During the first Cold War between the West and the Soviet Union injustice and human rights increasingly became a central issue. This ought to have been a positive development, but it was devalued by partisan use and the issue turned into an instrument of propaganda.
The essence of such propaganda is not lies or even exaggeration, but selectivity. To give one example, the focus was kept on very real Soviet oppression in Eastern Europe and away from the savage rule of Western-backed dictators in South America. The political weaponisation of human rights was crude and hypocritical, but it was extremely effective.
As we enter a second Cold War against China and Russia, there are lessons to be learned from the first, since much the same propaganda mechanisms are once again hard at work. Western governments and media unrelentingly criticise China for the persecution of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang province, but there is scarcely a mention of the repression of Kashmiri Muslims in Indian-controlled Kashmir. Diplomatic and media outrage is expressed when Russia and the Syrian government bomb civilians in Idlib in Syria, but the bombing of civilians during the Western-backed, Saudi-led air campaign in Yemen, remains at the bottom of the news agenda.
Governmental and journalistic propagandists – for journalists who take this selective approach to oppression are no better than propagandists – can see that they are open to the charge of hypocrisy. People ask them how come that the mass incarceration, disappearances and torture suffered by the Kashmiris is so different from similar draconian punishments inflicted on the Uighurs?
This is a very reasonable question, but propagandists have developed two lines of defence against it. The first is to claim that whoever asks “what about Kashmir or Yemen” is fostering “whataboutism”, culpably diverting attention from crimes committed against the Uighurs and Syrian civilians. The nonsensical assumption here is that denouncing atrocities and oppression in once country precludes one from denouncing them in another.
The real purpose of this gambit from the point of view of those waging information wars is to impose a convenient silence over wrongdoings by our side while focusing exclusively on theirs.
The second line of defence, used to avoid comparison between the crimes committed by ourselves and our friends and those of our enemies, is to demonise the latter so thoroughly that no equivalence between the two is allowed. Such demonisation – sometimes called “monsterisation” – is so effective because it denies the other side a hearing and means that they are automatically disbelieved. In the 1990s, I used to write with copious evidence that UN sanctions against Iraq were killing thousands of children every month. But nobody paid any attention because sanctions were supposedly directed against Saddam Hussein – though they did him no harm – and he was known to be the epitome of evil. The US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 was justified by claiming that Saddam possessed WMD and anybody who suggested that the evidence for this was dubious could be smeared as a secret sympathiser with the Iraqi dictator.
Simple-minded as these PR tactics might be, but they have been repeatedly shown to be highly effective. One reason why they work is that people would like to imagine that conflicts are struggles between white hats and black hats, angels and demons. Another reason is that this delusion is fostered enthusiastically by parts of the media, who generally goes along with a government-inspired news agenda.
With President Joe Biden seeking to rebuild the international image of the US as the home of freedom and democracy in the wake of the Donald Trump presidency, we are back to these classic information strategies. For America to bounce back unsullied in the eyes of the world, it is essential to portray Trump, with his embrace of autocrats and denunciation of everybody he disliked as a terrorist, as an aberration in American history.
Yet much of the planet’s population will have watched the film of Derek Chauvin slowly asphyxiate George Floyd and may not look at America in quite the same light as before, despite the guilty verdict in Minneapolis this week.
Asked about the impact of that verdict internationally, the US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said that America needed “to promote and defend justice at home” if it was to credibly claim to be doing the same abroad. But he dismissed as “whataboutism” and unacceptable “moral equivalence” the suggestion that US protests about the jailing and mistreatment of Alexei Navalny in Russia and China’s actions in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, was being undermined by the fact that the US holds 2.4 million of its citizens in prison, one of the highest incarceration rates in the world.
Contrary to what Sullivan and other establishment figures say about refusing to compare the US with Russia and China, “whataboutism” and “moral equivalency” can be strong forces for good. They influence great powers, though not as much as they should, into cleaning up their acts out of pure self-interest, thus enabling them to criticise their rivals without appearing too openly hypocritical.
This happened during the first Cold War, when the belief that the Soviet Union was successfully using America racial discrimination to discredit the US as a protagonist of democracy, played an important role in persuading decision-makers in Washington that civil rights for blacks was in the government’s best interests.
Once “whataboutism” and “equivalence” become the norm in media reporting, then the US government will have a powerful motive to try to end the militarisation of America’s police forces, which shot dead 1,004 people in 2019. This also holds true for how the police handle race.
Cold War competition between global powers has many harmful consequences, but it can also have benign ones. One forgotten consequence of the Soviet Union launching Sputnik, the first space satellite in 1957, is that it led to a spectacular surge in US government spending on scientific and general education.
For the most part, however, the first Cold War was an arid exchange of accusations in which human rights became a weapon in informational warfare. Can anything be done to prevent the same thing happening as the second Cold War gets underway?
It would be naïve to imagine that governments will not go on maligning their enemies and giving themselves a free pass unless propelled to do better by public opinion. And this will only happen by going beyond selective reporting of human rights abuses and demonising all opponents of their national governments as pariahs.