Last week the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club announced that players from Russia and Belarus would not be permitted to play in Wimbledon. When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, an illegal invasion that would cost more than a million lives in the end, there was no such ban.
This is just one example of the extraordinarily brazen double standards with which much of the West, including its liberal media such as The New York Times and The Guardian, is responding to the war. Much opinion in the South African media follows the same logic guided by an implicit assumption that it is right and proper for the West, led by the US, to hold political and moral authority over the whole world.
By any credible standards, George W Bush and Tony Blair would be considered war criminals, but mainstream Western opinion does not see them in these terms and there is zero chance that they would ever be put on trial at The Hague. In fact, the US has refused to accept the authority of the International Criminal Court over its own military, and the court has overwhelmingly put Africans on trial.
There is no state anywhere in the world that is responsible for more invasions, coups and bombing than the US, yet its leaders are not presented in demonic terms, its billionaires are not sanctioned, its television stations – which have often run propaganda for its wars – are not taken off the air. It is not excluded from the international banking system, and the formal power that it wields globally through institutions like the World Bank and the United Nations Security Council are seldom treated as problematic.
Mainstream Western opinion prides itself on its commitment to democratic values in the West, but it strenuously resists the idea that global institutions should be democratised. This hypocrisy is no small thing. As the Italian historian and philosopher Domenico Losurdo observed, “if we do not fight for democracy in international relations, then we can hardly call ourselves socialists, or even democrats”.
Lives that matter
The current war in Yemen has cost more than 377 000 lives. Over 500 000 people have lost their lives in the current war in Ethiopia. Estimates of the total death toll in the war in Ukraine vary quite widely, but even the highest estimates are a small fraction of the deaths in Yemen and Ethiopia. Yet these wars are given little media attention in the West. They are not treated as great moral issues of our times and there are almost no spontaneous mass expressions of solidarity for the victims of these wars.
During the Easter weekend, the Israeli military launched a brutal attack on the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. There was no moral outrage from mainstream Western politicians and media. As the Jacobin magazine noted in an important article, the double standards are staggering. More than 20 000 refugees from the war in Ukraine have arrived in Israel. Many of them will end up in the occupied territories, where they will take their place in a brutal system of racist dispossession and domination. There is no scandal about this in the West or in the South African media.
The reasons for these double standards are clear. First, the victims of the war in the Ukraine are white. And second, they are citizens of a state aligned to the US. Their country is directly funded, armed and ideologically and diplomatically supported by the US.
In certain circles, pointing out these double standards is often met with hysteria, anger and the now all-too-predictable allegation of “whataboutism”. In South Africa, the line that divides those who take the view that it is necessary to note the double standards and those who wish to overlook them often overlaps, although of course not completely, with race. Anecdotally it seems that in several self-described progressive organisations, such as non-governmental organisations and university departments, sharp divisions have emerged over this issue. While not strictly delimited by race, these divisions are clearly racialised.
It seems that many of our white compatriots, though of course not all, assume that white lives matter more than other lives and that the West should dominate the world – that there should not be any democracy in international relations. These assumptions cannot be left unchallenged.
Of equal value
It is essential that we insist that a life in Yemen, Ethiopia or Palestine must count as much as a life in Ukraine. We cannot accept that a special value is placed on white lives. Victims of US-backed aggression, such as in the war in Yemen, must be given the same moral weight as victims of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
This is a straightforward moral point. But there are also political issues that must be addressed. One of these is that the West, led by the US, is fighting a proxy war with Russia at the expense of ordinary Ukrainians. The US knew very well that expanding Nato eastwards and arming countries close to Russia posed a significant risk of war, but it did it anyway because it wished to encircle and weaken Russia. Several powerful figures in the US political establishment, including Hillary Clinton, who should be internationally reviled as a warmonger, have drawn gleeful analogies between the war in Ukraine and the Russian war in Afghanistan in the 1980s. They make no secret of their hope that a new proxy war will weaken Russia, with the US funding but outsourcing the fighting.
These kinds of political considerations are hidden from view when rigorous analysis is replaced by lazy moralism. Writing in Sidecar, Richard Seymour has made the important point that the West’s cultural war against Russian is really “about the moral rearmament of ‘the West’ after Iraq and Afghanistan under the ensign of a new Cold War”. After what the US has done to Nicaragua, Haiti, Vietnam, Chile, Cuba, Grenada, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and so many other countries, this is an alarming prospect.
Noam Chomsky has made another crucial point, which is that wars either end in negotiations or the defeat of one side. He argues that the US can either fight Russia to “the last Ukrainian”, a strategy that must at some point run the risk of nuclear war, or accept a diplomatic settlement.
In South Africa, the decision by Cyril Ramaphosa’s government to take a non-aligned position and push for negotiations has met with condemnation so shrill that it has often veered into hysteria. It has been suggested, with thinly veiled racism, that the only possible explanation for the South African position is some sort of corruption. Greg Mills and Ray Hartley wrote that Ramaphosa has exposed his “Russian petticoat”. Mills is closely linked to Nato and worked as the special adviser to the commander of the Nato forces in Afghanistan.
The South African position is routinely treated as a perverse aberration in our media, ignoring the fact that many countries across Africa and the Global South have taken a similar position. As Nontobeko Hlela has written, “Pretoria should not be compelled to denounce Russia for the sake of getting on the bandwagon when a lot of the countries now imposing sanctions on Russia never imposed sanctions on the US and its allies, even when there was proof that the ‘weapons of mass destruction’ used as a pretext for invading Iraq never actually existed”.
She makes a solid point. The US sanctions countries across the political spectrum – from Iran to Cuba – when they don’t accept its authority. Why should an African country join the US-driven project to isolate and sanction its enemy when it would certainly sanction South Africa in the unlikely event that a progressive government here ascended to power and moved to, say, nationalise the platinum mines and expel the Israeli ambassador?
As Hlela notes, it is “long past time that we fully internalise that we are not part of the West, and that we need to place the interests of Africa, and the Global South more widely, at the centre of our analytical and moral understanding of global affairs”.
We cannot continue to accept the moral blackmail that aims to prevent us from speaking about the gross double standards with which the war in Ukraine is treated. Every act of aggression by one state against another must be equally opposed. Every victim of every war must count equally. Every war criminal must be called to account. Those among our white compatriots who call this “whataboutery” need to engage in deep reflection about their often highly emotive hostility to the idea that racial and geopolitical double standards should be called into question. We, as South Africans, need to understand that we are not part of the West and we need to build non-aligned international solidarity for peace and for a more just and democratic world order.