America’s latest effort to construct a coalition of the willing has been more successful than the last, yet it is destined to fall well short of its universalist ambitions. A back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that 75% of the world’s population live in countries that did not vote in favor of the various UN resolutions condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Why do so many people hate freedom, democracy, and apple pie?
Well, it’s improbable that any sane person could dislike apple pie, so perhaps we shouldn’t be too quick to assume their leaders’ votes in the UN reflect everyday citizens’ affection (or lack thereof) for democracy or freedom. Instead, the state of the global conversation around Ukraine suggests that the reflexive framing of the conflict as a war between democracy and autocracy does not have the mobilizing power its users assume or hope it does. And, worse for the future of America’s liberal hegemony, that they ring hollow.
What is the Ukraine war a case of?
INTERPRETING THE UKRAINE WAR
In the most mundane terms, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a violation of state sovereignty by unilateral military aggression, which violates international law. But the countries that have rallied behind Ukraine’s valiant efforts to defend itself against President Vladimir Putin’s war machine were not satisfied with that reasoning, preferring instead to invoke higher principles of democracy and freedom — and even the viability of the entire international security order. It may prove to be all those things, but why would one expect a world in full-blown democratic recession to be concerned about democracy in Ukraine? (Not exactly a poster-child for democracy itself, but we can ignore that inconvenient truth for the moment to avoid being churlish.)
A back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that 75% of the world’s population live in countries that did not vote in favor of the various UN resolutions condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Why do so many people hate freedom, democracy, and apple pie?
Take a look at the states that voted against or abstained from the UN resolution to expel Russia from the UN Human Rights Council: India, Brazil, South Africa, Mexico, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Qatar, Kuwait, Iraq, Pakistan, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Cambodia. This is not a gallery of the world’s democratic exemplars but rather a cautionary tale of failed, stalled, or backsliding democratization. Ideologically these states have more in common with Putin than with President Joe Biden, forcing one to wonder what we would make of a North Korean vote in favor of “democracy” or why we should care that Kim Jong-un and his ilk are not rushing to join the Western condemnation of Russian aggression.
The second problem is that America’s credentials as champions of democracy and freedom are tarnished — arguably beyond salvaging — by its hypocritical justification of its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; by its unwillingness to feign similar outrage when wars occur further from the borders of Europe; or from its cynical scuttling of the International Criminal Court. In addition, ugly incidents of overt discrimination against African and Asian refugees seeking to escape Ukraine and enter Europe, even as white Ukrainian refugees were welcomed, play powerfully in capitals around the world who are eager for reasons not to be drawn into a war that seems quite distant and irrelevant to their everyday concerns. Add to this the inconvenient truth that Europe and the United States continue to purchase far more Russian oil and gas than do any of the countries they are hectoring for undermining their sanctions regime, and it’s not hard to see why the “global” coalition against Russia represents a minority of the world’s peoples.
Yet, not all bystanders are created equal. India, whose prime minister is presently embarked on a European tour and will be at the Quad summit later this month, has steadfastly refused to condemn Putin. India has also actively purchased discounted Russian oil and is seeking to do so again, and is awaiting the delivery of a massive Russian military platform in violation of the US Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act or CAATSA regime. Yet, India is spared any public opprobrium and instead “wooed.” Why? Well, simply put, India’s importance to the West’s anti-China policy framework makes it too big to alienate. This, as the very serious people in Washington will gently chide you to remember, is the nature of realpolitik, where strategists place hard national interests above fluffy liberal rhetoric.
Turns out, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. As discomfiting as it might be, we should stop pretending to be surprised that a large number of non-European, non-democratic, and illiberal states see it in their “national” interests to avoid antagonizing Russia (or its present ally, China). That, too, is how the world turns.
Irfan Nooruddin is the Senior Director of the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and a professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.