The latest battle zone in the Russia–Ukraine war was in the quiet, mostly mannerly halls of the United Nations. There, in the UN’s iconic New York headquarters, the world voted on Russia’s largest invasion since World War II—revealing fractures and fissures in global support for democracy.
Suspending Russia from the United Nations Human Rights Council was technically the issue put before the delegates. But every diplomat knew it was really a vote on Russia’s assault on Ukraine. The consensus for democracy and self-determination was fragile: only 93 states (out of 193) voted for removing Russia from the human rights panel, and therefore condemning its actions against its smaller, weaker neighbor. Another 24 nations (including China) voted with Russia. Most worrisome, 58 countries abstained, refusing to take sides in what many see as a duel between the great powers. Others feared that energy, food, and fertilizer prices might continue to climb if the conflict escalates. (Both Russia and Ukraine are major producers of oil, gas, wheat, and fertilizing petrochemicals—all of which are a matter of life and death for developing nations.) Fear and food are more important to many developing nations than democratic ideals.
American and European policy makers will have to face a hard truth: while Russia is diplomatically isolated, it is not entirely alone, and many countries do not side with Ukraine and its democratic hopes.
The view from the rubble of Kyiv’s suburbs isn’t hopeful. Ukraine’s democratically elected leaders know that they could be captured, wounded, or killed. And they also know that the history of sanctions, the weapon of choice of the Western coalition, shows that they almost always fail to tame invaders. All of these facts were known to the UN delegates. Indeed, they would have heard them directly from Ukrainian diplomats. But high ideals and real desperation didn’t move them.
Let’s look more closely at why 100 nations decided not to support Ukraine in the UN vote.
In Africa, Russia has forged long-standing relations with Libya, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Mali, and often deploys a postcolonial pattern, which suggests that Russia supports the independent, emerging nations over their former colonial masters. This line of rhetoric is a continuation of the theme first promoted in the days of the Soviet Union, particularly from the 1950s onwards.
In Latin America, a form of anti-Americanism among the educated classes has translated into a reluctance to openly criticize Putin. This is amplified by messages vocally propagated by Cuba and Venezuela.
China’s initial abstention is seen more as a sign of embarrassment in the face of the belligerent aims of its Russian partner, than as a show of their interest in a rapprochement with the West. In Western capitals, many want to believe that Beijing has an interest in an early ceasefire, so as not to hinder its economic growth. In reality, China sees no reason to anger Russia, a major supplier of oil, gas, and coal, especially since Western nations are discouraging the production of the very fossil fuels that China needs. Policy-making circles in Beijing are not crowded with idealists, and its decisions are invariably self-interested and pragmatic.
India, for its part, is a long-standing ally of Russia, one of its major arms suppliers. New Delhi believes that it will need those weapons in the face of the Chinese military build-up in the region, as well as in the face of unresolved issues with Pakistan.
Arab nations do not intend to abandon their relations with Russia, which has established itself as a force to be reckoned with when it saved Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad through its military intervention; nor with China, the largest buyer of oil and gas from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Indeed, Arab leaders are unhappy with the Biden administration for its precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan last year, its ongoing negotiations with the threatening regime in Iran, and its laxity in the face of the Yemen-based Houthi terrorist and rocket attacks. For the first time, Arab leaders are asking questions, publicly, about the sustainability of the American political system and the coherence of American foreign policy.
On the Iranian nuclear dossier, Israel, one of the firmest allies of the US in the region, fears that the Biden administration wants at all costs to conclude an agreement with the Iranian regime without taking into account the possible impact on the regional aggression of Tehran. The Israeli minister of defense even called for the implementation of a “solid plan B” to deal with the Iranian nuclear program. As a result, neither the Arabs nor the Israelis were enthusiastic about supporting the US at the UN—although they did line up in the end.
What has been eroding for some years now is the commitment of American leaders to defend, maintain, and advance an international order in which states observe common rules and standards, embrace liberal economic systems, renounce territorial conquests, respect the sovereignty of national governments, and adopt democratic reforms.
In today’s increasingly complex global environment, the US can only achieve its goals by leveraging its strength through a cohesive foreign policy that responds to the challenges posed by Russia and China. To do this, the US must deliberately strengthen and cultivate productive relationships with its allies, partners, and other nations with common interests.
The US must offer attractive political, economic, and security alternatives to China’s influence in the Indo-Pacific, Africa, and beyond.
At the same time, the US must maintain a productive strategic dialogue with China that will clearly communicate US concerns and strive to understand Chinese interests and objectives.
Universal principles must be combined with the reality of other regions’ outlooks. Western leaders must recognize that non-Western leaders aren’t just living in another place, but rather, they are coming from another place intellectually. Henry Kissinger put it best in 2014: “The celebration of universal principles must go hand in hand with the recognition of the reality of other regions’ histories, cultures, and points of view on their security.”
The UN vote showed that universal principles aren’t quite universal yet. Rather than condemn the nations that abstained from voting against Russia, America must seek to understand why they thought sitting out the vote was their best option. Next, America must make clear that it still supports the rule of law and the ideal of democracy and put steel behind its ideals.