6+1 Questions

29 April 2024, 0930 EDT

So what’s the article called?

Wilfred M. Chow and Dov H. Levin 2024. “The Diplomacy of Whataboutism and U.S. Foreign Policy AttitudesInternational Organization 78(1): 103-133. https://doi.org/10.1017/S002081832400002X

Can you summarize the argument for us?

We explore how “whataboutism” affects what Americans think about their country’s foreign policy. Whataboutism is a rhetorical tactic for responding to criticism. The speaker attempts to deflect criticism by pointing to similar misdeeds committed by others—most often, the critic themselves. They counter an attack, in essence, by saying “But what about this other thing YOU did?”

We find that whataboutism works. It makes Americans less likely to support policies that criticize and penalize another country for its misdeeds.

Whataboutism works best when it highlights shortcomings that are both similar and recent. if the U.S. calls out out espionage committed by another country, then whataboutist rejoinders that highlight Edward Snowden’s revelations are likely to prove effective. References to Cold War-era U.S. espionage, or unrelated U.S. misconduct—such as the human rights’ abuses at Abu Ghraib—pack much less of a punch.

Why should we care?

Policymakers certainly think it matters. Jake Sullivan, the current National Security Advisor, argues that whataboutism could “stunt America’s global leadership.” President Obama delivered a speech in Brussels in 2014 confronting Russian whataboutist claims. In 1985, the Reagan administration  sponsored a conference in Washington D.C. to counter Soviet whataboutist rhetoric concerning the U.S. intervention in Grenada.

Why are your findings right?

We anchor our argument through two survey experiments. These mirrored real-world complexities. For example, we assessed just not the effects of whataboutist claims, but also of efforts to respond to it. Our experiments also focused on the underlying mechanisms at work in the politics of whataboutism, which makes them particularly informative.

Give us the article’s “origin story.”

It developed out of the intersection of media engagements and scholarly curiosity. My work on partisan electoral interventions led to a lot of interviews in the wake of the 2016 U.S. election. Whataboutism came up a lot in those interviews, especially after Putin’s 2017 interview in which he deflected allegations of Russian election meddling by pointing to Washington’s own record of electoral interference.

But it turned out that there isn’t very much research on whataboutism. So I collaborated with Wilfred Chow, an expert in public opinion and foreign policy, to go out and study the subject.

What would you most like to change about the piece, and why?

We would have liked to also include the perspectives of U.S. political elites. They are, after all, the architects of U.S. foreign policy, and thus a key target for whataboutist arguments. However, we did not have the resources to mount an elite survey.