A Call for Universal Empathy: We are the “Other”

Photograph Source: David Drexler – CC BY 2.0

While I was deeply gratified and moved to see the outpouring of support for Ukraine and its people on various social media channels in response to the Russian invasion, I realise how selective it is within the United States, knowing that its government has followed the exact same bloodstained path on numerous occasions without the same response.

In a sense, Russia is taking a page out of the US foreign policy playbook, which is replete with acts of subversion, destabilisation, invasion, occupation, war, etc, all with the goal of regime change in countries that are perceived to be threats to US ‘national interests’.

Let me pose a rhetorical question. How many institutional statements and memes do you recall seeing after the US launched its invasion of Iraq, a sovereign nation like Ukraine, on 19 March 2003, followed by military occupation, hundreds of thousands of deaths and injuries, mental and emotional trauma beyond measure, the displacement of millions and the destruction of wide swaths of Iraqi society, documented by Brown University’s Watson Institute, among others?

Most US Americans were caught up in a frenzy of nationalism jumpstarted by the 9/11 attacks. While many individuals in academia did speak out, wrote articles and joined demonstrations, higher education institutions and international education organisations generally held their collective tongue.

Professional association and institutional statements

Not surprisingly, NAFSA: Association of International Educators and the Institute of International Education (IIE) were quick to respond, as was the Fulbright Association. I agree wholeheartedly with all of the Stand with Ukraine statements. So, what’s the beef? The fact that I don’t recall seeing many similar statements after the ‘shock and awe’ US invasion and occupation of Iraq in March 2003. This selective outrage and empathy are the height of hypocrisy.

On behalf of NAFSA, Esther D Brimmer, executive director and CEO, wrote in her statement: NAFSA Stands with Ukraine: “We share the world’s outrage over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and feel deeply for all who are caught in the crossfire and those with ties to the region. This is a shameful act of aggression, and our thoughts are with all who will be forced to bear the cost of this war with their lives and livelihoods.

“This violence is in direct opposition to what NAFSA stands for: a peaceful, just and globally connected world, and the improvement of democratic institutions.

“We will continue to advocate for affected international students and scholars, and we affirm the importance of international education as a force to foster understanding and respect among people of diverse backgrounds and perspectives.”

Where was NAFSA in the spring of 2003? That was the year it invited a senior US State Department official, a neocon and former international educator, no less, to speak at its annual conference.

In his plenary address he proclaimed, to the disbelief and anger of many in attendance, that one can no longer claim to “hate this government’s policies but love the country”, an expression of nationalism in defence of the Iraq war. Where was the organisation’s outrage at that ‘shameful act of aggression’?

In a much leaner Statement on the Crisis in Ukraine, IIE shared that: “We are saddened to witness the violence occurring across Ukraine and join the world in mourning those affected” and took the opportunity to promote its mission, partnerships and programmes.

The likely reason for its muted response in which a war becomes a ‘crisis’ is the fact that IIE has offices in Kyiv and Moscow. (Note: IIE subsequently changed ‘crisis’ to ‘war’; the original word remains in the URL.)

Why wasn’t IIE “saddened to witness the violence” and why did it not “join the world in mourning those affected” after past US military actions, including Iraq in 2003? One reason can best be summed up by the German idiom, ‘Whose bread I eat, his song I sing’. IIE receives 73% of its sponsored programme revenues from US government agencies, including the US State Department for its administration of the Fulbright programme.

In the days following the Russian invasion, I also received an email ‘Fulbrighters Standing with Ukraine’, sent by the Fulbright Association to US programme alumni, noting that: “We share your dismay with the return of warfare to the European continent, breaking 75 years of peace.

“These are the same 75 years of the Fulbright programme, launched by Senator Fulbright to be an enduring force for peace through understanding.

“The tragic and violent attack on Ukraine is a moment of action, and a moment of reflection. As a community, we condemn the attack on the Ukrainian people, and we deplore the loss of life and wanton destruction. We agree with [former] president Jimmy Carter, another Fulbright Prize Laureate, who said today that the US and its allies ‘must stand with the people of Ukraine in support of their right to peace, security and self-determination’.”

When did the Fulbright Association ‘deplore the loss of life and wanton destruction’ caused by the US in its many foreign misadventures?

The unwillingness to call a spade a spade and criticise the US government for its international transgressions is the sad yet predictable result of ‘the relationship’ in the spirit of don’t poke the (US State Department) bear, in NAFSA’s case. Apparently, the US is given a pass when it undertakes actions that are anathema to the “peaceful, just and globally connected world” of which Dr Brimmer spoke.

In addition to Stand with Ukraine statements issued by organisations, a long list of US colleges and universities followed suit. Passionate, eloquent and righteous statements from US university and college presidents came from institutions as varied as Columbia University, Earlham College, Keene State College, the School for International Training, the University of Notre Dame and the University of Washington.

Where were US higher education institutions 19 years ago and on other occasions?

Condemn war everywhere

One colleague exclaimed on LinkedIn: “Ukraine isn’t the only country besieged by bombs. I can only hope that international education organisations, etc, make similar condemnations against the other attacks on sovereign nations.”

He shared a meme that listed airstrikes in the previous 48 hours, including an Israeli airstrike in Damascus, Saudi airstrikes in Yemen and a US airstrike in Somalia.

The message was ‘condemn war everywhere’. You can add your own examples, including the never-ending brutalisation of Palestinians by Israeli soldiers with indirect US support.

Another reason for this double standard that is not spoken of in polite company – with a nod to George Orwell – is that it is primarily white, Christian folks who are on the receiving end of state-sponsored violence this time.

David Sakvarelidze, Ukraine’s deputy chief prosecutor, in a BBC interview clip that was widely tweeted and universally excoriated, said: “I am sorry it’s very emotional for me because I see European people with blue eyes and blond hair being killed and children being killed every day with Putin’s missiles.”

Rana Jarhum, a Yemeni human rights activist, offered this perspective: “For a decade now I’ve seen my family displaced, my city bombed, Yemen wrecked, Syria wrecked, Afghanistan wrecked, people who look like me die in the Mediterranean routinely. Whoever made it to safe countries feels unwelcome, as if we came to sit on their stomachs and eat their food. Yemenis who applied for asylum in the US have been waiting for their refugee status for years. They are still waiting…”

Embracing ‘the other’

I wrote in a July 2021 essay, ‘Global citizenship is about more than intercultural skills’: “Global citizenship is the notion that one’s identity transcends national borders and that national interests must not supersede global interests, especially if the former are damaging to the latter.

“While we all carry a national passport out of necessity, ‘the world is our country’. We are all citizens of Planet Earth and members of humanity, regardless of our nationality. Our well-being forms an unbreakable bond with that of our fellow human beings and the natural world. It is the ultimate expression of inclusion that has many positive implications for peace, justice, environmental protection and economic sustainability.”

This way of viewing the world and acting accordingly is equally applicable to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the US invasion of Iraq and many other examples, past and present, of state-sponsored violence. Educational institutions that pay lip service to global citizenship should walk the walk in both their statements and actions.

What we truly need, what the world desperately needs, is universal empathy, caring, concern and compassion based on our shared humanity, not selective outrage and empathy reserved for people who are like us to the exclusion of ‘the other’.

A version of this article first appeared on University World News.

Mark A. Ashwill is an international educator who has lived in Vietnam since 2005. He is an associate member of Veterans for Peace Chapter 160. Ashwill blogs at An International Educator in Viet Nam and can be reached at markashwill@hotmail.com.