Will South Asia End Up On The Wrong Side Of History?

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“I suspect that the tectonic shift in the global order that the invasion and the Western response caused would not have been well understood by the countries that abstained,” writes William Milam

Will South Asia End Up On The Wrong Side Of History?

by William Milam   23 May 2022

You can find on google a map of the world which records in color the vote of the 181 countries that voted on the United Nations’ March 2 resolution in the UN General Assembly to condemn Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. I find this map fascinating. I can imagine it with the continents squished together looking like an abstract painting, one created by someone like, say, the abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock, who dribbled the paint on a horizontal canvas. And it is easy to imagine that this colorful map, when viewed unsquished, is perhaps a color-coded abstraction for a seriously—perhaps irretrievably—divided world that could be sliding into an Orwellian future. Eerily, the arrangement of the colors gives us not a forecast, but an ominous glance at dark days ahead.

Not all the UN members voted. I count 8 for which there is no voting data. Of the 181 member countries that did vote, 141 voted yes. These countries are colored bright blue on the map, a blue patch almost completely covering the Western Hemisphere (3 lonely outliers), the totality of Western Europe, from the Atlantic to the eastern borders of Poland, a blue swath running down the spine of Africa (I count 17 countries); a tiny patch on the Asian land mass reaching down from Afghanistan and extending out into and covering most of the area of Oceania (Australia, New Zealand, et.al.), reaching up to Japan. A feisty orange denotes the 5 that voted no, an orange swath that extends from the Baltic to the Western edge of Siberia (Russia and Belarus), includes North Korea and two seemingly inundated orange spots, Syria, and Eritrea. The 35 nations that abstained are colored dark gray and split almost entirely between Asia and Africa (only 3 in Latin America). On the map almost all Asia is a large coterminous dark gray splotch, with China, of course, at the center and its neighbors sprinkled around; India and Pakistan and Bangladesh have their own smaller splotch turning the largest part of South Asia dark gray. This dark gray vast expanse is relieved, ironically, by a blue Afghanistan (which probably proves the Taliban’s complete confusion about governing) and a blue Myanmar, as well Malaysia and Singapore. In numbers a bit over 70 % of the countries voted yes.

But these numbers disguise a more disturbing picture that the map illustrates more clearly: between Africa (18 countries) and Asia (14 countries) those dark gray areas on the map represent almost half of the world’s population. If you add this to the population of the orange-colored 5 no votes on the UN resolution condemning Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, over half of the world’s population would seem to be indifferent to or supportive of a Russian action that has shattered the comity of an international rules-based system—and shattered it in very inhumane and illegal ways (viz. its war of extermination of Ukraine and its people). This system has underpinned global order since the end of World War 2, and is responsible for the peace and prosperity in the last 30 years, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and even the 40 more anxious years of the Cold War that preceded that collapse, in all 70 years without major war and, despite the anxiety of the Cold War, a fundamentally progressive era in global history.

Historians will write that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, aimed at illegally annexing the country, set off a reaction by Western democracies that grew in scope and intent to become what they will call a “hinge of history”, a fundamental discontinuity in the global order as the Western democracies strengthened their pushback to the point that now Ukraine could, with the military support they are providing, win the war.

Such an outcome was unimaginable when the war started only a bit over 2 months ago. NATO has pivoted in ways no one predicted into a major military power. These two months of NATO’s collective evolution have seen, in the words of Susan Glasser of The New Yorker magazine “the most concrete change yet in  the geopolitical order resulting from Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.” The most unexpected change of all, the decision of the two very respected middle-sized military powers of Europe, Finland and Sweden, both neutral for hundreds of years, which until the invasion had not shown ever any interest in joining NATO, to apply for membership in the alliance. Both have applied to join, which many of us take to be the final historical act that marks the changed structure of the global order. We should note that Finland stated publicly that its primary reason to join was that the invasion has suddenly extinguished the ruling proviso of the rules-based global order which rules out acquiring territory and/or changing borders by force.

The downside of this transformation is that a lot of countries that I know and follow, both in South Asia and Africa, despite their deficiencies which always dismay me (as do the deficiencies of the US which also embarrass me) have fallen on the wrong side of the map I described above. The worry is whether some will have branded themselves as authoritarian by abstaining and misunderstanding the importance of this resolution, that this vote was not just the usual UN short-term beauty contest with no long-term consequences (as many UN resolutions are), but a test of long-term political goals and beliefs. In fact, the slow roll-out of what has turned into not only an ugly and brutal but an existential war, might have detracted from its importance to some of the countries. We have to remember that most observers didn’t think the war would last two weeks let alone two months (and no end in sight). A personal worry to me is that some of the votes may represent an implicit belief in much of the developing world of what I have called the moral equivalency theory—the insidious and pernicious theory popularized among Western intellectuals that democracy and totalitarianism are the same in the sense that neither has the moral high ground, and both sides are guilty of terrible crimes. This theory goes back to the early Cold War, fed by Soviet propaganda. I shall not write more on this as a quick look at the Russian war on Ukrainian civilians is a clear rebuttal.

However, I suspect that the tectonic shift in the global order that the invasion and the Western response caused would not have been well understood by the countries that abstained on the UN Resolution. It was not that well understood by a lot of us. That shift really has to do with the nature of the beast, the fact that this was not just some local war over territory or water; it is a war between a fascist power that intends to break the system of global order and a rules-based global order that has been in effect and successful of maintaining a peaceful era of growth and development for over 70 years. It is the fascism that makes this war so different. History has shown how Fascism operates, it is voracious in its appetite for power and territory. Its essence is the will to power, and in Fascism, this will overcomes reason as well as ethics and humanity. In other words, Russian aggression is an existential threat to all other countries, and this war is an existential one for these countries. It will take an understanding of this phenomenon for much of the developing world to fully appreciate the danger they would be in if a fascist Russia succeeds in swallowing up Ukraine because that success would prompt the spread of Fascism throughout the international system.

A quick look and comment on the South Asian countries that abstained leads to the conclusion that they seem to have mirrored the gamut of usual reasons, some for obvious domestic reasons, some for less discernable reasons which might involve domestic or regional politics, and some for reasons that could be ideological, possibly including belief in the moral equivalency theory. For India the reasons are easy to discern: a long relationship with the Soviet Union, and after 1991 with Russia, a populist government, aware of its dependence on Russia as its primary arms supplier. It would seem to me that this radical shift in NATO focus and increase in power would prompt India to begin to shift its arms trade and wean itself toward the Western side of this divide. Despite its traditionally close ties to Russia, India identifies as a proud democracy although its democratic credentials are withering. Being tied to a clearly fascist Russia does not seem in India’s interest. The US has tried to move closer to India because it sees India as an important counterweight to China, but this could change if India stays deep on the authoritarian side of the map.

I think the present, perhaps interim Pakistani government, would not have abstained. The vote on the resolution of condemnation took place when Imran Khan was still (barely) in power, and he took considerable pride in showing his disdain to the West and particularly the US. I think he was in Moscow near to the time of the vote, and I would guess that the vote reflects his desire to show the Russians how he could defy the US. Bangladesh abstained too, and that was to be expected but regretted. It was, as much as anything, an admission that it is clearly now an authoritarian state, in which elections are shams and the opposition is in total retreat.

The West will need to work to bring a number of developing countries into the democratic camp. I think a number of them now would, if the vote were taken again, flip back to the other side. The coming together of NATO to protect the rules-based system, which benefits all those countries, even China, will inspire confidence its security.

The article appeared in the Friday Times