Something that’s puzzled observers in the West since Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is why other parts of the world don’t seem to view the war with the same urgency. Western countries have rightly been outraged by Moscow’s violation of international law, appalled by its violation of a smaller neighbor’s sovereignty, and disgusted by the destruction and carnage its military has carried out.
So why is it that much of the world, even as it has condemned the war and called for its end, hasn’t joined Western sanctions on Russia, or has even taken what seems like a neutral position on the war—including nations run by left-wing leaders and who have withstood their own episodes of post-colonial meddling?
Part of the explanation lies in realpolitik. The other part has to do with how the conflict looks to those outside the West.
In the United States, for instance, where the invasion has gotten more media coverage than almost any war of the past 30 years, it’s not surprising many have come to view it as a singular, unprecedented crime whose outcome will make or break the fragile liberal global order that has existed since World War Two. But to citizens of the Global South, who for years have watched or directly experienced the same crimes and outrages at the hands of Western governments or forces backed by them, the conflict seems like yet another disastrous great power conflict that doesn’t involve them, yet they are forced to endure.
In the West, calling attention to this history is often cast as a form of “whataboutism” by critics who claim that the discussion is simply meant to excuse Moscow’s wrongdoing—to the point that it has been declared taboo. But this history matters greatly to the world’s citizenry, who might join the Western push to isolate Russia at considerable cost but are less likely to stick their necks out on principle if that principle seems selective and self-serving for the West.
A Broken Record
Forget about the well-known record of similar wars and violations that the governments now opposing Russia’s aggression now have racked up. Consider just some of the things Western states have been silent on or even backed during the course of this war alone.
It was only a month ago that the Joe Biden White House successfully killed an effort to end U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s brutal war on Yemen, a war that Washington and NATO partners Britain and France have backed for nearly eight years now. Over those eight years, the war has killed at least 377,000 people, including at least 11,000 children killed as a result of direct fighting and, as of 2018, at least 85,000 kids under five have starved to death.
This grim figure has been the result of two things. One is the Saudi-led bombing campaign, which, in a version of Russia’s recent bombardment of infrastructure on steroids, has wantonly bombed everything from hospitals, residential buildings, and communication towers, to bridges, food production, and water and sanitation infrastructure. The other is a blockade cutting off essentials like food, fuel, and medicine. Together, they’ve produced an explosion in disease and hunger in the country, with millions of children and pregnant women suffering from acute malnutrition, or the “excruciatingly painful” condition of wasting. In stark contrast to U.S. policy in Ukraine, U.S. forces have repeatedly intercepted weapons being sent to Yemen’s Houthis to help fight the Saudis, including as recently as this month.
U.S. backing for the war isn’t incidental. By providing maintenance, spare parts, weapons and, at one point, refueling and intelligence and logistical support for Saudi planes, Washington has been directly complicit in war crimes. And numerous experts have said that without U.S. support, the Saudi war effort simply couldn’t keep going―meaning that by ensuring ongoing U.S. backing, the Biden administration is prolonging the war.
As ghastly as this is, it may not even be the most glaring contradiction. That would arguably be the U.S. and other Western states’ decades-long and ongoing support for Israel despite its long-standing “flagrant violation” of international law, illegally annexed foreign land, and launching of war after atrocity-filled war on the Palestinian people. More than 6,000 Palestinians have been killed by Israel since its first war on Gaza in 2008, including more than 2,000 children and teenagers since the year 2000, often in one-sided, indiscriminate bombing campaigns. In between wars, the Israeli military regularly violates Palestinian human rights in the most obscene ways, and kills with impunity, with its victims counting at least 45 journalists.
Israel has also been annexing in all but name the land meant to be part of a future, separate Palestinian land through the illegal settlements it supports and encourages, and recently transferred administration of the Palestinian West Bank from its military to a civilian agency run by a far right extremist, part of a push to annex that territory for itself — territory it now openly declares it has “an exclusive and inalienable right to.” The United States does nothing about this, other than rewarding Israel with generous military and political support, recently moving to actually deepen its military partnership with Israel’s government, even as it agitates for a war on Iran over a potential nuclear weapon that the Pentagon admits Iran isn’t actually pursuing. The United States, incidentally, reserves the right to attack Iran as a “last resort” to stop it from becoming a nuclear threat, the exact same reasoning Russian officials used to justify attacking Ukraine last year.
As that example suggests, Israel doesn’t just regularly violate Palestinian sovereignty. Besides Iran, over the past few years, Israel has carried out hundreds of airstrikes in neighboring Syria, all while continuing to treat that country’s Golan Heights as its own annexed land since it took the territory in the Six Day War in 1967. The United States officially recognizes that illegal annexation, a policy launched under Donald Trump that Biden has kept in place. It also engages in violations of its own in that country, whose territory it continues to illegally occupy—from reports of U.S. forces stealing Syrian oil, to bombing its largest dam, which would have killed thousands if not for some emergency repair work by engineers under a hastily called ceasefire.
As others have pointed out, all of this makes a mockery of current U.S. and wider Western rhetoric during the Ukraine war about territorial sovereignty, human rights, and international norms and rules, while undermining Western states’ standing to condemn Russia’s own illegal actions.
And this is barely half of it. Biden is also continuing Trump’s recognition of another illegal annexation, this one of Western Sahara by Morocco, making the United States the first and only country to take a step rejected by both the United Nations and International Court of Justice. When NATO ally Turkey recently launched a cross-border bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria as a response to a terrorist attack, U.S. National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications John Kirby only remarked that the Turks “certainly have every right to defend themselves and their citizens.” This isn’t the first time Washington has given the nod to a war crime-filled Turkish incursion in Syria aimed at putting down the centuries-long Kurdish struggle for self-determination, with Trump having thrown the United States’ former Kurdish partners to the Turkish wolves back in 2019.
And despite a surge in Western media attention during the U.S. withdrawal, there’s hardly a peep about the humanitarian catastrophe that has been unfolding in Afghanistan ever since, one happening in large part because of the Biden administration’s illegal theft of the country’s foreign reserves (not to forget the war was, itself, a case of a Russia-like war of aggression by the United States and allies). This piled a financial crisis on top of a drought, and created a situation where Afghans are selling their organs and even children to avoid starving to death. The latest news is that the fund created to dole these stolen reserves out while bypassing the ruling Taliban hasn’t paid out a nickel to date. Washington’s weaponization of its financial power, besides being illegal, has been similarly devastating to the civilian populations of Iran, Venezuela, Syria and Cuba.
Compounding all this was the Western response to Azerbaijan’s similar invasion of its smaller neighbor, Armenia, on grounds that it was merely claiming territory it views as its own. Since this invasion came seven months into the Ukraine war, few in the West know about that particular skirmish, though it featured everything Western observers have abhorred about the Russian invasion, from a violation of national sovereignty and illegal occupation of territory, to attacks on civilian infrastructure and sickening atrocities perpetrated by the aggressor.
Rather than impose on Azerbaijani strongman Ilham Aliyev the kind of diplomatic, economic, and military costs that they have on Russia’s Putin, Western states are, instead, rewarding him. With sanctions on Russia making the EU desperate for another energy supplier, the bloc has stuck to its July-inked gas deal with the despotic regime, despite this recent incursion, its long-standing horrendous record of repression and human rights violations, and the blockade it imposed on the contested majority-Armenian region last month, causing alarming food, fuel, and medicine shortages for the people living there.
So at the very same time the EU has been tapering off its energy imports from Russia in disgust at its leader’s actions, European officials have also been deepening their energy dependence on another authoritarian state that just attacked its neighbor, praised it as a “reliable energy partner,” enriched it in the process, and have given muted responses to news of its atrocities while, absurdly, asking the country to investigate its own crimes. The fact that Azerbaijan has both received copious U.S. military aid while benefiting from impunity for its crimes, and that the country it’s attacking is one of the region’s few democracies, makes the situation all the more absurd.
Much of this has been outright ignored or simply dismissed in the West, where proponents of Washington-led foreign policy have revived the Cold War-era charge of “Whataboutism”: that Western governments’ hypocrisy and misdeeds don’t matter, and that bringing them up is simply a way to deflect from the misdeeds of their adversaries.
But these records do matter to people located broadly outside of the West, as we’ve seen in much of the world’s refusal to sign on to Western policies toward Russia. As Sen. Chris Murphy put it on the Senate floor as he spoke about U.S. support for the Saudi-led war on Yemen: “For us to be a participant in any way, shape, or form in a war with this kind of misery, it really shapes the way that people think about us in the region and around the world.”
“I think the Global South[’s] preference for the middle ground on the war in Ukraine is best explained by a combination of factors,” former Indian diplomat Shivshankar Menon recently told me. “These include realpolitik calculation, a desire for agency, and an awareness that Western actions over two centuries including this one do not match the rhetoric of principle on Ukraine.”
“A lot of Latin Americans feel and think that sanctions are applied in a sort of selective, politicized way with a lot of double standards—basically, a tool of the U.S. hegemony rather than a tool of global justice,” former Ecuadorian foreign minister Guillaume Long told Vox, pointing to U.S. measures against Cuba and Venezuela.
Writing for MSNBC early in the war, Quincy Institute executive vice president Trita Parsi similarly related that after speaking with diplomats and analysts around the non-Western world, he found that even though they might sympathize with Ukraine, Western demands that they sacrifice for the sake of a “rules-based order” received “an allergic reaction.”
“That order hasn’t been rules-based; instead, it has allowed the U.S. to violate international law with impunity,” he wrote, warning that such messaging came off as tone deaf to nations “that have often experienced the worse sides of the international order.”
Many in the Middle East “see a glaring double standard” in the West’s response, the Associated Press reported, especially since those resisting U.S. wars of aggression were labeled terrorists and even punished. Similarly, condemning the 2011 Western intervention in Libya for having “destroyed” the country while spreading terrorism, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni likewise pointed to the “double standards” of the Western response to Russia’s invasion. As political scientist Nic Cheeseman put it: “It is precisely the West’s willingness to sacrifice democracy and human rights on the altar of national security that helps to explain why many African states do not want to get sucked into the current confrontation.”
Indeed, the chief executive of the South African Institute of International Affairs, Elizabeth Sidiropoulos, relayed to the Financial Times how discussion of Western hypocrisy was “very much part of the debate” in the country, partly because Western regime change in Libya and its ripple effects throughout the continent “left a very black mark in the way in which South Africa views the West,” explaining why the country “has not come up much more forcefully on the matter of Ukraine.” Writing for Al Jazeera, Kenyan journalist Patrick Gathara similarly outlined how many Africans were frustrated by “the gnashing of teeth over Ukrainian suffering and lionizing their resistance, while pledging unconditional support to invaders like Israel and demonizing the similar resistance of Palestinians.” All of this, he wrote, made joining the West’s response to the invasion “rather less palatable.”
This is by no means limited to Africa and the Middle East. “The first thing Indonesians point out is the so-called Western hypocrisy in how this conflict is being treated compared to those outside the first world or those caused (or induced by) great powers like the U.S. (e.g., Iraq),” wrote Muhammad Waffaa Kharisma of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a typically hawkish, Washington-aligned think tank.
It’s also the case in India, in which frustrated U.S. and European officials have exerted particular pressure to drop its neutral position. Indian press commentary was peppered with references “to the hypocrisy of the west, with everything from the British empire to the Iraq war, cited in evidence,” wrote the Financial Times’ Gideon Rachman, who pointed out that even a domestic critic of the Indian government’s stance on Ukraine nevertheless decried the “intolerable sanctimony of the West.” Former Indian diplomat Anil Trigunayat has charged, with reference to “the history of unjustified interventions by the U.S. and NATO,” that “New Delhi’s position is driven by honest assessment of the checkered history of the perpetrators.”
Such views can even be found in parts of the West. A recent study of social media activity in Southern Mediterranean countries found that a “distinct sense of empathy for the Ukrainian population” among users was “combined with frustration over the inconsistent approach taken by the EU, especially when viewed in light of conflicts in Israel-Palestine, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Afghanistan.” Users reportedly questioned why “Israel was not exposed to similar sanctions or consequences following its violation(s),” among other things.
None of this is to say that a spotless record by the West would by itself have been a game-changer. States have taken the positions they’ve taken for a variety of reasons, from historical friendship with Russia, to the country’s status as a major exporter of arms and commodities, to self-interested geopolitical maneuvering. But it’s not hard to see how the history, both distant and very recent, of violations of the “rules” by the same Western powers now invoking the rules has left many less powerful states cynical and uninvested in the liberal international order.
Be Careful What You Handwave Away
For anyone who genuinely believes in the importance of the liberal international order, there’s a real, tangible cost to the long, ignominious record of Western wars and hypocrisy.
There’s another significance to this, too. The war in Ukraine and NATO involvement in it is continuing to escalate, bringing the world ever closer to catastrophe, partly thanks to the war’s portrayal as not only an unprecedented violation of norms and international law, but an existential battle for the survival of democracy and the entire liberal global order. It’s on this very basis that two leading U.S. national security luminaries (and high-profile architects of Washington’s own attacks on that order) recently called for a “dramatic” and risky escalation of NATO military support in the war. Yet as we’ve seen, Russia’s war, heinous as it is, is sadly neither new nor a make-or-break moment for the liberal order, given that Western states are, as we speak, tacitly and even explicitly backing the same crimes and violations when they’re being carried out by other, more friendly governments.
Simply waving away these contradictions as irrelevant or Kremlin propaganda may be tempting, but we in the West do it at our own peril. It not only makes disastrous escalation in this current war more likely, but makes it harder to align our behavior with our professed values in a way that would encourage others to invest in the international law and liberal global order that we aspire to live in and we want to defend—one that, for all its faults, is vastly preferable to the more destructive, war-filled history of earlier eras. When wars of aggression and other crimes against international law are perpetrated, unanimous global opposition would go a long way toward stopping and deterring them.
But if we in the West refuse to scrutinize our own conduct or hold ourselves to the principles we espouse, and instead insist on engaging in the behavior we condemn in others, we run the risk of encouraging other powerful states to do the same, and of the tenuous system of international law reverting back to the law of the jungle.