empty United Nations General Assembly hall

UN General Assembly. CREDIT: Patrick Gruban (CC).

May 22, 2023 Article

Sitting on the Sidelines: The Global Divide on Ukraine

In late February, I found myself in the ECOSOC Chamber of the United Nations participating in a panel discussion commemorating the 75th anniversary of the death of Mohandas Gandhi. With Gandhi's commitments to pluralism and non-violence in such short supply these days, I welcomed the opportunity to revisit his legacy.

To my left, sat South Africa's UN ambassador; to my right, India's ambassador. During the discussion, each left for a few minutes to cross the hallway to cast a critical vote in the General Assembly. The vote in question that day was a UN resolution calling for a "comprehensive, just, and lasting peace in Ukraine."

The 11-paragraph resolution condemned the Russian invasion and called for immediate and unconditional withdrawal, accountability for war crimes, and commitment of Member States "to cooperate in the spirit of solidarity to address the global impacts of the war on food security, energy, finance, the environment, and nuclear security . . ."

The final tally was 141 in favor, 7 against, and 32 abstentions. Both India and South Africa were among the 32 who abstained. As these votes were cast, I could not help but notice that Gandhi's legacy had no effect on realpolitik as practiced by the current governments in India and South Africa, the two places that awakened Gandhi's moral principles and animated his political life.

The UN vote confirms a trend long in the making, but newly urgent—the rise of multipolarity as seen by arrangements such as BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) and efforts in the Global South to forge alternate patterns of economic and political cooperation.

While the United States and its allies see the war in Ukraine as a test of the rules-based international order, other nations see nuance and hypocrisy. While President Biden makes the case for support of Ukraine as a test of democracy vs. autocracy, others are thoroughly skeptical of this binary case.

As the only American on the panel that day, I was provided a moment of clarity. Much of the world is not with us on Ukraine. I was left with a painful question: How could it be that Russian aggression, war crimes, threats to global food and energy supplies, and nuclear saber rattling could be answered by abstentions like those of India and South Africa?

Those who oppose and abstain from condemning Russia's invasion of Ukraine are hedging their bets in a new chapter of great power politics. Economic interests, principally access to cheap energy, are an important priority. So too are political interests at a time when Russia is fighting, China is flexing, and India is rising. Two generations since the end of World War II, one generation since the end of the Cold War, and following the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, resentment of American leadership is palpable—both in the halls of the UN and beyond.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine exposes a deep and widening ideological divide. While Ukraine aspires to be an open, democratic society, Russia under Putin is proudly illiberal—according to Putin, "the liberal idea" has "outlived its purpose." Defeating liberalism has become a central argument in his case for war.

But for me, the case for liberalism remains as essential as ever.

As Ukraine fights for freedom and a democratic future, the moral dimension of the conflict should not be dismissed. The values of free and open societies, however imperfect, are worth supporting and defending. Yet much of the world seems unpersuaded that a war along this ideological fault line will yield an outcome favorable to them. Through their words and actions, the abstainers have shown us that the ideological case is simply insufficient to gain their support.

Where does this leave global security and cooperation? If common values are hard to come by—or stand by—in Ukraine, then common interests must be forged on basic needs like relief of immediate human suffering in combat zones, protection of minorities, and reestablishing food, energy, and nuclear security. Perhaps this is where the abstainers and the democracy vs. autocracy camps can find some common ground and make a positive difference.

As war grinds on and global threats fester, new opportunities will emerge for creative solutions. The abstainers will need to weigh in, if only in their self-interest.

Joel H. Rosenthal is president of Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. Subscribe to his President's Desk newsletter to receive future columns translating ethics, analyzing democracy, and examining our increasingly interconnected world.

Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs is an independent and nonpartisan nonprofit. The views expressed within this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Carnegie Council.

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