The year 2022 can be termed as the year of conflict. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine prompted the US and Europe to rearm and push Russia and the US back into Cold War competition. In the Indo-Pacific, China and the US are facing each other with increasing hostility and suspicion, and some analysts fear a war over Taiwan. These dangers prompted President Joe Biden to declare that the world is at risk of annihilation for the first time since the Cuban missile crisis.
However, while conflict is now on the doorstep of Europe, it has been a dominant theme as far as large parts of the world are concerned, with wars raging in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan and particularly India, which is facing a collusive threat from both Pakistan and China as well as battling a proxy war. In a speech from Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the 2020s are “the most dangerous decade” since the end of World War II.
One of the fallouts of the Ukrainian War is how differently much of the world, apart from the West, sees not only the war in Ukraine but also the broader global landscape. Shortly after the start of the war, President Biden had stated, “The democracies of the world are revitalized with purpose and unity found in months that we’d once taken years to accomplish.” However, a year later it is evident that it’s not all black and white.
Governments and people across much of the world have not been convinced by the “free world” rhetoric propounded by the West in view of the Western double standards based on the past on issues most important to them. They are also suffering the fallouts of mounting costs of the prolonged war and sharpening geopolitical tensions. Their focus on the future includes dangers, as well as new opportunities, the war and the broader return of great-power conflict present for both individual countries and their regions.
Most are understandably more concerned about their climate vulnerability, access to advanced technology and capital, and their need for better infrastructure, health care, and education systems. They are also concerned with the rise in food fertiliser and fuel prices. The increasing global instability, both political and financial, is a threat to tackling such challenges. Today’s world is a complex network of interconnections where trade, technology, migration, and the internet are bringing humans together as never before.
Shivshankar Menon, while writing in Foreign Affairs, stated clearly: “Alienated and resentful, many developing countries see the war in Ukraine and the West’s rivalry with China as distracting from urgent issues such as debt, climate change, and the effects of the pandemic.”
The US is in a weak position to defend global norms after the presidency of Donald Trump, which saw contempt for global rules and practices in areas as diverse as the climate, human rights, and nuclear non-proliferation.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in a speech on the first anniversary of the start of the war with Russia, declared that “Ukraine has united the world.” While the war has certainly united the West, it has left the world divided. And the rift as per David Miliband “will only widen if Western countries fail to address its root causes”.
Anatol Lieven, writing about Ukrainian nationalism after a recent visit to Kyviv, remarked how “Ukrainian history intended to show Ukraine as both the true heir of early medieval Rus and permanently and innately European, while Russians are portrayed as innately and permanently cruel Asiatic savages.” Statements like this are unlikely to garner support.
CONCERNS OF GLOBAL SOUTH
Countries in the Global South are being viewed as ‘fence sitters’ refusing to take sides in the war in Ukraine. Many in the West are questioning this stand and are unable to understand the reasons which have dictated this position. Speculations range from neutrality out of economic interests to ideological alignments with Moscow or even a lack of morals. But could it be that there is now a greater self-assurance existing with regard to their own strategic autonomy and an unwillingness to be drawn into a conflict between Russia and the US? They, therefore, seek to pursue their own interests and values within international institutions and contest Western understandings of legitimacy and fairness.
Countries need to maintain relations with all major powers. Managing a multipolar world entails keeping the channels of communication open with all the players and keeping all their options open for maximum flexibility. Therefore, countries are pursuing this strategy because they see the future division of global power as uncertain and wish to avoid commitments that will be hard to fulfil. Countries need to quickly adapt their foreign policies to unpredictable circumstances.
Many countries in the Global South find it difficult to accept Western claims of a “rules-based order” when the US and its allies frequently violate the rules—committing atrocities in their various wars. There is also apparent hypocrisy in the US framing its conflict with Beijing and Moscow as a battle between democracy and autocracy as the US continues to selectively back authoritarian governments when and where it serves its interests. The West, however, routinely deals with violent autocracies to advance its own interests. The US is improving ties with Venezuela to get more oil. Europe is signing energy contracts with repressive Arab Gulf regimes, though the West claims that its foreign policy is guided by human rights and democracy.
In a series of UN votes since the Ukraine war broke out, around 40 countries representing nearly 50 percent of the world’s population have regularly abstained or voted against motions condemning the Russian invasion. 58 countries abstained from a vote, in April 2022, to expel Russia from the UN Human Rights Council. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, two-thirds of the world’s population live in countries that are officially neutral or supportive of Russia. There is no doubt anger at perceived Western double standards and stalled reform efforts in the international system.
Brazilian President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva has described the invasion as a “mistake,” but he has also given credence to the argument that Russia has been wronged. “Zelensky is as responsible as Putin for the war,” his statement that highlights global ambivalence about the conflict.
In order to improve relations with developing countries and manage the evolving global order, the West must take the concerns of the Global South on climate change, trade, and much else, seriously.
Many in the West associate a multipolar world order with conflict and instability, preferring a dominant US, as was the case after the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, that view may not hold true amongst all nations where the prevailing narrative is that multipolarity could serve as a stable foundation for international order in the 21st century.
Part of this reasoning is backed by recent events. The post-Cold War unipolar moment witnessed wars in Afghanistan, the Balkans, and Iraq. US hegemony was unchecked, and they imposed their will in certain countries like Libya or let peripheral regional conflicts fester memories of bipolarity are no better. That was then. Today, the US power seems much diminished. They have suffered failed interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq and a deepening political polarisation under President Donald Trump.
STATUS OF RUSSIA
Russia may be on the path to accelerating its long-term decline, but it remains a major force to reckon with in the foreseeable future and a necessary player in negotiating an end to the war. Russia is still a global power of consequence—with a military footprint that extends across continents and a United Nations Security Council veto. Most countries in the Global South also see a total Russian defeat as undesirable, visualising that a broken Russia could result in a power vacuum which could destabilise countries beyond Europe.
Some analysts are talking about an impending implosion due to the combination of the strains of the war and its effect on Russian society but the likelihood of disintegration of central authority seems remote presently, as the Russian people are known to have the ability to stand up to hardship. The Western view may be right that Russia is violating human rights in Ukraine, but Western powers have also carried out similarly violent, unjust, and undemocratic interventions from Vietnam to Iraq.
India’s relationship with Russia has deep roots stretching back to the Cold War, and the ties between both countries are “special and privileged.” Russia accounts for roughly 60 percent of India’s defence equipment, and over the years, Russia has supplied India with many advanced weapons. Today, Russia is also a major source of India’s crude requirements. Another reason is the growing closeness of ties between China and Russia. The worry is that isolating Moscow would just push it closer to China.
THE VIEW FROM INDIA
As India prepares to hold the G20 summit, Prime Minister Narendra Modi writes about catalysing a new mindset within humanity, helping the world move beyond greed and confrontation, and cultivating a “universal sense of one-ness.” The theme being “One Earth, One Family, One Future.” Rather than war and rivalry, the prime minister declared the greatest challenges humanity faces today are climate change, terrorism, and pandemics—issues that “can be solved not by fighting each other, but only by acting together.”
India is not promoting Western calls for Russia’s isolation. It feels that it needs to strengthen itself and address the world’s shared challenges, and has the right to work with everyone. This perspective isn’t unique to India. Much of the Global South is wary of being dragged into siding with the US against China or Russia. And they have watched rich and powerful states disregard these views and preferences in pursuit of their geopolitical interests. Neutrality is nothing new. “We are not pro-Russian, nor for that matter are we pro-American,” is what Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had said, “We are pro-Indian.”
In January, Prime Minister Modi said that all developing states had encountered similar challenges in the last three years, such as rising prices for fuel, fertiliser, and food as well as increasing geopolitical tensions that have affected their economies. “Developing countries desire a globalisation that does not create climate crisis or debt crisis.” He also called for fundamental reforms to major international organisations, including the UN Security Council and international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, so that they will better represent the global South.
But the West still remains India’s most important trading partner, the major source of capital and technology including defence technology, and the preferred destination for the Indian diaspora. India is seen as aligning more towards the US in view of the expansionism of China and membership of the QUAD is reflective of this.
French President Macron had said, “I am struck by how we have lost the trust of the Global South.” He is right. Or as David Miliband writing in Foreign Policy has stated, “War in Ukraine has allowed the West to rediscover its strength and sense of purpose. But the conflict should also help Western governments confront their weaknesses and missteps.” These need to be addressed not dismissed.
The truth remains that whatever the merits of arguments regarding Ukraine, geopolitics, and the international system, the leadership in most countries cannot afford to disregard the core interests of their countries and the challenges faced by them. If unaddressed, these will become a source of even greater challenge and disorder in the years ahead, no matter what happens on the battlefields in Ukraine. The gulf in perceptions is dangerous for the world facing enormous global risks.
-The story earlier appeared on https://www.news18.com/