The traditional transatlantic alliance of European and North American countries has mobilized in unprecedented fashion for a protracted conflict in Ukraine. While it may have offered extensive humanitarian support for people inside Ukraine and for Ukrainian refugees but outside Europe and North America, the defense of Ukraine is definitely not a top priority. Few governments remain unpersuaded by the West’s much prophesised “as the struggle for freedom and democracy” in Ukraine is also theirs. As French President Emmanuel Macron said at the Munich Security Conference in February, “I am struck by how we have lost the trust of the global South.” He is right. Western conviction about the war and its importance is regarded elsewhere by skepticism at best and outright disdain at worst.
“Ukraine has united the world,” declared Ukrainian Joker actor President Volodymyr Zelensky in a speech on the first anniversary of the start of the war with Russia. If only that were true. The war has certainly united the West, but it has left the world divided. And that rift will continue to widen if West fail to address its root causes.
The gap between the West and the rest is the product of deep frustration—anger, in truth—about the Western-led mismanagement of globalization since the end of the Cold War or rather even before. The gulf in perspectives is dangerous for a world facing enormous global risks. And it reflects a new, multipolar balance of power in the world. It can be gauged from the UN General Assembly voting pattern. In a series of UN votes since the war started, around 40 countries representing nearly 50 percent of the world’s population have regularly abstained or voted against motions condemning the Russian aggression. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, two-thirds of the world’s population live in countries that are officially neutral or supportive of Russia. These countries do not form some kind of axis of autocracy; they include several notable democracies, like Brazil, India, Indonesia, and South Africa.
Much of this is a symptom of a wider syndrome: anger at Western double standards and frustration at stalled reform efforts in the international system. Shivshankar Menon, distinguished National Security Advisor of India put the point sharply when he wrote, “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.”
Many countries contest the Western narrative about the causes of the war. For example, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has argued that Russia has been wronged. “Zelensky is as responsible as Putin for the war,” Lula claimed last summer in a statement that highlighted global ambivalence about the conflict. The recent visits to China further vindicates that stance.
The United States is in an especially 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 nonproliferation. And there are genuine issues with U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to claim that hypocrisy, not principle, is driving the West. And U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition’s war in Yemen, which spawned a humanitarian crisis in that country, is adduced as evidence of doublespeak when it comes to concern for civilians. Further on West has shown far more compassion for the victims of war in Ukraine than for the victims of wars elsewhere. The UN appeal for humanitarian aid for Ukraine has been 80 to 90 percent funded. Meanwhile, the UN’s 2022 appeals for people caught in crises in Ethiopia, Syria, Yemen and now Sudan have been barely half funded.
The West has failed since the financial crisis of 2008 to show that it is willing or able to drive forward a more equal and sustainable global economic bargain or to develop the political institutions appropriate to manage a multipolar world. As a result of protracted conflicts, the climate crisis, and the pandemic, more than 100 million people are currently fleeing for their lives from warfare or disaster. More than 600 million Africans lack access to electricity. The UN Development Program reports that 25 developing countries are spending over 20 percent of government revenues on debt servicing, with 54 countries suffering from severe debt problems.
Western governments have also failed to fulfill their commitments in other arenas. The UN’s climate Adaptation Fund, established in 2001 to protect poor countries from the consequences of carbon emissions from rich countries, has not yet met its inaugural funding commitment of raising $100 billion a year and is seen as a symbol of Western bad faith: all talk, no walk. The lengthy delays in putting it together have fueled the demand for a new fund to cover “loss and damage” arising from the climate crisis. This new fund was inaugurated last year, but it is not yet funded. Yet another underfunded global initiative will only deepen the deficit of trust between rich countries and poor ones.
Support for refugees presents a further example of how global costs are shared unequally. Although many Western countries bemoan the influx of refugees, poor and lower middle-income countries host over 80 percent of them. Bangladesh, Ethiopia, India, Jordan, Kenya, Lebanon, Pakistan, Turkey, and Uganda all take in large numbers of refugees. Poland, currently hosting over 1.6 million Ukrainians, and Germany, with 1.5 million Syrians, are outliers among rich countries. Poor and lower middle-income countries receive limited recompense from richer countries for the responsibilities they bear and therefore have limited incentive to enact policies that promote the inclusion of refugees in work, education, and health systems.
The case of the UN Security Council veto, at the apex of the international system, provides a useful lens for thinking about how all international institutions need to rebalance the way they work to recognize the realities of modern power. Currently, the five permanent members of the Security Council—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—have the right to veto any resolution, in effect sidelining the other ten members, many of which are low-income and middle-income countries. U.S. President Joe Biden spent less than three minutes discussing the wider world beyond Ukraine in his State of the Union address in February, which was more than an hour long. Isn’t it a striking lacuna?
In the Pacific, China and the United States are eyeing each other with increasing hostility and suspicion, and some analysts believe that the countries could wind up at war over Taiwan. These dangers prompted U.S. President Joe Biden to declare that the world is at risk of annihilation for the first time since the Cuban missile crisis. In a speech from Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the 2020s are “the most dangerous decade” since the end of World War II.
Initiatives by India
As India prepares to hold the G-20’s 18th summit, the government has put up signs and posters across the country that speak about international harmony. In announcing India’s G-20 vision, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi wrote that his country would catalyze a new mindset within humanity, help the world move beyond greed and confrontation, and cultivate a “universal sense of one-ness.” The theme, Modi said, was “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.” It was India, who became the main supplier of vaccines to other countries when West dithered.
India has limited patience for U.S. and European narratives, which are both myopic and hypocritical. The world today is a complex network of interconnections where trade, technology, migration, and the Internet are bringing humans together as never before. To strengthen itself and address the world’s shared challenges, India has the right to work with everyone and with the call to unite the World’s South
This perspective isn’t unique to New Delhi. Much of the global South is wary of being dragged into siding with the United States against China or Russia. Developing countries are understandably more concerned about their climate vulnerability, their access to advanced technology and capital, and their need for better infrastructure, health care, and education systems. They see increasing global instability—political and financial alike—as a threat to tackling such challenges. And they have watched rich and powerful states disregard these views and preferences in pursuit of their geopolitical interests. For example, the aggressive economic sanctions imposed by the West on Russia have generated costs, including higher food prices, for people who are far removed from the war in Ukraine. India wants to make sure the voices of these poorer states are heard in international debates, so it is positioning itself as a heartland of the global South—a bridging presence that stands for multilateralism.
It is not surprising that India has become an independent pole of global power and a leader among developing countries. It has used this position to emphasize a different set of priorities from those of the West. Speaking at the Voice of the Global South virtual summit convened by India 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, fertilizer, and food as well as increasing geopolitical tensions that have affected their economies. “Developing countries desire a globalization that does not create climate crisis or debt crisis” or an “unequal distribution of vaccines or over-concentrated global supply chains,” Modi declared. He called for fundamental reforms to major international organizations, including the UN Security Council and international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, so that they will better represent the global South.
New Delhi’s efforts have not been received as warmly in the West/global North. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has tested the rules-based international order, and India’s carefully orchestrated neutrality has frustrated the United States and European countries. Its refusal to speak up in Kyiv’s favor has brought it under intense scrutiny and questioning by friends and partners in the West.
But India, rightfully, sees these critiques as hypocritical. The West routinely cut deals with violent autocracies to advance its own interests. The United States, for instance, is improving ties with Venezuela to get more oil. Europe is signing energy contracts with repressive Arab Gulf regimes. Remarkably, the West nonetheless claims that its foreign policy is guided by human rights and democracy. India, at least, lays no claim to being the conscience-keeper of the world. Like any other state, it acts in accordance with its interests.
Major-power interventions have steadily eroded the pretence of a rules-based order and made the world much less stable. This discrepancy exposes the lie at the heart of today’s international system. Those who continue to call for the protection of an illusionary rules-based order have evidently not been on the receiving end of an unsanctioned military incursion.
The myth of a functioning system of international norms that constrains the whims of nations must now be discarded. The dysfunctional international order poses a clear and present danger to many developing countries. The United Nations’ system of collective security is slowly dying, suffocated by the egregious actions of some of its most powerful members. Not only does this system exclude a majority of the world’s population from international decision-making, but it also often leaves them at the mercy of hostile powers and forces. There is an urgent need to rethink and remake the global order, reimagining multilateralism and redesigning international institutions to create a more effective global system of collective security.
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