How Russia’s war busted the myth of universality
Washington’s vaunted “rules-based international order” has undergone a stress test following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and here’s the news so far: it hasn’t held up well. In fact, the disparate reactions to Vladimir Putin’s war have only highlighted stark global divisions, which reflect the unequal distribution of wealth and power. Such divisions have made it even harder for a multitude of sovereign states to find the minimal common ground needed to tackle the biggest global problems, especially climate change.
In fact, it’s now reasonable to ask whether an international community connected by a consensus of norms and rules, and capable of acting in concert against the direst threats to humankind, exists. Sadly, if the responses to the war in Ukraine are the standard by which we’re judging, things don’t look good.
The Myth of Universality
After Russia invaded, the United States and its allies rushed to punish it with a barrage of economic sanctions. They also sought to mobilize a global outcry by charging Putin with trashing what President Biden’s top foreign policy officials like to call the rules-based international order. Their effort has, at best, had minimal success.
Yes, there was that lopsided vote against Russia in the United Nations General Assembly, the March 2nd resolution on the invasion sponsored by 90 countries. One hundred and forty-one nations voted for it and only five against, while 35 abstained. Beyond that, in the “global south” at least, the response to Moscow’s assault has been tepid at best. None of the key countries there — Brazil, India, Indonesia, and South Africa, to mention four — even issued official statements castigating Russia. Some, including India and South Africa, along with 16 other African countries (and don’t forget China though it may not count as part of the global south), simply abstained from that U.N. resolution. And while Brazil, like Indonesia, voted yes, it also condemned “indiscriminate sanctions” against Russia.
None of those countries joined the United States and most of the rest of NATO in imposing sanctions on Russia, not even Turkey, a member of that alliance. In fact, Turkey, which last year imported 60 billion cubic meters of natural gas from Russia, has only further increased energy cooperation with Moscow, including raising its purchases of Russian oil to 200,000 barrels per day — more than twice what it bought in 2021. India, too, ramped up oil purchases from Russia, taking advantage of discounted prices from a Moscow squeezed by U.S. and NATO sanctions. Keep in mind that, before the war, Russia had accounted for just 1% of Indian oil imports. By early October, that number had reached 21%. Worse yet, India’s purchases of Russian coal — which emits far more carbon dioxide into the air than oil and natural gas — may increase to 40 million tons by 2035, five times the current amount.
Despite the risk of facing potential U.S. sanctions thanks to the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), India also stuck by its earlier decision to buy Russia’s most advanced air-defense system, the S-400. The Biden administration eventually threaded that needle by arranging a waiver for India, in part because it’s seen as a major future partner against China with which Washington has become increasingly preoccupied (as witnessed by the new National Security Strategy). The prime concern of the Indian leadership, however, has been to preserve its close ties with Russia, war or no war, given its fear of a growing alignment between that country and China, which India sees as its main adversary.
What’s more, since the invasion, China’s average monthly trade with Russia has surged by nearly two-thirds, Turkey’s has nearly doubled, and India’s has risen more than threefold, while Russian exports to Brazil have nearly doubled as well. This failure of much of the world to heed Washington’s clarion call to stand up for universal norms stems partly from pique at what’s seen as the West’s presumptuousness. On March 1st, when 20 countries, a number from the European Union, wrote Pakistan’s then-prime minister Imran Khan (who visited Putin soon after the war began), imploring him to support an upcoming General Assembly resolution censuring Russia, he all too typically replied: “What do you think of us? Are we your slaves… [Do you take for granted] that whatever you say we will do?” Had such a letter, he asked, been sent to India?
Similarly, Celso Amorim, who served as Brazil’s foreign minister for seven years during the presidency of Luis Inacio “Lula” de Silva (who will soon reclaim his former job), declared that condemning Russia would amount to obeying Washington’s diktat. For his part, Lula claimed Joe Biden and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky were partly to blame for the war. They hadn’t worked hard enough to avert it, he opined, by negotiating with Putin. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa blamed Putin’s actions on the way NATO had, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, provocatively expanded toward Russia’s border.
Many other countries simply preferred not to get sucked into a confrontation between Russia and the West. As they saw it, their chances of changing Putin’s mind were nil, given their lack of leverage, so why incur his displeasure? (After all, what was the West offering that might make choosing sides more palatable?) Besides, given their immediate daily struggles with energy prices, debt, food security, poverty, and climate change, a war in Europe seemed a distant affair, a distinctly secondary concern. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro typically suggested that he wasn’t about to join the sanctions regime because his country’s agriculture depended on imported Russian fertilizer.
Leaders in the global south were also struck by the contrast between the West’s urgency over Ukraine and its lack of similar fervor when it came to problems in their part of the world. There was, for instance, much commentary about the generosity and speed with which countries like Poland and Hungary (as well as the United States) embraced Ukrainian refugees, having largely shut the door on refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. In June, while not mentioning that particular example, India’s foreign minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, highlighted such sentiments when, in response to a question about the European Union’s efforts to push his country to get tougher on Russia, he remarked that Europe “has to grow out of the mindset that [its] problems are the world’s problem, but the world’s problems are not Europe’s problem.” Given how “singularly silent” European countries had been “on many things which were happening, for example in Asia,” he added, “you could ask why anybody in Asia would trust Europe on anything at all?”
The West’s less-than-urgent response to two other problems aggravated by the Ukraine crisis that hit the world’s poor countries especially hard bore out Jaishankar’s point of view. The first was soaring food prices sure to worsen malnutrition, if not famine, in the global south. Already in May, the World Food Program warned that 47 million additional people (more than Ukraine’s total population) were going to face “acute food insecurity” thanks to a potential reduction in food exports from both Russia and Ukraine — and that was on top of the 193 million people in 53 countries who had already been in that predicament (or worse) in 2021.
A July deal brokered between Ukraine and Russia by the U.N. and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan did, in fact, ensure the resumption of food exports from both countries (though Russia briefly withdrew from it as October ended). Still, only a fifth of the added supply went to low-income and poor countries. While global food prices have fallen for six months straight now, another crisis cannot be ruled out as long as the war in Ukraine drags on.
The second problem was an increase in the cost of both borrowing money and of debt repayments following interest rate hikes by Western central banks seeking to tamp down inflation stoked by a war-induced spike in fuel prices. On average, interest rates in the poorest countries jumped by 5.7% — about twice as much as in the U.S. — increasing the cost of their further borrowing by 10% to 46%.
A more fundamental reason much of the global south wasn’t in a hurry to pillory Russia is that the West has repeatedly defenestrated the very values it declares to be universal. In 1999, for instance, NATO intervened in Kosovo, following Serbia’s repression of the Kosovars, even though it was not authorized to do so, as required, by a U.N. Security Council resolution (which China and Russia would have vetoed). The Security Council did approve the U.S. and European intervention in Libya in 2011 to protect civilians from the security forces of that country’s autocrat, Muammar Gadhafi. That campaign, however, quickly turned into one aimed at toppling his government by assisting the armed opposition and so would be widely criticized in the global south for creating ongoing chaos in that country. After 9/11, the United States offered classically contorted legal explanations for the way the Central Intelligence Agency violated the Convention Against Torture and the four 1949 Geneva Conventions in the name of wiping out terrorism.
Universal human rights, of course, occupy a prominent place in Washington’s narratives about that rules-based world order it so regularly promotes but in practice frequently ignores, notably in this century in the Middle East. Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was aimed at regime change against a country that posed no direct threat to Russia and therefore was indeed a violation of the U.N. Charter; but so, too, was the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, something few in the global south have forgotten.
The War and Climate Change
Worse yet, the divisions Vladimir Putin’s invasion has highlighted have only made it more difficult to take the necessary bold steps to combat the greatest danger all of us face on this planet: climate change. Even before the war, there was no consensus on who bore the most responsibility for the problem, who should make the biggest cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, or who should provide funds to countries that simply can’t afford the costs involved in shifting to green energy. Perhaps the only thing on which everyone agrees in this moment of global stress is that not enough has been done to meet the 2015 Paris climate accord target of ideally limiting the increase in global warming to 1.5 degrees Centigrade. That’s a valid conclusion. According to a U.N. report published this month, the planet’s warming will reach 2.4 degrees Centigrade by 2100. This is where things stood as the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference kicked off this month in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.
As a start, the $100 billion per year that richer countries pledged to poor ones in 2009 to help move them away from hydrocarbon-based energy hasn’t been met in any year so far and recent disbursements, minimal as they have been, were largely in the form of loans, not grants. The resources the West will now have to spend just to cover Ukraine’s non-military needs for 2023 — $55 billion in budgetary assistance and infrastructure repairs alone, according to President Volodymyr Zelensky — plus soaring inflation and slower growth in Western economies thanks to the war make it doubtful that green commitments to poor countries will be fulfilled in the years to come. (Never mind the pledge, in advance of the November 2021 COP26 United Nations Climate Change Conference, that the $100 billion goal would be met in 2023.)
In the end, the surge in energy costs created by the war, in part because Russia’s natural gas supplies to Europe have been slashed, could prove the shot in the arm needed for some of the biggest emitters of carbon dioxide and methane to move more quickly toward wind and solar power. That seems especially possible because the price of clean energy technologies has declined so sharply in recent years. The cost of photovoltaic cells for solar power has, for instance, fallen by nearly 90% in the past decade; the cost for lithium-ion batteries, needed for rechargeable electric vehicles, by the same amount during the last 20 years. Optimism about a quicker greening of the planet, now a common refrain, could prove valid in the long run. However, when it comes to progress on climate change, the immediate implications of the war aren’t encouraging.
According to the International Energy Agency, if the Paris Agreement’s target for limiting global warming and its goal of “net zero” in global emissions by 2050 are to prove feasible, the building of additional fossil-fuel infrastructure must cease immediately. And that’s hardly what’s been happening since the war in Ukraine began. Instead, there has been what one expert calls “a gold rush to new fossil fuel infrastructure.” Following the drastic cuts in Russian gas exports to Europe, new liquefied natural gas (LNG) facilities — more than 20 of them, worth billions of dollars — have either been planned or put on a fast track in Canada, Germany, Greece, Italy, and the Netherlands. The Group of Seven may even reverse its decision last May to stop public investment in overseas fossil-fuel projects by the end of this year, while its plan to “decarbonize” the energy sectors of member countries by 2035 may also fall by the wayside.
In June, Germany, desperate to replace that Russian natural gas, announced that mothballed coal-fired power plants, the dirtiest of greenhouse-gas producers, would be brought back online. The Federation of German Industry, which opposed shutting them down well before the war started, has indicated that it’s already switching to coal so that natural gas storage tanks can be filled before the winter cold sets in. India, too, has responded to higher energy prices with plans to boost coal production by almost 56 gigawatts through 2032, a 25% increase. Britain has scrapped its decision to prohibit, on environmental grounds, the development of the Jackdaw natural gas field in the North Sea and has already signed new contracts with Shell and other fossil-fuel companies. European countries have concluded several deals for LNG purchases, including with Azerbaijan, Egypt, Israel, the United States, and Qatar (which has demanded 20-year contracts). Then there’s Russia’s response to high energy prices, including a huge Arctic drilling project aimed at adding 100 million tons of oil a year to the global supply by 2035.
U.N. Secretary-General António Gutteres characterized this dash toward yet more hydrocarbon energy use as “madness.” Using a phrase long reserved for nuclear war, he suggested that such an unceasing addiction to fossil fuels could end in “mutually assured destruction.” He has a point: the U.N. Environment Program’s 2022 “Emissions Gap Report” released last month concluded that, in light of the emissions targets of so many states, Earth’s warming in the post-Industrial Revolution era could be in the range of 2.1 to 2.9 degrees Celsius by 2100. That’s nowhere near the Paris Agreement’s more ambitious benchmark of 1.5 degrees on a planet where the average temperature has already risen by 1.2 degrees.
As the Germany-based Perspectives on Climate Group details in a recent study, the Ukraine war has also had direct effects on climate change that will continue even after the fighting ends. As a start, the Paris Agreement doesn’t require countries to report emissions produced by their armed forces, but the war in Ukraine, likely to be a long-drawn-out affair, has already contributed to military carbon emissions in a big way, thanks to fossil-fuel-powered tanks, aircraft, and so much else. Even the rubble created by the bombardment of cities has released more carbon dioxide. So will Ukraine’s post-war reconstruction, which its prime minister estimated last month will cost close to $750 billion. And that may be an underestimate considering that the Russian army has taken its wrecking ball (or perhaps wrecking drones, missiles, and artillery) to everything from power plants and waterworks to schools, hospitals, and apartment buildings.
What International Community?
Leaders regularly implore “the international community” to act in various ways. If such appeals are to be more than verbiage, however, compelling evidence is needed that 195 countries share basic principles of some sort on climate change — that the world is more than the sum of its parts. Evidence is also needed that the most powerful countries on this planet can set aside their short-term interests long enough to act in a concerted fashion and decisively when faced with planet-threatening problems like climate change. The war in Ukraine offers no such evidence. For all the talk of a new dawn that followed the end of the Cold War, we seem stuck in our old ways — just when they need to change more than ever.
This piece has been republished with permission from TomDispatch.