The world is united on Ukraine, divided on America

As Cold War II rises on the horizon, the world is wary of taking sides.

A man holds a Ukraine flag during a demonstration in front of the White House to support Ukraine and protest Russia's invasion of the country, in Washington, U.S.,
A man holds a Ukraine flag during a demonstration against Russia's invasion of Ukraine in Washington on February 25, 2022 [Reuters/Kevin Lamarque]

“In terms of a Cold War… you have the vast majority of the rest of the world in total opposition to what [Putin] is doing… It’s going to be a cold day for Russia,” observed US President Joe Biden at a February 24 press conference shortly after Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine. But in the following few days, international reactions fell short of a universal denunciation of Moscow.

The two major Asian nations, China and India did not sharply condemn the Russian attack, nor did large African nations like Nigeria, South Africa, and Egypt.

Brazil also wavered until it succumbed to US pressure to vote in favour of the UN Security Council condemning the Russian invasion on February 25. And while 11 out of 15 UN Security Council members did vote in favour of the resolution, many states stopped short of unequivocal condemnation and most just called for the cessation of violence and return to negotiations.

All of which begs the question, why? Why have the economically and strategically unified and dominant Western nations failed to secure unequivocal universal denunciation of what is evidently a blatant violation of international law?

The short answer: it may have less to do with Ukraine and more to do with America. There is fear and suspicion among nations of being dragged into another Cold War showdown between the US and Russia. Kyiv may be the victim and Moscow the aggressor, but in the eyes of many, Washington is not totally innocent in all of this.

As the self-appointed “world policeman”, the US stands accused or at least is seen to interfere in the internal affairs of other states under different pretexts, including in and around Russia and China.

It is also been accused of double standards when it comes to aggression, occupation and international law violations – one for allies and another for the rest, just as was the case during the Cold War.

That war might have been cold in the north, but it was burning hot in the Global South, where Moscow and Washington engaged in proxy conflicts to advance their interests, regardless of the cost.

A second Cold War would be as bad and even worse if today’s interconnected and interdependent world becomes deeply polarised between the West and NATO on one side, and Russia and China on the other – not only for individual states, but for humanity at large.

Since the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s, most states have diversified their economic and military relations with world powers and prefer not to choose between Russia and the US or between the EU and China.

Many countries are also looking out for their own interests amid the geopolitical polarisation, and some are dependent on Russia for wheat, energy, and military hardware or on China for investments, loans and trade.

And yet for decades, the US has repeatedly demanded nations get behind it in crisis times or pay the price. “You are either with us or against us,” warned US President George W Bush on the eve of his “global war on terror” following the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington.

And soon after the US designated Iran, Iraq and North Korea the world’s “axis of evil” and prepared to invade Iraq, it demanded that nations take its side or incur its wrath.

The following decade, Washington raised pressure on China and demanded of all its trading partners to get behind it or face the consequences.

The Trump administration even went as far as warning members of the United Nations that it was “taking names” of those who voted in favour of a resolution condemning its decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

As the US is waning, China rising, and Russia coming back with a vengeance, the US’s coercive tone has become rather weird, tired and desperate, prompting countries to keep their options open.

No longer are states trusting Washington to help, protect, or defend them, not after its humiliation in Afghanistan and its defeat in Iraq; not after its blunders in Syria, Yemen, Libya and other world hotspots; and certainly, not after inciting Ukraine only to leave it at the mercy of Russian military might.

The world has also lost its innocence over the past decades and no longer buys into Washington’s lofty slogans of freedom and democracy, when both are under attack in America itself.

When the invasion of Ukraine started, Biden was quick to assure the American society that they would not have to fight, suffer or even pay more for gas. Or, as one observer commented sardonically, “America is about to fight Russia until the last Ukrainian soldier.”

It is too early to tell whether such international scepticism will lead to an initiative similar to the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) which was joined by over 100 nations during the Cold War. But what is clear, is that today’s global challenges require less polarisation and more cooperation.

A second Cold War is sure to hinder the urgent international efforts to combat climate change, hamper critical coordination on dealing with pandemics, and impede critical global cooperation to ensure food security and eradicate poverty and disease.

A second Cold War will lead to another arms race, and bring the world closer to a nuclear showdown. Indeed, the nuclear annihilation of humanity is “only one impulsive tantrum away”, in the words of a recent Nobel Peace Prize Winner.

In short, a second Cold War will cause terrible human suffering, economic decline, and a global conflict with incalculable consequences.

Yet, as Washington is adamant to punish Russia for its bellicosity and aggression, it is hoping or perhaps planning for Ukraine to become Russia’s Afghanistan-like nightmare. Some reckon it is Biden’s “Truman moment”, to pursue a “strategy of containment” towards Russia, as his predecessor did 75 years ago.

But the way forward in Europe cannot be the way back. And the scenarios before us should not be limited to war: a protracted Cold War or a devastating nuclear war. In fact, as I write these words, Putin has put Russia’s nuclear deterrence forces on high alert after a joint NATO statement was deemed threatening.

The international community is overwhelmingly in favour of Ukraine recovering its sovereignty, albeit as a buffer state between Russia and NATO countries, and must do all to reach an immediate ceasefire, support the diplomatic process, and ultimately push for a dialogue between the West and Russia over the future security of Europe.

Yes, the Russian invasion requires a tough response, but it should be one that opens the door for peace. The West has no right sacrificing Ukraine at the altar of a new Cold War.