Fyodor Lukyanov: Why the West has failed to get the rest of the world on board to support its confrontation with Russia
The recent festival of big Western politics – which began with a meeting of the European Council, continued with the G7 Summit, and ended with a major NATO gathering – provides plenty of food for thought about the fate of the world.
On the surface, what we have seen is impressive: The West is showing unprecedented unity in the face of the Russian campaign in Ukraine.
America has gathered almost all of its allies. Right now, from Australia to Norway, from Singapore to Portugal, and from Japan to Iceland, the agenda is the same – to prevent the success of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who represents a rejection of the so-called ‘rules-based order’.
The brutality and irreversibility of what is happening in Ukraine gives the situation the character of a moral choice. Almost all statements from Western leaders refer to a confrontation between "civilization and barbarism". Accordingly, they believe, there should be no doubt about which side to take.
The Western community has now reached maximum capacity – its European flank (EU and NATO members plus Ukraine and Moldova), its Asian club (South Korea, Japan, and Singapore stopped wavering and took the ‘right’ side), the Oceania pairing, and of course, North America. The ‘free world’ has never been so vast.
This raises a serious question, however. Has the West reached its natural limit beyond which expansion is no longer possible? And if so, what does it mean?
In fact, the topic of the limits of Western influence stems from the notorious concept of the ‘end of history’, which is already so worn out that it is even inconvenient to bring it up. Nevertheless, it is appropriate in this context. Francis Fukuyama’s reflections (he was recently banned from entering Russia, as it happens) led him to conclude that with the collapse of the communist alternative, the only question that remained was how soon and how painlessly the Western economic and socio–political model – which had proved its virtues in the showdown with the USSR – would spread to the rest of the world. The author admitted that it would not be without snags, but in general, the direction was determined once and for all.
How things actually played out after the collapse of the USSR is well known, and despite the fact that numerous crises in developed countries have dimmed the view of the expected path of development, the system has been preserved – and no one has yet come close to the Western world in terms of well-being and comfort. And the Western media still has a near-monopoly on determining the picture of what is happening on a global scale. This means it has a huge head start. But the limit seems to have been reached.
Perhaps the main surprise resulting from the events of recent months is that the West has failed to engage so much of the world in a united front against Russia – the exceptions being those who are already part of the West and a few who passionately want to join the club.
This is unexpected, since few people approve of Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Moscow is dealing with problems that are seemingly irrelevant to anyone but itself, and the harsh methods and humanitarian consequences of the conflict do not elicit much sympathy from outside. In other words, objectively, the West has an excellent chance to win over most of the rest of the world by taking the line that its cause here is about opposition to barbarism.
But this is not happening. Why? There are perhaps three main reasons.
Firstly, the non-Western world knows perfectly well that wars on the planet have never stopped, including in the last 30 years, and statements from the EU states about the era of ‘harmony and prosperity’ that Putin interrupted are perceived as both selfishness and hypocrisy. Telling people in the Middle East, for example, that Russia has violated every conceivable moral standard is, to put it mildly, difficult in light of what the region has experienced since the Cold War ended.
Secondly, most in the former third world see the current events as the culmination of a long-standing conflict related to the assertive policies of the US and its allies regarding the territories directly adjacent to Russia. Their attitude is something like: ‘What did you expect would happen when you provoked the tiger?’
Finally, the reaction of the majority of the planet illustrates their irritation with the West as a whole. It is perceived as a hegemon with a colonial history which is always abusing its powers. The reason is not support for Russia’s actions, but opposition to the West’s attempts to impose its will on others, which often harms their own interests. Also, schadenfreude over America’s failed attempts to impose its will compensates for any doubts about the legitimacy of Moscow’s actions.
In other words, it’s not about sympathy for Russia, but antipathy to the West.
Western leaders are both surprised and alarmed by this situation. If the initial calls to join the boycott of Russia amounted to orders, now the demands have been replaced by exhortations and attempts to promise something in return. The selection of the G7 Summit guests – the presidents of India, Indonesia, Senegal, Argentina, and South Africa – is indicative.
The invited parties were warmly welcomed. Everyone was in a hurry to tap Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the shoulder and give him attention. But apart from general statements, nothing happened. And almost in parallel with the events in Europe, Modi participated in a virtual BRICS summit, and Argentina, it seems, together with Iran, has applied to join this emerging association.
The position of non-Western states is dictated not only by anti-colonial instincts, although they do exist. More importantly, in the new conditions, it is difficult for the West to offer the leading countries of the rest of the world anything that would force them to radically change their positions. There are now alternative sources of resources for development – a number of members of the former third world today have money, skills, and to some extent, technology. The West is still ahead of them in many ways, but – and this is fundamentally important – it has now completely lost the desire to share its advantages.
Simply because it now fears competition from them – the experience of American support for the development of China is considered a mistake by the current elites.
Developing countries are of course interested in Western investment, but the nature of interaction is also changing. To put it mildly, the former third world is becoming more demanding and picky, and the West’s ability to impose its own conditions has weakened amid large-scale global changes.
The series of meetings in Europe was intended to show that the West is still the undisputed vanguard of the world, which has both the right and responsibility to lead others. For instance, NATO is once again attempting to become a global organization rather than regional.
The bloc’s most recent experience of this kind – in Afghanistan – ended in embarrassment. But now the approach is more natural – opposition to Russia.
As they see it, Russia is a threat to Western European security (as it was in the glory days of NATO), but it is also a dangerous pariah for all mankind, so opposing it will help expand the US-led club globally. Moreover, the specter of China looms – a systemic competitor to the West and, even better, an accomplice of ‘the Russians’.
How much the Western world itself is united for the full implementation of such a mission is a topic for another article. There are a lot of nuances here. However, even assuming that this is the case, there is no reason to think that NATO’s ambition will meet with understanding beyond its borders.
As a consequence, the broad refusal to recognize the right of the West to lead means there will no longer be a world order based on Western rules.