraq war. Most US politicians, including Biden and Trump, now accept that the war was a mistake. It clearly had tragic consequences. But it is still not “the same” as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was a brutal dictatorship that was responsible for mass atrocities. Ukraine was a peaceful democracy. The US had no intention of annexing Iraq. Russia, by contrast, wants to erase Ukraine’s independence and has annexed large parts of its territory.
Do I expect that making these points will ensure the triumph of reason, justice and democracy? Obviously not. Even among those who engage in these debates in good faith, there are people who will remain unconvinced. Many others will not be swayed, because their positions are dictated by emotion or self-interest, and underpinned by false information or propaganda.
It is unrealistic to expect that reasoned argument can defeat all forms of whataboutism. But the surest way to lose the debate is to refuse to engage in it in the first place.