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Foreign Policy

West must seize on the Global South’s state of unease

Nathalie Tocci is director of the Istituto Affari Internazionali, Europe’s futures fellow at IWM, Vienna, and a board member of ENI. Her new book, “A Green and Global Europe,” will be published by Polity. 

Wars are unpredictable until the end.

Yet, since the Ukrainian counteroffensive began liberating swathes of territory in the north and east of the country, the prospect of Russia’s defeat has been made plausible, and countries that had either openly sided with Moscow, or sat on the fence, are starting to grow uneasy.

Of course, this doesn’t include the usual suspects firmly in Russian pockets or international outcasts, from Belarus and Syria to North Korea and Nicaragua. But it does include countries that had politically sided with Russia or remained neutral vis-à-vis the war.

No one wants to put all their eggs in a loser’s basket — and European diplomacy must exploit this opening.

In both Samarkand and New York, the last few weeks saw a significant shift in tone by representatives from all corners of the Global South. Chinese President Xi Jinping expressed his “concerns” about the war to Russian President Vladimir Putin, with the country subsequently calling for a ceasefire and bluntly rejecting the use of weapons of mass destruction — a not-so-veiled rebuke of the Kremlin’s not-so-veiled nuclear threat.

Even though India continues to happily buy Russian oil and arms, New Delhi’s tone has hardened as well, as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi told Putin this is no time for war. And the Arab League delivered an unambiguous message to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in New York on the need for an immediate ceasefire.

Meanwhile, Turkey still positions itself as a mediator and, alongside the grain deal brokered over the summer, now boasts a prisoner exchange including several Azov fighters. However, while maintaining open lines to the Kremlin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has reaffirmed Ankara’s support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and the liberation of all its land, Crimea included.

While the content these resolutions differ, the comparison between the U.N. General Assembly (UNGA) vote held at the beginning of the war, deploring Russia’s invasion, and the one ahead of this year’s UNGA, held to allow Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to deliver a prerecorded speech, is notable.

In the first vote, 35 countries abstained, including China, India and South Africa, representing the demographic majority of the world. This came as a shock to the West, which had taken the fact that the world stood firmly with Ukraine for granted. The most recent UNGA vote, however, paints a more promising picture, with only 19 countries abstaining and the usual suspects voting against.

This shift won’t translate into a tidal wave in favor of the West. If forced into a West versus the Rest choice, the former still ends up with the demographic short straw. However, it does mean that the obscenity of Russia’s war crimes, its military setbacks, the global economic havoc the war is unleashing — not to mention the risk of nuclear Armageddon — are starting to influence a rethinking in the Global South.

In the countries that had viewed this war with aloofness, and even scorn toward the West’s double standards, eurocentrism and colonial sins, some doors are now beginning to crack open. Putin’s recent speech positioning Russia as the leader of an anti-colonial struggle against Western hegemony is unlikely to close these cracks. And European foreign policy should seek to widen them.  

After taking a backseat in a war that’s been principally fought through weapons, sanctions and energy, European diplomacy now has an opportunity to make itself heard.

 So, with the harsh truth that the Global South isn’t automatically on its side having sunk in, what can Europeans do?

Moving forward, self-criticism, acceptance and engagement are key. 

Notwithstanding Russia’s crimes, European and Western diplomacy will fall on deaf ears unless it’s premised on self-criticism. And if Europeans truly want to convey the colonial nature of Russia’s war to countries in the Global South, they must appraise their own colonial and neocolonial practices. This doesn’t mean falling into the trap of moral equivalence, or suggesting that two wrongs make a right. It simply entails recognizing that the war has, and should, lead to self-reflection.

Sad as it is, Europeans must also acknowledge that much of the world considers this to be Europe’s war.

It’s tragic that at the height of global connectivity, the world has never been so far apart, and the violation of universally recognized norms — starting with sovereignty and territorial integrity — are being met by so little universal outrage and mobilization. But, as Senegalese President and current chair of the African Union Macky Sall pointed out, Africa suffers from the burden of history and has more than enough on its plate to worry about — and Europe has little choice but to accept this. Making its case in the Global South — which it should undoubtedly continue to do, albeit coupled with self-reflection — is one thing, it is quite another to expect others to follow its policy lead.

Finally, we come to engagement.

Engagement can mean many things, from repowered diplomacy to delivering on strategic projects like the EU’s Global Gateway. But having led the EU to focus on its own energy security, the Russo-Ukrainian war has sidelined the energy transition and reduced supplies to less developed countries, which can no longer afford the ramped-up prices. Thus, the bloc must invest far more heavily in sustainable development, climate adaptation and the energy transition.

The EU is struggling to address its energy crisis, and finding a solution will require a delicate balancing act. But the bloc must find a way to do so, not by treating countries in the Global South as geographies from which to extract resources or subtract supplies, but as partners to engage and invest in the quest for sustainable development. There’s no other way it can succeed in bringing them on side.

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