The West at an Inflection Point in World Affairs

Nathalie Tocci

6 mins - 3 de Noviembre de 2023, 07:00

When Russia invaded Ukraine, the West had a strong normative and strategic case. Russia had violated the pillars of international law - sovereignty and territorial integrity - and Ukraine had the right defend itself. The West based its economic, political and military support for Ukraine and its sanctions on Russia on the tenets of law and on the strategic imperative of defending the European security order. As well known, the rest of the world was not as sanguine. Countries in the Global South consider Ukraine to be a European war and are more concerned about its consequences, especially in terms of food and energy security, than its causes. In rejecting the West’s invitation to join in sanctioning Russia, they pointed to the West’s double standards, with Western full-fledged support for Ukraine contrasting its neglect for wars elsewhere, from Yemen and Syria to Sudan. However, while countries in the Global South were unwilling to pay a price for the defence of the international order, the vast majority of them did not dispute the fact that Russia was grossly violating international law. This explains why 141 countries represented at the United Nations voted alongside the West in condemning Russia’s aggression and demanded its immediate withdrawal from Ukraine’s territory. Only a handful of (rather unpalatable) states, like Belarus, North Korea, Eritrea and Syria, stood with Vladimir Putin. True, 32 countries abstained, including hugely populous ones like China and India, but the West was not alone and squarely fell within the global majority.

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The situation could not be more different in the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. This time, it is the West that stands isolated in the world, as exemplified by the UN General Assembly vote on the resolution brought forward by Jordan, calling for an immediate truce and the respect for international humanitarian law. Whereas eight European countries are amongst the 120-strong majority that voted in favour of the resolution, including France, Spain and Portugal, most Western countries were in the minority that either abstained or voted against. Especially isolated were the naysayers, which, alongside Israel, included the US and 4 European countries (Austria, Hungary, Czech Republic and Croatia).

The contrast between the two votes exemplifies the normative and strategic unravelling of the West and its role in the world. The countries that voted against or abstained at the UN motivated their position by pointing to the fact that  the resolution did not condemn Hamas’ attacks nor affirm Israel’s right to self-defence. Yet whereas the resolution was not perfect, voting against a truce when over seven thousand Palestinians were already reported dead and Israel was on the verge of launching a ground offensive that risked taking tens of thousands more lives is far worse. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres put it starkly when he stated that “this is a moment of truth” that will be judged by history. Whereas Europe and the West stood united and on the side of rights and law in Ukraine, it pathetically split threefold on the Middle East, with the majority falling on the wrong side of history in light of the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Gaza. 

This normative blunder is also strategic. The war in Ukraine revealed there was work to do in the Global South. Most countries stood in favour of international law, while viewing with scepticism the West’s moral grandstanding. The onus was on the West to demonstrate that its support for rights and law in Ukraine was not contingent but structural. Hence the months of diplomatic, political and economic outreach in countries of the Global South, the most recent of which being the India-Middle East-Europe Corridor launched at the G20 summit in Delhi and linked to the EU’s Global Gateway initiative.

Now, the little credibility the West had in the world has been hollowed out. Months of diplomatic, political and economic outreach to adjust to a world in which power balances are fast changing have been swept away as Western countries have reconfirmed all the worse prejudices against them. When Western countries reject a ceasefire, state there are no red lines for Israel, or affirm Israel’s right to self defence, only meekly adding that this should be “in line” with international law, rightly or wrongly what most countries in the world hear is one brutal message: for the West some lives matter more than others. 

Some may argue “so what?” If supporting Israel unconditionally is right given Hamas’s brutal attack then shouldn’t one stick to the line even if it’s unpopular? Yet this argument falls short on both ethical and practical grounds. Ethically to assume that the West is right and the rest of the world wrong (or implicitly antisemitic) represents a quintessential example of what former French Ambassador Dominque de Villepin in a recent interview referred to as “Occidentalism”, that is a sense of Western superiority vis-a-vis the rest of the world. What the world sees is what Guterres dared saying a few days ago causing an uproar in Israel: that the 7 October terrorist attacks did not take place in a vacuum but within the context of a 76 year old Israeli-Palestinian conflict featuring the systematic human rights violations, repression and dispossession of the Palestinians. Dismissing this context as a secondary detail or a mere cover for crude antisemitism is Occidentalism at its worse. 

Finally, what the rest of the world seems to see with far greater strategic clarity than our fractured West, is that Israel‘s response to Hamas’ attacks aimed at eradicating the movement as a military, government and political force, while certain to cause indescribable human suffering, is unlikely to work in the long term to provide greater Israeli security. It took many months to eradicate ISIS from Mosul or al-Qaeda from Fallujah, both being terrorist organisations with hardly any roots in society. Hamas is not only a far stronger military force, but it has governed Gaza since 2007 while being a political movement since 1987. Believing that Hamas can be eradicated, unless this were to imply the killing of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians and/or the displacement of millions - literally a genocide - is hard to imagine. Israel has tried the wanton destruction route before, with the eradication of PLO from Lebanon and the ensuing massacres of Sabra and Shatila in the 1980s being the most  egregious examples. Then, like now, the result was only a more gangrenous Palestinian question and, consequently, a more insecure Israel.

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