Olympic rings in Tokyo. Credit: Alex Smith / Unsplash

I didn’t know there were diplomatic events at the Olympics (Glass Clinking? Self-Importance?) until we joined the diplomatic boycott. I recall the Queen and 007 parachuting into the London games, which was medalworthy — but they live there so, not the same. As a gesture, this’ll hardly register, especially since the games will still be on TV.

That feeble quality recalls Mao’s claims that U.S. imperialism is a “paper tiger” and wouldn’t stall the Chinese revolution. The Beijing games will go on.

Joe Biden didn’t help his cause by saying he hadda do it because Americans have human rights as “part of our DNA.” A global guffaw probably ensued, at least outside the Anglosphere (Canada/U.S./U.K./Australia/New Zealand), who are in fact the only ones boycotting. A recent poll says just 17 per cent globally see the U.S. as a good democratic example, and even inside it, just seven per cent of Americans aged 18-29 think it’s democratically healthy, versus failed.

I certainly consider China’s policies toward the Uyghurs genocidal — like its far older policies in Tibet — but they don’t tower above other recent atrocities, like the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which led to uncountable deaths and far-flung chaos. The Chinese themselves threw back the genocide against “Native Americans.”

I’m aware this is known as “whataboutism” (What about you cheated on your test too?), but I’m afraid I don’t see what’s wrong with whataboutism. It helps you decide whether to support someone’s noble gesture or hold off and think about it, since they may have other, grottier motives.

The other paper tiger moment this week concerned Ukraine. Biden said U.S. intelligence reported that Russia is preparing an invasion because Vladimir Putin is irrationally attached to Ukraine, and also opposes its potential entry into NATO. So Biden warned Putin, man to man, not to do it — or he’d face serious U.S. reactions. Oddly, Biden also said the responses would in no way be military.

Russia’s view differs. It goes back to the Soviet breakup in 1991. Back then, after the Berlin Wall fell, the Soviets/Russians accepted German reunification on the explicit promise by top U.S. leaders that NATO would move “not one inch eastward.” It mattered to them, since they’d sacrificed 27 million lives to beat back the Nazi invasion and basically save the world. There’s lots of huffing about this guarantee, but there’s no doubt the Russians believed in it.

Yet within days the U.S. and Russia announced talks on an “accommodation.” The central and eastern Europeans now in NATO howled about every nation’s right to form alliances, but the problem here isn’t morality or rights — it’s spheres of influence. The New York Times writes Putin “believes that Ukraine … should be subservient to Russia,” which is true in the sense that the U.S. believes Canada should be subservient to it. Spheres of influence are an insult to national sovereignty, but they’re also a perpetual given in great power relations.

What’s striking about Mao’s original use of “paper tiger” in 1946 is the far riskier context. In fact, what he said was, “The atom bomb is a paper tiger which the U.S. reactionaries use to scare people” — a year after the U.S. dropped it on two Japanese cities, probably as an augur of its postwar power, at least in the case of the second, Nagasaki. No one else had the bomb then, so it was a bold and defiant statement for Mao to make, and also quite bloody-minded.

By the time of the “Sino-Soviet” split in the 1960s, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev retorted to Mao’s phrase with, “This paper tiger has nuclear teeth” — as did the Soviets. But Khrushchev, who’d been at Stalingrad and knew how bloody-minded his own people could be, may’ve felt they’d moved on. Mao felt his hadn’t.

In the end, I suppose, it’s not about what leaders say or want, but what their people are willing to endure, and to what ends. Biden sounds a tad uncertain.

This column was originally published in the Toronto Star. 

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Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.