View from São Paulo: “Influential developing countries can never be true insiders in the liberal international order”

12:04 12.05.2023 •

As countries in the global South refuse to take a side in the war in Ukraine, many in the West are struggling to understand why. Some speculate that these countries have opted for neutrality out of economic interest. Others see ideological alignments with Moscow and Beijing behind their unwillingness to take a stand — or even a lack of morals. But the behavior of large developing countries can be explained by something much simpler: the desire to avoid being trampled in a brawl among China, Russia and the United States, writes Matias Spektor, a Professor of International Relations at Fundação Getulio Vargas in São Paulo and a Visiting Scholar at Princeton University.

Across the globe, from India to Indonesia, Brazil to Turkey, Nigeria to South Africa, developing countries are increasingly seeking to avoid costly entanglements with the major powers, trying to keep all their options open for maximum flexibility. These countries are pursuing a strategy of hedging because they see the future distribution of global power as uncertain and wish to avoid commitments that will be hard to discharge. With limited resources with which to influence global politics, developing countries want to be able to quickly adapt their foreign policies to unpredictable circumstances.

In the context of the war in Ukraine, hedgers reason that it is too early to dismiss Russia’s staying power. Russia will remain a major force to reckon with in the foreseeable future and a necessary player in negotiating an end to the war. Most countries in the global South also see a total Russian defeat as undesirable, contending that a broken Russia would open a power vacuum wide enough to destabilize countries far beyond Europe.

Western countries have been too quick to dismiss this rationale for neutrality, viewing it as an implicit defense of Russia or as an excuse to normalize aggression. In Washington and various European capitals, the global South’s response to the war in Ukraine is seen as making an already difficult problem harder. But such frustrations with hedgers are misguided — the West is ignoring the opportunity created by large developing countries’ growing disillusionment with the policies of Beijing and Moscow.

As long as these countries feel a need to hedge their bets, the West will have an opportunity to court them. But to improve relations with developing countries and manage the evolving global order, the West must take the concerns of the global South — on climate change, trade, and much else — seriously.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, for example, has developed strong diplomatic and commercial ties with China, Russia and the United States simultaneously. For Modi, hedging acts as an insurance policy. Should conflict erupt among the major powers, India could profit by aligning with the most powerful side or joining a coalition of weaker states to deter the strongest one.

Under President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, for example, Brazil has declined European requests to send military equipment to Kyiv. Lula reasoned that refusing to criticize Moscow would impede dialogue with U.S. President Joe Biden, and selling weapons to the Western coalition would undermine his ability to talk to Russian President Vladimir Putin. As a result, Brazilian officials have made boilerplate calls for an end to the fighting without doing anything that might trigger a backlash from either Washington or Moscow.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has publicly affirmed support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sent Kyiv humanitarian aid. But his government has avoided being drawn into the conflict, despite Turkey being a NATO member with strong and valuable ties to the United States and the EU. Erdogan recognizes that Turkey cannot afford to alienate Russia because Moscow wields influence over areas of major interest to Ankara, including the Caucasus, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Syria.

Indonesia under President Joko Widodo has courted Chinese and Western investment to reverse two decades of deindustrialization. Because taking sides in the war in Ukraine could jeopardize these plans, he has studiously sought to stand above the fray. In 2022, he was one of only a few world leaders to have met with Biden, Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Since hedgers value freedom of action, they may form partnerships of convenience to pursue specific foreign policy objectives, but they are unlikely to forge general alliances. This differentiates today’s hedgers from nonaligned countries during the Cold War. Amid the bipolar competition of that era, nonaligned developing states rallied around a shared identity to demand greater economic justice, racial equality, and the end of colonial rule. To that end, they formed enduring coalitions in multilateral institutions.

By contrast, hedging today is about avoiding the pressure to choose between China, Russia, and the United States. It is a response to the rise of a new, multipolar world.

For countries in the global South, hedging is not just a way to extract material concessions. The strategy is informed by these countries’ histories with the great powers and their conviction that the United States, in particular, has been hypocritical in its dealings with the developing world.

The developing world also sees hypocrisy in Washington’s framing of its competition with Beijing and Moscow as a battle between democracy and autocracy. After all, the United States continues to selectively back authoritarian governments when it serves U.S. interests. Of the 50 countries that Freedom House counts as “dictatorships,” 35 received military aid from the U.S. government in 2021. It should be no surprise, then, that many in the global South view the West’s pro-democracy rhetoric as motivated by self-interest rather than a genuine commitment to liberal values.

People in developing countries remember the post-Cold War unipolar moment as a violent time — with wars in Afghanistan, the Balkans, and Iraq. Unipolarity also coincided with the unsettling influx of global capital into eastern Europe, Latin America, and Southeast Asia. As the scholar Nuno Monteiro warned, when U.S. hegemony is unchecked, Washington becomes capricious, picking fights against recalcitrant states or letting peripheral regional conflicts fester.

The United States must also drop the expectation that the global South will automatically follow the West. Large and influential developing countries can never be true insiders in the liberal international order. They will, therefore, seek to pursue their own interests and values within international institutions and contest Western understandings of legitimacy and fairness.


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