May 23, 2023

The War in Ukraine, Democracy, and the Global South: We Have a Problem

In July 2022, Türkiye and the United Nations brokered a deal with Russia not to target ships in transit to allow grain exports from Ukraine.
In July 2022, Türkiye and the United Nations brokered a deal with Russia not to target ships in transit to allow grain exports from Ukraine.

In the last few months, there has been a flurry of discussion about the lack of support that the United States and its European allies have received from the Global South. To some, its reaction to the war raging in Ukraine might even seem counterproductive. But why did we ever expect it to be different?

For much of the first year of the war, there was a sense of relief and even triumphalism about the West’s own unity in response to the Russian invasion. Many in Europe and the US seemed – or wanted to be – convinced that Russia was isolated. Or that what others beyond the West thought hardly even mattered. Yet there is now a growing realisation that the Global South has not been supportive of the West. And that this is a problem.

Ahead of the first anniversary of the Russian invasion in February 2023, a spate of polls and analyses revealed that the developing world beyond the strategic West – that is, the US and its allies – was avoiding taking sides in the conflict. Instead of at least trying to understand why these nations – many of them former European colonies – were choosing to do so, much of the commentary only suggested the narratives to persuade them to change their minds, side with the West, and oppose Russia.

This instrumental approach to the Global South will not work. If we are serious about engaging Africa, Asia, and South America, we cannot expect them to automatically endorse our decisions. Crafting more persuasive narratives will not help us either. Instead, the West must reckon with the non-Western democracies that are essential to building a broader coalition, as well as with their national interests. If we want to find common ground with them, we may even need to modify our own approach to the war in Ukraine.

Up until the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the West had been widely seen as going through a crisis or in a state of decline. In that environment, the unity of NATO’s response to the Russian aggression was cheered as a triumph. Countless commentators praised Europe and the US for being more united than many – especially Vladimir Putin – had ever imagined, with some even forecasting the “revival” of the West. Although, in the context of strategic deterrence, this was a tacit admission of failure rather than a success.

Prematurely Triumphant

Martin Kimani, Kenya’s ambassador to the UN, compared the war waged by Russia to the redrawing of borders in Africa by European colonial powers. Those remarks led many in the West to think that the Global South might support Ukraine – and to, somewhat cynically, see the language of imperialism as a persuasion tactic. However, the then-anticipated pro-Ukrainian coalition in the Global South that many in the West hoped for never materialised.

The Global South has predominantly condemned the Russian invasion. In a recent UN vote on the its anniversary in February, 141 out of 193 countries called on Russia to withdraw from Ukraine, although the 32 countries that abstained made up almost half of the world’s population. Much to Europe and US’ bafflement and frustration, even the non-Western democracies – Brazil, India, Indonesia, and South Africa – refused to join sanctions on Russia. Moreover, Brazil refused to supply Ukraine with German-made ammunition, while India increased its imports of Russian oil.

Time To Get Out of The Old Mindset

The response of the West has been to lecture the Global South. Convinced of our own righteousness, we have dismissed the refusal to align with us as either cynicism or selfishness. We demand they pick a side and echo President George W Bush’s words after 9/11: “You are either with us, or you are with the terrorists.” The main reason many developing nations want an end to the war is the catastrophic disruptions and hikes in commodity and food prices. Whereas we have simply disregarded those urgent issues by saying they are Putin’s – not our – fault and that there is something more important at stake.

Finally, some more thoughtful commentators have started to question the West’s approach. They suggest the West should stop lecturing and treat developing countries as partners. But even they largely focus on how we can persuade those nations to see their own interests differently – as if we, in the West, understood their interests better than they did themselves – rather than on how we could seek compromise. There have been no major concessions and no willingness to reconsider our approach to the war in Ukraine either, in light of its impact on the Global South.

Over the last twelve months, the West seems to have turned in on itself. We seem to be taking the interests of the Global South even less seriously than we used to – not more. In fact, commentators now openly express contempt for the Global South in a way that would have been hard to imagine a year ago. For instance, Lithuania called off a donation of Covid-19 vaccines to Bangladesh, one of the world’s poorest countries, because it had abstained in a UN vote on the Russian invasion. Much of this contempt for the Global South is based on a stylised contrast between the West which defends universal values, democracy, and the rule of law and the non-West which pursues its own interests.

In reality, of course, the Western nations pursue their own interests in the same manner the non-Western countries do. For example, India’s approach to Russia is strikingly similar to Germany’s approach to China. Both see it a security threat on the other side of the Eurasian landmass, which does not affect them directly. Meanwhile, both have economic and energy interests which they seek to protect as much as possible. This may have been what India’s Foreign Minister S Jaishankar had in mind when he said, “Europe has to get out of the mindset that Europe’s problems are the world’s problems, but the world’s problems are not Europe’s problems.”

At the Munich Security Conference this February, Chancellor Olaf Scholz quoted his Indian counterpart and admitted that the latter “had a point.” However, the German leader went on to say that “it wouldn’t be Europe’s problem alone if the law of the strong were to assert itself in international relations.” In other words, instead of offering India to advance its security and other priorities, he suggested that it was in India’s interests to help Germany with its security concerns – typical of the way Western policymakers have treated the Global South, especially since the Russian invasion.

What makes the way the West approaches the Global South even more surprising and counterproductive is the context in which international politics is framed as a struggle of democracy against authoritarianism. Non-Western democracies are crucial to give credibility to this narrative and to demonstrate that there is a real global coalition of democracies, rather than just the Western leaders who only use the rhetoric of democracy.

Instead of uniting democracies around the world, the war in Ukraine has divided them. The self-centred approach of the West has been harmful to its own influence among non-Western democracies at a time when it needs them more than ever.

Mali, Nigeria, and Burkina Faso are among the leading producers of shea nuts, which are collected almost entirely by women. AFP/Scanpix

Western vs Non-Western Democracies

When Joe Biden was elected president in 2020, there was much talk of a new alliance – a coalition or a community of democracies. It was, in part, built on the sense that democracies around the globe – not only the US itself – faced similar threats and thus needed to join forces against authoritarian states. In particular, the Biden administration reframed the challenge of rising China in ideological terms –as a global conflict between authoritarianism and democracy. With that agenda, President Biden held two Summits for Democracy in December 2021 and in March 2022. In the meantime, however, the war in Ukraine – or rather the Western response to the Russian invasion – has derailed that project meant to bring the world’s democracies together.

The Misguided Eurocentrism

The irony is that the most hawkish voices in the West – American neoconservatives – are among those who see the world in highly ideological terms. The very idea of an alliance of democracies used to be a neoconservative idea. Yet, the war against Russia, to which such hawkish voices are committed, has undermined the very possibility of pulling it off, regardless of whether the goal is to solve one’s own domestic problems or protect against authoritarian adversaries.

The war also seems to have produced ‘new Eurocentrism.’ Before the new phase of Russia’s war against its European neighbour, there was a growing awareness, particularly in the United States, that the centre of gravity in international politics was shifting towards Asia. In that context, Europe was a ‘secondary’ theatre.

Over the last year, however, we seem to have decided that Europe is once again the centre of international politics. Once again, we assume that the rest of the world will subordinate its own needs to those of Europe. Many seem to believe that the future of this planet depends on what happens in Ukraine.

The West has turned in on itself and alienated potential partners at a time when – against the background of a long-term shift in the global distribution of power from the West to the East and the South – it needs them more than ever.

If we were to take the idea of a democratic coalition seriously, we would first need to figure out – collectively – what the shared interests we had. Indeed, a fascinating experiment of its own. But instead, we in the West unilaterally decided what these interests were. We then expected the non-Western democracies – including the world’s largest democracy of India – to simply fall in line.

Hardly did the equivocal position of non-Western democracies towards the war stop anyone in the West from beating the same drum – as if the West alone was authorised to speak on everyone’s behalf.

Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s). This article was written for the Lennart Meri Conference 2023 special edition of the ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.