Washington’s failed push for a global consensus against Russia


The Biden administration has grossly overestimated the scale of international outrage over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Biden administration officials are treating Russia as an international pariah and urging the global community to unite behind Washington’s leadership to force the Kremlin to withdraw its forces from Ukraine. The government’s strategy was only partially successful. Criticism of Russia’s actions is relatively easy to find among foreign leaders, but when it comes to outright condemnation — let alone endorsement of NATO’s position that the war was unprovoked and entirely Moscow’s fault — governments around the world balk.

They are even less inclined to join the US-led campaign to impose extraordinarily severe sanctions on Russia. Indeed, support for sanctions outside of NATO and US bilateral security alliances in East Asia is notable for its lack. This was already the case in the first month of the war and has become even more so since then.

Hudson Institute scholar Walter Russell Mead offers an apt summary of Washington’s lack of success in expanding the anti-Russian coalition beyond the network of traditional US allies. “The West has never been so closely connected. It was also rarely more alone. Allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Australia and Japan are united in abhorrence of Vladimir Putin’s war and are cooperating with the most sweeping sanctions since World War II. The rest of the world not so much.”

Signs of trouble began to appear almost immediately. On March 2, 2022, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine and calling for the immediate withdrawal of Russian forces: 141 countries voted in favor of the resolution, and as US officials were fond of pointing out, only voted five against .

However, a surprising 35 countries – including 17 African nations – chose to abstain, even though a positive vote to appease the United States would have been the easy choice. The resolution was purely symbolic, as it did not oblige UN members to take any substantive action, yet a significant number of countries in Asia, the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa chose to snub Washington. More than 20 percent of General Assembly members refused to adopt a pure feel-good measure that the Biden administration was keen to push through. From the outset, the US-backed global coalition against Russia appeared fragile and listless. It has increased over time.

African countries in particular see no benefit in supporting Western policies. Although Washington insists that repelling Russian aggression against Ukraine is essential to preserving the “rules-based, liberal international order,” African governments and peoples see things differently. To them, the war looks more like a mundane power struggle between Russia and a western vassal state. As one African scholar put it: “Many in Africa and the rest of the Global South do not – and have never considered – the liberal international order particularly liberal or international. They don’t think it’s particularly tidy either, considering how much their countries have been made into spheres of influence and arenas for geostrategic competition.”

More tangible economic interests are also driving Africa toward neutrality. A June 3rd New York Times The analysis succinctly concluded: “A meeting on Friday between the head of the African Union and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia highlighted the acute needs each hopes the other can meet: Africa needs food, and the Kremlin needs allies.” Indeed, the head of the African Union, President Macky Sall of Senegal, has specifically called for sanctions against Russia to be lifted.

Even parts of Latin America have balked at waging an economic war against Russia. Most troubling for the US-led anti-Russia strategy is that both Brazil and Mexico – the region’s two main political and economic players – remain at odds. In fact, tensions have escalated, affecting Washington’s overall relationship with these two administrations. The Mexican president even refused to attend the Biden administration’s much-touted “summit of the Americas” in June. It was a conspicuous snub.

It is particularly threatening to US goals that both China and India have remained on the sidelines in relation to the West’s showdown with Russia. Xi Jinping’s government has defied Moscow’s demands for more solidarity and concrete support. PRC leaders have instead tried to walk a tightrope, attempting to maintain a generally neutral course with a slight tilt toward Russia’s position. But most importantly, both Beijing and New Delhi firmly refuse to impose economic sanctions on Russia.

The Biden administration has not responded well to a country’s attempt to adopt a neutral stance. This anger is even aimed at major powers like China and India. US officials are putting increasing pressure on both governments to go along with the West’s sanctions strategy. Some of Washington’s statements amounted to open threats. On several occasions, the government warned India that there would be “consequences” if it failed to impose sanctions on Russia. The subtle message was that unless New Delhi cooperated, India itself could become a target of sanctions by the United States and its allies.

Despite the much broader bilateral economic ties with the PRC, Washington has even threatened Beijing with sanctions if it backs Moscow’s actions in Ukraine. Furthermore, “support” increasingly became an implied synonym for “not oppose”. Beijing did not passively respond to this pressure. Instead, the PRC warned against imposing retaliatory sanctions on the United States and its allies.

Washington’s bullying behavior is not well received internationally. For example, the Biden administration’s threats to sanction China over Beijing’s ties with Moscow immediately spooked Thailand, Indonesia and other smaller powers in East Asia. The reaction, however, was not a capitulation to Washington’s demands. Instead, the aggressive US approach seemed to bolster those nations’ resolve to remain neutral on the Russia-Ukraine war. South Africa and other countries of the Global South also loudly complained about the massive pressure from the USA and refused to change their positions.

The Biden administration has grossly overestimated the scale of international outrage over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Given the track record of numerous Western military actions against sovereign countries, including Serbia, Iraq and Libya, it is hardly surprising that other governments view the West’s attitude towards Moscow’s behavior as the epitome of self-interested hypocrisy. The US leadership also overestimated the extent of US leverage to force nations outside Washington’s geopolitical sphere of influence to engage in punitive policies toward Russia. It should be a sobering experience, but the government and members of the US foreign policy blob that populates it show no signs of learning anything worthwhile. Instead, US arrogance and an inflated sense of Washington’s power continue unabated.

Ted Galen ZimmermanSenior Fellow in Defense and Foreign Policy Studies at the Cato Institute and Associate Editor at The American Conservativeis the author of 12 books and more than 1,100 articles on international affairs.

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