Neutralism returns — and gets more powerful

Several countries that haven’t gone along with the West’s sanctions on Russia are beginning to join forces.

Make way for the Abstainers. It’s the new band in town, though they play geopolitics, not music.

When the United Nations voted to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, 35 countries, representing half the world’s population, abstained. Soon afterward the UN passed an American-backed resolution to suspend Russia from the UN Human Rights Council. Fifty-eight countries abstained.

War in Ukraine has galvanized the US-led NATO. It has also, however, led a growing number of countries to conclude that they have no stake in a European conflict or a confrontation with Russia. President Biden summons them to “the battle between democracy and autocracy,” but they remain noncombatants. When pressed to support NATO’s campaign against Russia, they reply, like Bartleby the Scrivener, “I would prefer not to.”

There have always been countries unwilling to follow America’s lead in the world. What is new is their eagerness to join together. A bloc is emerging that may become a robust global force in coming decades. The recent meeting of Russian, Turkish, and Iranian leaders foreshadows it. This would be one of the farthest-reaching consequences of the Ukraine war.

One new axis of power is likely to be the partnership known as BRICS, which groups together Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. Founded in 2006 to promote trade among its members, it is morphing into a political bloc and planning its first expansion. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Argentina, and Iran want to join.

Iran is also set to join Eurasia’s other major axis of Abstainers, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Its original members were China, Russia, and four Central Asian republics. Pakistan joined in 2017, and Iran is to be admitted next year. The combined size and strength of these quasi-alliances makes them potent challengers to American power in the world.

Even some countries whose support we have usually had in the past, like Israel, Mexico, and Indonesia, have refused to join us in sanctioning Russia. So have almost all African and Latin American countries. The Ukraine war has made them more skeptical of the United States and more reluctant to support American positions in the world.

Many countries recoil from us-versus-them confrontations like the one Biden is now promoting. They prefer to resolve disputes through compromise and to maintain good ties even with countries they fear or dislike. Besides, Biden’s insistence that he is leading a global war against autocracy is hard to take seriously as he kowtows to Saudi Arabia, where dissent is punished by beheading or dismemberment.

A second reason more countries are drifting away from the United States is that to many of them, we seem unreliable. In recent years our foreign policies have zigzagged wildly. Written accords with other countries appear and disappear according to election results. Add our acute domestic problems to this mix, and it’s easy to understand why some countries feel reluctant to hitch their wagon to our star.

One recent American step has especially spooked several large countries. As soon as war broke out in Ukraine, we and our allies froze billions of dollars that Russia keeps in Western banks. Other countries fear they might suffer the same fate if they one day fall afoul of the United States. To prevent that, they are looking for other places to park their money and imagining banking networks outside of Washington’s control. Saudi Arabia is negotiating with China to price its oil in yuan as well as dollars. Iran’s stock market opened a legal exchange this month for trading the Iranian and Russian currencies.

Perhaps most important, few countries want to weaken their relations with Russia or China. Russia provides many countries with vital goods from oil to fertilizer. China is reaping the fruits of two decades of intense engagement with countries the United States either ignores or takes for granted. China is now the largest trading partner of both Africa and Latin America. Its multi-trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative aims to draw more than 70 countries into its sphere. Biden’s counter-project was something he called Build Back Better World, which the White House said “will collectively catalyze hundreds of billions of dollars of infrastructure investment for low- and middle-income countries.” Since that announcement a year ago, Congress killed the idea, and the White House no longer mentions it.

Few countries among the Abstainers support Russia’s action in Ukraine. They simply want to pursue their own national interests and stay out of big-power conflicts. This is hardly a new impulse. In 1954, leaders of 29 African and Asian countries representing most of the world’s people met in Bandung, Indonesia, to form what became the Non-Aligned Movement. The United States refused to recognize or acknowledge the conference, but it unleashed forces that still reverberate around much of the world.

Throughout the Cold War, American leaders sought to crush the threat they called “neutralism.” They failed. Today the United States confronts a similar challenge, but we are less powerful and perhaps less attractive than we were then. We face a difficult choice.

One option would be to curb our overseas crusades, compromise with Russia and China, and concentrate on rebuilding our own country. That would mean accepting a new world order in which we would be less dominant than at any time in the last 75 years — quite unpalatable both politically and strategically. Yet if we insist on trying to maintain our top-dog status forever, we will periodically have to use the kinds of coercion that much of the world now rejects. Either course is likely to strengthen the Abstainers.

Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.

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