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Why Can't the West Persuade "The Rest" to Condemn Putin's Aggression?
Non-Western countries' shortsightedness might put them in Ukraine's shoes someday
It is safe to assume that Vladimir Putin had not expected the extraordinary display of Western unity in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This includes previously unthinkable levels of military aid to the country, crippling economic sanctions that are dragging Russia into a deep recession, and Germany’s Zeitenwende—a fundamental rethink of the economic ties that Europe’s reluctant hegemon had hitherto maintained with Russia.
To be sure, the West’s determination to help Ukraine succeed against Russian aggression is not limitless. Following initial displays of solidarity, the U.S. public seems eager to move on to other issues: inflation, gun violence, and abortion rights. Fissures have emerged between the “new” EU members such as Poland and the Baltic States, which see the Kremlin as an existential threat, and NATO countries such as France and Germany. The latter two are getting skittish—due both to fears of escalation and their dependence on Russian energy—and seem nervous about boosting support for Ukraine. Poland’s military assistance to Ukraine, for example, now far exceeds the aid extended by the much wealthier Western European countries. To complicate things further, some Eastern European countries—most notably Viktor Orbán’s Hungary—have taken Russia’s side quite explicitly.
But there is another, arguably more important, story going on. Unlike the West, which has awoken from its slumber by the brazenness of Russia’s aggression, the “Rest” is eager to sit this crisis out. On its face, this is a paradox. Russia’s blockade of Ukrainian grain exports out of Odessa risks engineering a famine across the developing world, compounding the already severe food security problems in Sub-Saharan Africa. Over 30% of children in Sierra Leone, for instance, are malnourished. South Sudan is heading into a food crisis affecting 70% of its population that might be possibly worse than its deadly 2017 famine.
The fate of Ukraine, moreover, has direct ramifications for weaker actors within the international system. If national borders can be changed by force in Europe, the odds that they can be revised coercively anywhere go up dramatically. After all, given Europe’s past conflicts, the continent has built institutions precisely to prevent the horrors of history from returning (think, Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe—OSCE—or the Council of Europe).
The issue is not that outside actors are unwilling to use their troops to defend Ukraine—the West is not doing that either and Ukrainians are not even asking for it. Neither is it puzzling that China, whose dictator Xi Jinping signed a pact with Russia opposing NATO’s expansion and Western “hegemony” just weeks before the Russian invasion, has not denounced Russia’s aggression.
What is surprising, however, is that countries that should have, in principle, an interest in Russia’s resolute defeat—given that Russian imperialism is just another, and perhaps even more brutal, version of the same imperialism that they themselves have endured in the not-too-distant past—have collectively decided to do nothing to help Ukraine defend itself, either through military aid or by joining sanctions against Russia.
India, the world’s most populous democracy which relies on Western support in its own efforts to contain China, is perhaps the most glaring example of elevating a very narrow, short-sighted view of its interests over the war’s larger implications. Perhaps because of the country’s reliance on Russian arms and a history of close ties with the Soviet Union since the Cold War, the Indian government has abstained from successive efforts to condemn the Russian invasion at the United Nations. At a time when its Western partners are trying to limit the inflow of hard currency into Putin’s hands, India has dramatically increased its crude oil imports from Russia, giving the regime a helping hand.
Worse, Indonesia’s president Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, who holds the presidency of G-20, has invited Vladimir Putin to the group’s meeting in Jakarta in November this year (recently, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov attended a G-20 ministerial meeting in Bali, to the dismay of most members of the informal grouping). Widodo’s recent shuttle diplomacy between Kyiv and Moscow has created a false moral equivalence, giving the impression that the root cause of the conflict is not Russian aggression against Ukraine but the two sides’ inability to get along.
Latin America offers a similar example. Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico, to name the biggest players, have steered away from any sanctions against the Russian regime. Argentina’s President Alberto Fernández concluded that just as Russia was amassing troops on the Ukrainian border in early February was an auspicious time to visit Moscow and lambast the United States and international financial institutions. Brazil, meanwhile, is trying to spin its own approach as one of “impartiality, not of indifference,” without bothering to clarify what the practical difference is. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) has spent more time criticizing NATO’s and the United States’ “immoral” military assistance to Ukraine than Russia’s own aggression. In Mexico’s parliament, in the meantime, several members of Obrador’s party have formed a “Mexico-Russia Friendship Committee” and a party-affiliated youth group sent an open letter to the Russian ambassador in support of the invasion.
Perhaps most shocking, given Putin’s willingness to take their vulnerable populations hostage by stopping food supplies from Ukraine, is the silence of leaders of Sub-Saharan Africa, punctured only with the occasional complaints about Western sanctions. According to Cyril Ramaphosa, the president of South Africa, “Even those countries that are either bystanders or not part of the conflict are also going to suffer from the sanctions that have been imposed against Russia.” That is a fair point. But what matters, too, is why those sanctions have been adopted in the first place. Given South Africa’s status as a leading destination for refugees fleeing conflicts across Sub-Saharan Africa, from the Congos to Ethiopia, it is hardly in the country’s interest that brazen acts of international aggression go unpunished by the international community.
To anyone with a memory of the Cold War, this kind of pseudo non-alignment is not a new phenomenon. Much like its earlier versions, it elevates a transactional, short-term conception of national interest and an intuitive dislike of the West over wider considerations. Whatever one thinks of America’s many failures and hypocrisies, those in the world concerned about colonialism and imperialism cannot turn their gaze away from the horrors that the Russian government is inflicting on the Ukrainian people to deny their nationhood and incorporate them into a “Russian World.”
The return of non-alignment, however, is partly the fault of the West—and not simply because we have often failed to live up to the ideals that we set up for ourselves. More importantly, the collective West has become increasingly introverted in recent years. Ambitious trade deals championed by Republican and Democratic administrations are decidedly a thing of the past and the international trading system is in tatters. The Biden team was supposed to “bring America back”—but has done nothing of the sort. If anything, the United States has appeared increasingly unsteady and lacking in focus over the past two decades rather than as a global superpower that poorer countries would have strong reasons to cozy up to.
The European Union, meanwhile, was negotiating an ambitious trade agreement with Mercosur countries (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay) until recently, only to have it shelved due to opposition from France and Austria. The EU’s efforts at trade liberalization with India have been similarly fruitless. The European Commission now has a vice-president for “Promoting the European Way of Life,” as if afternoon rosé-sipping, proper espresso, and leisurely strolls through medieval towns were under attack from foreigners.
If Washington and European capitals offer no tangible benefits to the rest of world in exchange for cooperative behavior, they are foregoing much of the leverage that the size and wealth of Western economies gives them. To be sure, closer economic ties to the West, as in the case of Mexico, are no guarantee of cooperation. However, the former president Donald Trump’s pugnacious style and his unrelenting focus on trade and immigration issues involving Mexico, featuring sticks but no carrots, played a role in the anti-American attitudes that brought AMLO to power and the popular resonance of his anti-American foreign policy outlook.
The reluctance of the “Global South” to get on board with the West’s response to Russian aggression is understandable, even if misguided. Unless the West steps up and builds coalitions outside of its usual comfort zones, the current dynamics won’t bode well for its ability to confront and contain malevolent, autocratic, and revanchist regimes over the course of the 21st century.
Copyright © The UnPopulist, 2022.