Try to understand the extent of American power in 1955. The US had founded Bretton Woods and NATO. It had revitalized Japan and Western Europe. It led mass culture (Hollywood, Elvis Presley) and high art (Abstract Expressionism, Saul Bellow). It had a monstrous share of global production. It had leaders as far-sighted as Dwight Eisenhower.
And it couldn’t stop half of the world’s population go their own way. As the Cold War hardened around them, the non-aligned met in Bandung, Indonesia that year. If the west, led at its strongest and best, could not charm, induce, reason, or intimidate them in its camp, who could blame it for not doing so now?
Quite a few, it seems. The West loses the “rest”, I keep reading, especially on the Ukraine issue. Two problems stand out here. First, in order to lose something, one must have had it at some point. When was that? Second, these countries have their own agency. That includes the power to be wrong.
At the heart of this is the undying conviction that if something is wrong in the world, the US and its allies must be to blame. This allows Western progressives to feel their favorite emotion: ostentatious guilt. It opens the door for their favorite and perhaps only idea: financial transfers, whether in the form of aid or investment in infrastructure or debt relief. Their self-criticism has a layer of humility. But nothing is more patrician. The problem with guilt is that it assumes you have ultimate control over things.
Although the West has become secularized, one biblical notion lives on: that suffering is virtuous. To be unjust is to be right. This idea must be countered at every point. That a nation is poor does not make its worldview true. That it was mistreated in the past does not confirm its judgment on a single subject a lifetime later. (Just as Christ’s trial does not confirm the gospel.)
It is possible that the “global south” – not everyone born there takes the neologism seriously – is simply wrong about Ukraine. Morally wrong, because the war is a case of imperial conquest, which former colonies claim to be resisting. Strategically wrong, as there is not much to gain from courting Russia as an alternative patron to the US. (If Washington is haughty, try Moscow.) Most importantly, wrong independent. The witch sitters over Ukraine were not put there by the US. The US can’t be bothered either.
By the way, you don’t have to agree that the global south is wrong. The point is: what should the West do? These are independent states. Among them is the largest country on earth (India), resource superpowers (the Gulf States), and arguably the strongest military in the southern hemisphere (Brazil). Poor in the Bandung era, many are now middle-income people. In the meantime, the west is a dwindling part of world production.
In much of the world, the West is accused of holiness. Let’s break down that vague complaint into details. Russia can place countries without moral obligations in its economic and military orbit. For example, it does not ask them to implement internal liberal reforms. Are these terms something critics of the west think should correspond? If so, that’s not a shameful idea. (The cold war was not won by ethical fussspots.) But it would be nice if someone would speak up. At this point, there’s a lot going on behind evasive chatter about the need for “engagement.”
The West has involved – as a donor of aid, as a recipient of immigrants, as an underwriter of security – since 1945. If that hasn’t garnered support for his vision of Ukraine, then many things are at work. One is genuine distaste for the West’s colonial past. Another is cold (and again legitimate) calculation: a strong Russia and China will enable poor countries to make tougher deals with the US. Another third is muddleheadedness about distant events. “If one doesn’t want to, two can’t fight,” he said Brazilian president, of Ukraine, in what he must have believed was an insight. The rest, I’m afraid, are in bad faith, often on the part of the global elites of the South, whose mistrust of the West exonerates London real estate, Parisian luxury stores, and American universities.
Against this wall of intransigence, the West must continue to knock. But it must also accept that other countries can make mistakes of their own accord and without any persuasion. Cold War non-alignment was ultimately not such a wise bet. It led many governments to adopt quasi-socialist policies that have taken decades to undo. As far as south-south solidarity is concerned, later several Bandung present countries would go to war with each other. How delinquent of the west for that to happen.