Yes, the war in Ukraine deserves more attention than Syria or Afghanistan. Here’s why.
It is day 19 of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and it seems like it's all anyone can talk about. In a country that rarely cares about what happens abroad, 84% of Americans say they are following the news about the war closely. Certainly, it’s getting far more attention than the conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, or Palestine ever have.
I've seen a lot of commentators in the media assert that this is proof that most of us only care about the plight of other white Europeans and have no regard for the fate of poor and brown people in the developing world. In other words, that it’s just another expression of racism.I understand that perspective. God knows it’s true that for too many, empathy is not color-blind. But it's way too simplistic in the case of Ukraine.
In fact, this crisis has captured so much attention despite, not because, of the 2 million refugees already streaming into Europe being overwhelmingly white, Christian, and culturally European.
Imagine how different the coverage would be if those 2 million people were coming into Europe from Africa, the Middle East, or Central Asia instead. Yet because Europe is so willing to welcome and integrate Ukrainians—it doesn’t say great things about humanity, but it is a reality we have to acknowledge—the exodus of the 5-10 million Ukrainians who are likely to leave Ukraine in the coming weeks isn’t nearly as much of a story as what's happening on the ground in Ukraine and the implications for NATO, for the global economy, and even for direct confrontation between the U.S. and Russia.
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So no, the main reason why this war is getting so much attention is not racism. It’s because of the outsized impact it could have on global prosperity and peace.
When the world’s largest grain exporter attacks the fifth-largest grain exporter, and when the world’s largest gas exporter and second-largest oil exporter gets cut off from the global trade and financial system, the cumulative impact on everyone in the planet is so much greater than any amount of poverty, deprivation, and death Syrians, Afghans, and Yemenis are experiencing. It doesn't take away from their suffering, but it makes it completely understandable that everyone in the world would pay more attention to Ukraine than to them.In particular, the impact of this war on poor people and poor nations around the world is going to be far greater than that of the conflicts we've seen in any of those countries. As usual, rich people and rich countries will be just fine; poor people and poor countries won’t. Paying more attention to Ukraine than to other tragic, albeit localized, conflicts is therefore justified.
A second reason to care about this war stems from the fact that Russia is a military superpower. The risk of nuclear conflict between the U.S. and Russia poses an existential threat to all of us living in the world. The same cannot be said of any other conflict or humanitarian crisis.
The West is unequivocally at war with Russia. NATO countries may not be sending troops to Ukraine, but they are sending money, supplies, and weapons to help the Ukrainians more effectively kill the invading Russians. They are imposing crippling financial sanctions with the stated purpose to decimate the Russian economy. They are trying to topple Putin’s regime.Western countries may think this is just indirect fighting, but the Kremlin doesn’t see it that way. To them, these steps are as much acts of war against Russia as imposing a no-fly zone would be. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea. But we have to acknowledge that the potential for significant escalation, including cyberattacks, economic warfare, disinformation campaigns, proxy terrorism, and yes, even direct military confrontation, makes this an incredibly dangerous environment for the whole world. To be clear, I'm not in any way predicting World War III. I don't think it's imminent. I don't even think it's close. But I recognize it's possible—and much more likely than it was nary a month ago.
Are Ukrainians more deserving of sympathy than Syrians, Afghans, and other victims of conflict? No. Does the war in Ukraine matter more for the world than those other conflicts? Yes, and by a long shot.
Given the stakes, it would be inconceivable—and indeed irresponsible—for us not to spend most of our time focusing on this crisis.
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