27.10.22 Analytics

The Global South vs. The Global West: a battle of narratives

Why developing countries don't support Ukraine and how to change this?

Vsevolod Bederson
Against the backdrop of relatively united support for Ukraine by the "Global West," most emerging market countries and major powers of the "Global South" have taken an emphatically neutral stance and do not want to participate in the sanctions against Russia. This position is shared by both the elites and populations of these countries. An anti-colonial narrative that, to a greater or lesser degree, blames the war and the associated  global instability on the West rather than Russia appears to be more influential than the Western narrative of "protecting a young democracy being attacked by aggressive authoritarian despotism". The West cannot compel the countries of the "Global South" to support sanctions by force; to expand the pro-Ukrainian coalition, the narrative of the Russian-Ukrainian war must be "repackaged", shifting the emphasis from "values" to the rhetoric of sovereignty and territorial integrity, which will be more widely accepted in a postcolonial world.

The countries of the "Global South" — particularly the largest countries with emerging markets (China, India, Brazil, South Africa) — have mostly adopted a neutral stance on the Russian-Ukrainian war and have not joined the sanctions of the Western coalition. This makes the sanctions far less effective, but attempts to force the Global South to participate in them could lead to worldwide geo-economic fragmentation. Analysts and political advisors are analysing the reasons for this divergence between the West and the Global South and considering ways of bridging the gap between their positions regarding Russia.

They believe that the West has incorrectly framed the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.. For example, political scientist Peter Rutland of Wesleyan University suggests that the reason for the distancing of the Global South is that the dominant narrative of the Western coalition's support for Ukraine is interpreted as support for defending democracy against the aggression of an authoritarian regime. This narrative has effectively and quickly united the Global West (including its allies in the Pacific region — Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Australia) in support of Ukraine but has been a barrier to the possibility of non-Western influential countries joining the coalition. Political scientists Callie Grieco and Marie Jourdain made the same point in "World Politics Review": as long as a large part of the world is autocratic, interpreting the Russian-Ukrainian war as a clash between a democratic world and an authoritarian one will only serve to discourage non-Western and developing countries from supporting a pro-Ukrainian coalition. Japanese political scientist and professor at Keio University, Michito Tsuruoka, wrote back in June that this narrative is not only ineffective but false as the Russian invasion would be unjustifiable even if Ukraine were not a democracy. As a result, this emphasis indicates a certain "selectivity" of support rather than appealing to universal principles.

For countries of the Global South, the war in Ukraine appears to be a problem because of the socioeconomic instability it causes, Rutland writes. Rising energy and food prices and their likely political consequences worry Southeast Asia, African, and Latin American countries. However, they have largely been reluctant to blame Russia for this. On the contrary, the prevailing narrative places the blame on the West and the United States for provoking or failing to prevent this conflict and then also for imposing excessive sanctions on Russia. Rutland notes that the pro-Russian narrative dominates the Chinese media, the Arab world, and Africa, blaming the war on NATO expansion. The situation is similar in India. The anti-colonial narrative of resistance to the United States and Western hegemony has turned out to be more influential than the narrative of "defending a democracy attacked by an authoritarian despotism".

At the same time, that does not mean that every country of the Global South, and in particular their elites, take a pro-Russian stance. In crucial votes on war-related issues at the UN General Assembly, regional leaders — China, India, and South Africa — tend to abstain. Although, according to Michito Tsuruoka, leading non-Western countries do not want "the latest resolution [suspending Russia from the Human Rights Council] to be used as a precedent in other cases potentially affecting them in the future". In a March vote, Brazil was the only BRICS country to vote in favour of the resolution condemning Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. However, during the current Brazilian presidential campaign, the two front-runner candidates have been equivocal about the war. It is clear that joining the position of the Global West will not help either candidate to gain points in the presidential race,but neither will direct support for Russia. Rutland has also detected evidence of controversy regarding how much sympathy Chinese elites should demonstrate  for Russia, or how much they should distance themselves from events. However, even here, as anonline survey in the spring showed, in choosing a behavioural strategy, there is unconditional support from below for a pragmatic commitment to the "national interest", and joining Western sanctions is not in line with this.

The delicate balance of neutrality will not last long, the countries of Africa, Asia, and Latin America will pursue and expand pragmatic cooperation with Russia despite the sanctions, and this strategy will find support from below. Analysts assert that only a "repackaging" of the narrative of this war can alter this situation. Michito Tsuruoka believes the West should avoid excessive emphasis on "values" (of a conflict between democracy and authoritarianism). Rutland thinks that the narrative that will be best understood and accepted in the countries of the Global South will be the idea of aggressive violation of borders and territorial integrity in contravention of internationally recognised agreements. It is necessary to reframe the conflict as aggression by a "vengeful former colonial power" (Russia) against an independent and autonomous Ukraine. In other words, they should use the anti-colonial resentment, which is widespread across the Global South, to attract these countries and their populations to the side of Ukraine or, at the very least, to strengthen their distrust of Russia, for which there are legitimate prerequisites and grounds.

Voting on UN General Assembly Resolution on Russia's Aggression against Ukraine, March 2, 2022

In favour

Against (5)

Abstained (35)

Australia, Austria, Albania, Andorra, Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Afghanistan, Bahamas, Barbados, Bahrain, Belize, Belgium, Benin, Bulgaria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Botswana, Brazil, Brunei, Bhutan, Vanuatu, United Kingdom, Hungary, Gabon, Haiti, Guyana, Gambia, Ghana, Guatemala, Germany, Honduras, Grenada, Greece, Georgia, Denmark, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Djibouti, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Egypt, Zambia, Israel, Indonesia, Jordan, Ireland, Iceland, Spain, Italy , Yemen, Cape Verde, Cambodia, Canada, Qatar, Kenya, Cyprus, Kiribati, Colombia, Comoros, Costa Rica, Ivory Coast, Kuwait, Latvia, Lesotho, Liberia, Lebanon, Libya, Lithuania, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Mauritius, Mauritania, Malawi, Malaysia, Maldives, Malta, Marshall Islands, Mexico, Micronesia, Moldova, Monaco, Myanmar, Nauru, Nepal, Niger, Nigeria, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, UAE, Oman, Palau, Panama, Papua New Guinea, Paraguay, Peru, Poland, Portugal, Republic of Korea, Rwanda, Romania USA, Samoa, San Marino, Sao Tome and Principe, Saudi Arabia, North Macedonia, Seychelles, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Serbia, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, Solomons Islands, Somalia, Suriname, Sierra Leone, Thailand, Timor-Leste, Tonga, Trinidad and Tobago, Tuvalu, Tunisia, Turkey, Ukraine, Uruguay, Philippines, Fiji, Finland, France, Croatia, Chad, Montenegro, Czech Republic, Chile, Switzerland, Sweden, Ecuador, Estonia, Jamaica, Japan

Belarus, North Korea, Russia, Syria, Eritrea

Algeria, Angola, Armenia, Bangladesh, Bolivia, Burundi, Vietnam, Zimbabwe, India, Iraq, Iran, Kazakhstan, China, Republic of the Congo, Cuba, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Madagascar, Mali, Mozambique, Mongolia, Namibia, Nicaragua, Pakistan, El Salvador , Senegal, Sudan, Tajikistan, Tanzania, Uganda, CAR, Sri Lanka, Equatorial Guinea, South Africa, South Sudan

Voting on UN General Assembly Resolution on Suspending Russia's Membership of the Human Rights Council, April 7, 2022

In favour

Against (24)

Abstained (57)

Australia, Austria, Albania, Andorra, Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Bahamas, Belgium, Bulgaria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, United Kingdom, Hungary, Haiti, Guatemala, Germany, Honduras, Grenada, Greece, Georgia, Denmark, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Israel, Ireland, Iceland, Spain, Italy, Canada, Cyprus, Kiribati, Colombia, Comoros, Costa Rica, Ivory Coast, Latvia, Liberia, Libya, Lithuania, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Mauritius, Malawi, Malta, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Moldova, Monaco, Myanmar, Nauru, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Palau, Panama, Papua New Guinea, Paraguay, Peru, Poland, Portugal, Republic of Korea, Romania, Samoa, San Marino, North Macedonia, Seychelles, Saint Lucia, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, USA, Sierra Leone, Timor Leste, Tonga, Tuvalu, Turkey, Ukraine, Uruguay, Fiji, Philippines, Finland, France, Croatia, Chad, Montenegro, Czech Republic, Chile, Switzerland, Sweden, Ecuador, Estonia, Jamaica, Japan

Algeria, Belarus, Bolivia, Burundi, Vietnam, Gabon, Zimbabwe, Iran, Kazakhstan, China, Congo, Cuba, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Mali, Nicaragua, Russia, North Korea, Syria, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, CAR, Eritrea, Ethiopia

Angola, Bangladesh, Barbados, Bahrain, Belize, Botswana, Brazil, Brunei, Bhutan, Vanuatu, Guyana, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Jordan, Iraq, Yemen, Cape Verde, Cambodia, Cameroon, Qatar, Kenya, Kuwait, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malaysia, Maldives, Mexico, Mozambique, Mongolia, Namibia, Nepal, Niger, Nigeria, UAE, Oman, Pakistan, El Salvador, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Singapore, Sudan , Suriname, Thailand, Tanzania, Togo, Trinidad and Tobago, Tunisia, Uganda, Sri Lanka, Eswatini, South Africa, South Sudan