In the late 1990s, at a time when U.S. global dominance still looked invincible, Singaporean diplomat and academic Kishore Mahbubani raised questions about whether a rising Asia might thwart American hegemony in the near future.
The crux of Mahbubani’s argument — laid out in his provocatively titled 1998 book, “Can Asians Think?” — was that Western elites, then flush with their victory in the Cold War, had become overly comfortable with dictating the bounds of legitimate debate and sound policy to the rest of the world. That imperious relationship, which had existed since the colonial period, was about to come to an end, said Mahbubani. Asians and other non-Westerners had their own ideas about how the world should be run and would soon have the strength to implement them.
A few decades later, the war in Ukraine is revealing how right Mahbubani was. Despite the browbeating of U.S. politicians to take a side in the conflict, a growing number of Asian, African, and Latin American countries have charted a neutral path. China, India, Brazil, Turkey, Indonesia, South Africa, and even Mexico have remained aloof, resisting calls to diplomatically isolate Russia or join the campaign to sanction its economy. Asian companies have remained in Russia even as their Western counterparts have departed en masse. At the United Nations, meanwhile, a bevy of African states, largest among them South Africa, have abstained from resolutions aimed at ostracizing Russian President Vladimir Putin for the invasion.
The neutral stance of these countries has evidently come as a shock to many Western elites, long accustomed to instructing other nations on what geopolitical positions they must take.
The way the West corralled support as the only superpower during and after the Cold War, in other words, is no longer effective.
India offers the best example of just how much this posture of self-interested neutrality has caught U.S. elites unawares. Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, an exemplar of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, denounced India for its neutral stance. Haass, apparently unaware of his patronizing tone, said that India’s refusal to side against Russia proved that the country of 1.2 billion people “remains unprepared to step up to major power responsibilities or be a dependable partner.” President Joe Biden similarly criticized India for being “shaky” in its response to Russia, compared with European Union countries and Japan, which have rallied to the Ukrainian cause.
American leaders have long hoped that India would be willing to serve as a partner in helping the U.S. contain China and uphold the U.S.-backed liberal order. As it turns out, India has its own interests to pursue. It is a major customer of Russian arms and energy, enjoying a long relationship with Moscow going back to the Cold War. Morality aside, there are concrete, material reasons that Indians would not want to sacrifice these ties simply to win praise in Washington.
India is far from the only country that has remained studiously neutral over Ukraine. In a development that visibly irritated U.S. diplomats, a large number of African countries are also choosing to stand on the sidelines. Following a U.N. vote condemning Russia for its invasion from which 17 African nations chose to abstain, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield criticized the countries for their alleged failure to understand the gravity of the situation, paying no mind to their own commercial or security ties with Russia and practically demanding that they take a stance that follows the American position:
I think what I make of it is that we have to do additional work to help these countries to understand the impact of Russia’s war of aggression on Ukraine, and I think that we have done some of that work already in terms of engaging with those countries. I think many of them saw an abstention as being neutral, and there is no neutral ground here. There is no question. … You cannot stand on the sidelines and watch the aggression that we see taking place in Ukraine and say you’re going to be neutral about it.
Like India, African nations of course have their own interests in the conflict separate from those of the United States. Many of them have good relations with Russia and have built critical economic and political ties with Putin’s government. Russia is a major provider of raw materials like wheat and also enjoys genuine popularity as an alternative to the West for investment and security support. While many Western countries pledged to take in Ukrainian refugees over the past month, Africans living in Europe have suffered racism at border crossings while trying to flee the conflict themselves — something that has become a major issue of concern for many Africans, including diplomats, but was ignored by Thomas-Greenfield in her comments calling on the African nations to get in line.
In an article criticizing the U.S. ambassador’s remarks, Africa scholar Ebenezer Obadare pointed out that Thomas-Greenfield had treated Africans as effectively “moral adolescents who require Western supervision in order to understand and do what is right,” demanding their support for the U.S. position on Ukraine while failing to account for their own interests or perspectives. There is still time for U.S. officials to try a new approach, Obadare said. It is unclear, though, whether diplomats from a superpower accustomed to having its way around the world are capable of a more nuanced approach.
The irony of an independent, nonaligned world order emerging at this precise moment to buck the U.S. is that the American position on the war in Ukraine is built on a strong moral case. U.S. leaders are right to criticize Russia for a brutal, unprovoked invasion of a sovereign country. The use of naked force to coerce a democracy into sacrificing its independence is a dangerous development that there is legitimate reason to condemn. Yet after decades of aggression and abuses of its own, much of the world seems to have concluded that U.S. credibility has run dry on such matters.
Rather than lining up with one or another bloc, as they were forced to in the Cold War, we are instead seeing the emergence of a genuinely post-American world. Many of the countries now thumbing their nose at the U.S., including aspiring great powers like India and China, are guilty of their own grave human rights abuses. Yet it is unlikely that they will ever return to their prior roles as supplicants or followers of the West.
Years ago, Mahbubani, the Singaporean diplomat and author, already saw the shape of this world that is now clearly coming into view. Through a mixture of error and inevitability, the West was going into decline, and many of the values it had brought into existence would decline along with it.
For better or worse, whatever comes next will be a clean break from the past several centuries of Western hegemony, not just in politics but in culture and ideas as well.
“Western values do not form a seamless web. Some are good. Some are bad,” Mahbubani wrote. “But one has to stand outside the West to see this clearly, and to see how the West’s relative decline is being brought about by its own hand.”