Why do we care so much about the invasion of Ukraine — and not, say, the current conflict in Ethiopia? That too involves violence against civilians, so why aren’t western capitals thronged with marchers for Tigray?
Does our concern for suffering people stop at the borders of Europe? According to Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Pulitzer-winning journalist, what we think of as our continent is a “geopolitical fiction” and thus the “alarm” over the Ukraine is a “dog whistle to tell us we should care because they are like us”:
What if I told you Europe is not a continent by defintion, but a geopolitical fiction to separate it from Asia and so the alarm about a European, or civilized, or First World nation being invaded is a dog whistle to tell us we should care because they are like us.
— Ida Bae Wells (@nhannahjones) February 27, 2022
The first thing to say is that the situation in Ukraine is special, because one country is being invaded by another country. Almost every other active conflict in the world today is taking place within — not between — sovereign states. Furthermore, this is happening right on the borders of NATO (and the EU). It is thus of urgent relevance to the nations of the West. The aggressor nation, Russia, has threatened Ukraine’s neighbours with “immediate consequences” if they try to intervene. Yesterday, those warnings literally went nuclear.
Therefore, I hope the whataboutery brigade will understand if we focus on Ukraine for the moment. After all, it’s not as if we’ve made a habit of it. Over the last thirty years we’ve paid remarkably little attention to the nations of the former Soviet Union. And that’s not because nothing much has happened there — it most certainly has.
However, western foreign policy has been focused on the Middle East and Afghanistan. In 2012 Mitt Romney was mocked by Barack Obama for saying that Russia was a “geopolitical foe”. Indeed, Obama’s overarching foreign objective was a “Pivot to Asia” — which de-emphasised the trans-Atlantic relationship. The Trump Presidency was marked by overt impatience with America’s European allies and a focus on diplomatic initiatives in the Middle East, and a trade war with China.
On the geopolitical level, the West has been very far from obsessed with Ukraine. It’s much more accurate to say that we’ve been caught unawares and are desperately trying to catch-up. But can we be accused of cultural chauvinism — of sympathising with the Ukrainians because we believe them to more “like us” than people elsewhere in the world? Perhaps, but it’s entirely natural that we should identify with people with whom we have things in common. Europe is not a mere “geopolitical fiction”. There is a shared culture that stretches back for centuries.
A sense of shared cultural identity impacts our engagement with world news all the time. And it’s not just a limited to ‘European-ness’. For instance, the murder of George Floyd had a massive impact well beyond America. That included the UK, despite our very different police practices.
And yet a “what about?” argument could have been made back then too. The brutalisation of the Uyghurs in China was (and is) taking place on a vastly greater scale, but didn’t get the same attention. Does that mean that Britons were wrong to protest Floyd’s murder? Of course not. Caring about something is more important than caring equally about everything.