As world leaders gather in New York this week for the annual United Nations General Assembly, many of the themes of their speeches are so predictable that they can be understood as part of what has become ritualized international discourse.
There will be arguments about the need to forestall climate change and global warming, including emotional pleas from leaders of small island states that risk near-term disappearance under rising seas. There will be calls to sustain openness to international trade at a time when the last generation’s globalization seems to be in recession. Authoritarian states will repeat their routine calls for non-interference and the respect of sovereignty of the weak by the powerful. And, of course, there will be pious-sounding calls for the promotion of peace, whether in specific regions or worldwide.
From the rich West, meanwhile, few topics will occupy as much bandwidth as Russia’s war in Ukraine. That would have been the case in any event, but this year, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has traveled to the United States to bolster American and international support for his country’s efforts to stave off a two-year old Russian bid to absorb Ukrainian territory.
The presence of Ukraine’s leader at the United Nations—and later this week in Washington, where he will meet with U.S. President Joe Biden—highlights an international dimension of Kyiv’s conflict with Moscow with rare clarity. That’s because it coincides with the arrival at the U.N. of scores of leaders of what is often called the global south.
For months now, U.S. and European politicians and diplomats have beseeched their counterparts in this ungainly grab basket of countries to stand in principle with the West in condemning Russia’s invasion. And for almost as long, Western officials have expressed puzzlement, dismay, and chagrin over the feeble response to their appeals.
This makes the question of why the poor and middle-income countries of the world are so indifferent to a case of clear great power aggression a fascinating and important matter, and yet one that has hitherto been the focus of precious little clear thinking.
The conventional wisdom pretends that countries of the global south are reluctant to criticize Russia out of an old and logical strategy long embraced by the weak: If you are being dominated by one set of countries, say the West, then for the sake of obtaining more breathing room for yourself, you root for their rivals. This is classic balancing, and poor countries have been doing this not just with regard to Russia but also toward China during its impressive rise over the past few decades. If you’re weak, you want partners—and generally speaking, the more the merrier. If they compete for your favor and support, all the better. Without them, you’d be reduced to going cap in hand to those who have dominated the international system, meaning the United States and Western Europe, for decades.
There is truth to this explanation, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough. To get closer to the heart of the matter, one must explore some of the stock language around international relations—terms that get thrown around with little examination or afterthought. The global south is one of these, and it does not withstand a moment’s careful thought. As others have pointed out, many of the countries routinely bunched together under this label are not particularly southern, and they share few other consistent qualities, whether ideological, economic, ethnic, linguistic, or racial. In full disclosure, I teach a class each spring that is billed as being about the global south, and I am tortured by this nomenclature issue every year.
The West, by the way, is itself another fuzzy and imprecise portmanteau that doesn’t hold up very well against careful thought. In the press, it is routinely understood to include not only the United States and a Western Europe that is expanding eastward but also Australia, New Zealand, and often enough, Japan, Israel, South Korea, and during the apartheid years, for some, white-ruled South Africa.
There is another widely used term, though, that gets us closer to the predicament of those countries bunched together under this rubric of convenience known as the West: “developing world.” The problem here is less one of imprecision than of euphemism. When we speak of countries belonging to the developing world, that presumes they are actually developing, when for many this is not really the case at all. As Western countries have tried to drum up support for opposing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, they have sometimes lamented the incomprehension or diffidence of the developing world.
One—and perhaps the most important—reason for this, however, has been hiding in plain sight. Our careless use of this thoughtless language has blinded us to the reality that many of the “developing” countries are trapped in economic stasis, or worse, stagnation and economic regression. Here, one true geographic region, as opposed to a contrived collection of countries, obviously stands out: Africa.
It is true that many countries in the world are falling further and further behind the “developed” countries, not just in terms of per capita GDP but in many other ways as well, including on indices of human development, longevity, environmental welfare, and others. But Africa stands out as a clear human emergency that has been treated as anything but. The continent’s relative plight was impressively documented in a recent report by Bloomberg News that documented many of the ways Africa has lost ground over the last decade.
The West pays selective but attenuated attention to Africa mostly for immediately self-serving purposes. The most obvious of these are slowing large-scale migration from the world’s fastest growing continent by far in terms of population as well as combatting Islamist extremism. Both of these missions are at the heart of France’s crumbling position in West Africa, where until very recently it had retained extraordinary influence with its former colonies in the Sahel region, only to see former client states angrily renounce old forms of partnership.
These were long premised on something the French called “cooperation,” which really meant financial, diplomatic and security support for African governments that prioritized helping stem emigration and fighting religious insurgents. Mostly left by the wayside in all of this has been any sustained or publicly accountable effort to upgrade these countries’ economies—including, of course, the living standards of their extremely poor (by global standards) populations.
The time has come to ask whether this is putting the cart before the horse. Isn’t it poverty and persistent underdevelopment that continues to drive emigration and fundamentalist terrorism and insurgency? It would be lazy to think that this is a situation that only involves France and its former colonies in Africa. As I have written before, Ghana has repeatedly been trotted out as a success story of Western-African cooperation, only to just as repeatedly fall victim to crises of crushing debt. That’s where things stand again today in this supposed bulwark of stability and exemplar of what’s often fancied as Western-style democracy.
Some of the blame for Ghana’s problems (like those of other underperforming economies in low and lower middle-income countries) surely lies with its own governments and with problems tied to official corruption and a bloated state. But just as surely, there are longstanding structural problems in our international system that hobble and disfavor the poor and weak and hinder their efforts to develop. The rich of the world, however, would rather talk about almost anything else.
Instead of facing this reality squarely, European countries and the United States (read: the West) have recently tacked on another foreign-policy priority of theirs on which they want the poor of the world’s sympathy and cooperation: Ukraine’s battle to win back control of territory lost to Russia. Now, though, it seems that not only in Africa but also in the global south—construed to mean countries that are not growing—we have rounded a corner. Increasingly, the poor are saying to the rich that your priorities won’t mean more to us until ours mean much more to you.
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