The war in Ukraine shows that the US and the so-called West has lost any moral authority in the Global South

By Nicholas Ross Smith - 08 March 2023
The war in Ukraine shows that the US and the so-called West has lost any moral authority in the Global South

Nicholas Ross Smith, from the University of Canterbury, argues that in light of the war in Ukraine which has so far elicited a fairly muted response from actors from the Global South, the US and other Western actors need to urgently rethink how they interact with the Global South. Until this sincerely happens, Russia and China will continue to find fertile ground in the Global South for their anti-Western narratives and Ukraine will continue to be the ultimate loser.

Beijing’s recent release of a peace plan for the war in Ukraine has been met with mostly a lukewarm response in the West, and in particular, Ukraine. Unsurprisingly, much of the gripe with the proposed plan is that it fails to recognize Russia’s naked belligerence in starting the war and calls for the removal of unilateral sanctions (despite the great damage Russia has clearly done over the past 12 months).

Furthermore, Beijing has been accused of forwarding this peace plan as mostly an opportunity to grandstand and stake a claim for leadership of the “Global South”. Despite China’s clear transition from peripheral to core country – especially when considering the aim and scope of the Belt and Road Initiative in the Global South – it has continued to claim solidarity with developing countries, particularly against a narrative of US and Western neo-colonialism.

While China’s track record in recent years in the Global South has been a bit of a mixed bag, its claims of the US and other Western actors suffering from a “colonial” or “Cold War” mindset often finds fertile ground in developing countries.

Perceptions in the Global South as to the war in Ukraine are quite telling. Glaringly, no country from the Global South has placed sanctions against Russia. And although there is general support in the United Nations General Assembly for ending the war in Ukraine, when it comes to explicitly punishing Russia, Global South countries (especially heavyweights like Brazil, India, and South Africa) have typically chosen to abstain when voting.

At a workshop I attended at the University of Pretoria in South Africa in late February, prominent African academics (not only from South Africa but also Cameroon and Nigeria too) typically saw the Ukraine conflict through the lens of colonialism and mostly sided with Russia’s explanation that its actions in Ukraine were prompted by incessant Western neo-colonialism, namely the wanton expansion of NATO and the EU into Russia’s cultural heartland.

Although such explanations hold little weight when the facts are considered – especially as Russia is the only country that should be charged with colonialism (not even the neo kind, as its action in Ukraine more resembles old-school colonialism) – the fact that Russia has been able to clearly win the narrative battle in the Global South is an indictment of the moral authority of the US and broader West.

At the same workshop in South Africa, an EU official found themselves at the wrath of the audience after they were dismissive of claims that the EU’s expansion and close interaction in Ukraine were partly to blame for Russia’s actions as well as baulking at the idea that the EU could be a colonial actor. While the official was mostly correct, it was the way they dismissed the argument that caused the biggest uproar, as it was perceived as another instance of a Western actor looking down on the interpretations and experiences of people in the Global South.

This seems like a microcosm of the general feeling in the Global South as to the war in Ukraine. Despite how obvious Russia’s immorality and culpability may seem to the West, the West’s lack of moral authority in the Global South has proved a much greater hurdle to overcome. The natural instinct to excoriate the various leaders of Global South countries as morally corrupt and self-serving is not going to help and, if anything, will simply entrench these beliefs further.

The sad truth is Ukraine is the absolute victim in all of this as nothing Ukraine has done warrants the horrific actions Russia has taken over the past 12 months, not to mention the previous 9 years since the brazen annexation of Crimea. One also has to wonder what the limits of Western support for Ukraine are, especially as membership in the EU and NATO – despite continued positive rhetoric – remain mostly pipe dreams for Ukraine.

To this end, the fact that Ukraine’s Western future remains so ambiguous is often seen in the Global South as evidence that Ukraine is merely being used by the US and its allies as a pawn to hurt Russia. And again, while this does not really check out when the facts are considered, the perception of this still matters. Furthermore, as most Global South countries have painful historical experiences with Western actors, their kneejerk solidarity with Russia is somewhat understandable (despite Russia being one of the historical colonizers).

The strong message for the US and the broader West is that the Global South is not interested in joining messianic quests against rougish powers like Russia or China. Rather, they prefer a system of international relations – as originally articulated at the Bandung Conference in 1955 – that has no great power politics and is “free from mistrust and fear, and with confidence and goodwill towards each other” in which “nations should practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbours and develop friendly co-operation”.

The fact that Russia and China are deemed actors that are more amenable to this – despite clear actions to the contrary – is a big reality check that Washington, Brussels, London and elsewhere need to take seriously.

The war in Ukraine is increasingly presented as an epochal moment – most notably as the end of the so-called liberal international order. And while the actions of Russia undoubtedly deserve condemnation and a strong united response, doing this without understanding the wider perceptions is a missed opportunity and, if anything, hastens the decline of the West’s moral authority.

Ultimately, better relations with the Global South would help kickstart the rebuilding of international order, especially as the “post-American world” leadership credentials of China and Russia are untested – it is one thing to be a strong opponent of the US-led order but another to be an inspiring leader of a new order. 

Furthermore, having the Global South onside will be beneficial to Ukraine in the long run too, given that Ukraine will need as much support as possible once Russia’s conquest has been stopped and the difficult task of rebuilding Ukraine begins. Thus, rather than a point of division, Ukraine could be made the point of global galvanization, but this can only occur with a serious rethink in the West as to how it interacts with the Global South.  





Nicholas Ross Smith is a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Canterbury’s National Centre for Research on Europe.

Image: Pedro Szekely via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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