‘Genocide’ Is Not a Throwaway Term of Abuse

Soaring inflation is leaving Americans battered and bruised—and not just inflation in prices. Inflation in rhetoric is also doing a number on the people of our republic.

We’ve seen it unfold with depressing regularity. Donald Trump was a “fascist dictator,” we were told. The Capitol riot was a “coup” and an “insurrection.” Climate change poses an “existential threat” to all life on earth. And, just this past week, after failing to get the legislative redistricting map he wanted from the state Supreme Court, Wisconsin’s Democratic Governor Tony Evers declared: “At a time when our democracy is under near-constant attack, the judiciary has abandoned our democracy in our most dire hour.” 

Deary me! If you are a regular viewer of the nonstop apocalypt-o-rama on CNN and MSNBC these days, you are likely to think American democracy is being struck with death blows more or less every hour of every day.

Such hyperbolic, scaremongering rhetoric is bad enough when it’s used in the context of our toxic domestic politics, but when the same loose, inflammatory talk is injected into the practice of U.S. diplomacy and foreign policy, the stakes rise inexorably—as do the dangers.

A case in point: last week, Joe Biden accused Russia of committing “genocide” in Ukraine. He did so offhandedly, clumsily, and inarticulately, of course, but he did it all the same. After a brief mention in a speech about inflation, he clarified his position to reporters: “Yes, I called it genocide . . . It’s become clearer and clearer that Putin is just trying to wipe out the idea of even being a Ukrainian.” Not for the first time, therefore, Biden thrust himself way out in front of his own administration, which has not accused Russia of genocide. 

The reasons for declining to make that accusation are easy enough to see. In the first place, Russia is not guilty of genocide in Ukraine and, moreover, charging a country with genocide traditionally has implied a moral and political imperative to intervene directly to stop the killing. U.S. and/or NATO intervention in Ukraine, however, would bring with it extremely high risks, including the likelihood of sparking World War III and a nuclear holocaust.

Why do I say that Russia is not guilty of genocide? Simple: Although Russia has killed thousands of civilians in Ukraine, and may well have committed war crimes, those two things by themselves don’t add up to  “genocide.” 

Genocide is the attempt to wipe out an entire ethnic group, and, frankly, if what’s taking place in Ukraine now is considered “genocide,” and the bar is henceforth to be set at any military campaign that kills thousands of civilians, then most of the wars that have been fought since 1945 were “genocides.” 

Indeed, by that standard, the United States itself has committed genocide on numerous occasions. This definition, then, is absurd. 

Genocide is the most extreme, most debased, most barbaric crime that any nation can commit, and the only reason the word is being bandied about by Ukrainian leaders, and, now, by the man in the White House, is its propagandistic effect. 

Not that facts matter to Joe Biden, but, as a matter of fact, a much stronger case could be made that China is guilty of genocide. Remember China? The country that, by its negligence and dishonesty, has killed more than 1 million Americans with a vicious, bioengineered disease? It’s the same country killing and enslaving Uyghurs on a scale vast enough that it appears intent on, well . . . wiping them out as an ethnic group. Oh yeah: it’s also the country that paid (indirectly, via Hunter Biden’s dirty dealings) for Sleepy Joe’s home improvements. So hey—forget I said anything. All is forgiven. 

Joking aside, not only has Joe Biden refused to punish China in any meaningful way for its tyrannical and genocidal policies, he’s actually excused those policies. Biden suggested they merely were the result of “different norms” in our two countries, and he bragged about his close relationship with China’s dictator, President Xi Jinping. Quite a contrast!

Biden gets things wrong more often than he gets things right, so his rhetorical blunder by itself is not surprising. What’s more worrying is that Biden might actually believe his own irresponsible rhetoric. He may really believe Russia is a genocidal, expansionist dictatorship—that there is no meaningful distinction between Putin and Adolf Hitler. If that is the case, Americans should reflect on the possible consequences of those beliefs, because they could be, quite literally, earth-shattering. 

When a nation commits genocide, a very strong argument can be made that all major powers are obligated to intervene to stop it. Imagine if Russia really was massacring Ukrainians en masse, perhaps herding them into death camps, and was determined to wipe them off the face of the earth. Does anyone believe the proper response to that horror would be . . . economic sanctions (excluding oil and gas, which most of the West thinks it can’t do without) and modest military aid (but no aircraft or heavy weapons) to the soon-to-be-obliterated? 

Genocide calls for direct military action. Genocide calls for war. That’s the implication of Biden’s inflated and inflammatory rhetoric: that virtually any action, no matter how extreme, could be justified to combat the unparalleled evil of Putinism.

Biden’s lack of messaging discipline is scary enough. Even scarier is that he believes his own nonsense and may want to do something about it. The trouble is, he can. He can attack Russia directly whenever he pleases. He might do so casually, thoughtlessly, impulsively, because that seems to be his modus operandi, but, once the trigger is pulled, it can’t be unpulled. 

If you thought the world was on the brink before, Sleepy Joe just made the situation that much worse. And we have three more years of his erratic leadership in store.

About Nicholas L. Waddy

Nicholas L. Waddy, an associate professor of history at SUNY Alfred, blogs at www.waddyisright.com.

Photo: Nathan Posner/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

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