Out of Alignment

U.S. President Joe Biden in a virtual meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, April 2022. Kevin Lamarque / Reuters / Foreign Affairs illustration
U.S. President Joe Biden in a virtual meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, April 2022. Kevin Lamarque / Reuters / Foreign Affairs illustration

For the past year, many Western analysts have regarded the war in Ukraine as marking a turning point in geopolitics, bringing together not only the United States and its NATO allies but also a broader liberal coalition to counter Russian aggression. In this view, countries around the world should naturally support the West in this defining contest between democracy and autocracy.

Beyond the borders of North America and Europe, however, the past 12 months have looked very different. At the outset of the war, numerous countries in the global South identified with neither the West nor Russia. Several dozen—including such large democracies as India, Indonesia, and South Africa, as well as numerous other countries in Africa—abstained from resolutions condemning Russia at the UN General Assembly and in the UN Human Rights Council. Many of them have also been reluctant to formally adopt the West’s economic sanctions against Russia while respecting them in practice, and as the war has unfolded, some of them have sought to maintain relations with Russia as much as with the West.

Moreover, in many parts of the world, the most crucial issues of 2022 had little to do with the war in Ukraine. Emerging from the havoc of the pandemic and confronted by far-reaching challenges ranging from debt crises to a slowing world economy to climate change, many developing countries have been alienated by what they view as the self-absorption of the West and of China and Russia. For them, the war in Ukraine is about the future of Europe, not the future of the world order, and the war has become a distraction from the more pressing global issues of our time.

Yet despite this disillusionment, a coherent third way, a clear alternative to current great-power rivalry, has yet to emerge. Instead, these countries have sought to work with present realities, respecting Western sanctions on Russia, for instance, in an international system that no longer inspires much faith in its relevance to their security and economic concerns. In this sense, for many parts of the globe, a year of war in Ukraine has done less to redefine the world order than to set it further adrift, raising new questions about how urgent transnational challenges can be met.

GREATER RIVALRY, DIMINISHED POWER

A year of war in Ukraine has weakened the world order in two important ways. First, the Russian invasion, combined with the continuing effects of the pandemic and the global economic slowdown, diminished all the great powers in both power and prestige. The diminution was most apparent for Russia itself: in the unanticipated course of the war, in the country’s increasing economic and political isolation, and in the acceleration of its decline. It was least evident in the United States, which has managed to respond forcefully to the war without involving its own forces or causing serious escalation while strengthening Western unity and staying focused on the main game in Asia.

Worries remain, however, about the United States being distracted by Ukraine from its roles elsewhere, particularly in the Middle East and Africa. The precipitate withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 also raised questions about U.S. staying power and perseverance, especially now as it enters a new presidential electoral cycle. Nor has its own domestic politics permitted the United States to provide constructive leadership to the international multilateral system. For Europe, the war has limited its ability to play a broader global role, given its preoccupation with European order for the foreseeable future, regardless of whether the war ends in victory for either side or in a protracted frozen conflict.

China, too, has been taxed by the war. Because of its secondary effects on the world economy, on China’s own energy and food imports, and on China’s virtual alliance with Russia, the war has limited Beijing’s influence abroad. Unlike other permanent members of the UN Security Council, China has not played a meaningful political or military role in the Ukraine crisis. Other middle powers outside Europe have experienced similar effects. But in China’s case, two additional factors have been at play. One was Beijing’s domestic preoccupation through much of the year with its own economic slowdown and its need to project a smooth buildup to the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in October. The other was China’s “zero COVID” policy, which compounded its inward fixation. Together, these domestic concerns reinforced the effects of China’s unproductive “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy, which created an inability to find negotiated solutions to bilateral disputes or to play a meaningful role on transnational issues such as climate change and the developing-country debt crisis.

It is not yet certain how China and the other powers will respond to their straitened circumstances. Since the party congress, China seems to be attempting to restore some balance in important relationships with Australia, Europe, and the United States. But Beijing’s domestic imperatives to reignite economic growth and to control the social and political fallout of its COVID-19 policies are likely to take precedence and limit meaningful shifts away from its recent assertive actions in maritime Asia and its land border with India.

The second effect of a year of war is that economic policies of major powers such as China, the United States, and Europe are now shaped by politics as much as by economics. Today, in many cases, security of supply and political interests take priority over price considerations in global manufacturing and value chains. “Friend shoring” and onshoring are being driven by political considerations rather than by economic responses to the changing situation. Although globalized markets have limited the extent of decoupling between China and the United States, they have not prevented strong efforts by both countries to reduce mutual dependence in strategic sectors such as semiconductor manufacturing, artificial intelligence, energy, and rare-earth metals.

The response of countries that have hitherto relied on their economic strength for global influence has varied. Japan is now making a transition to stronger defense and security policies that are better suited for today’s challenges, giving it a more balanced stance that emphasizes political and military power, too. Germany’s government speaks of a Zeitenwende, or historic turning point. And China, a global economic power that is militarily and politically constrained in its own neighborhood, has recalibrated both the nature of its engagement abroad and the way that it projects that engagement to its own people and to the world. Meanwhile, Europe and many countries in the global South pay an economic price for the West’s unprecedented sanctions against Moscow, and recession looms in some of the world’s most important economies.

ALIENATED AND UNALIGNED

As much as the war has affected relations between the major powers, the effect of a weakening world order is also profound on countries outside the West. One year later, these countries seek alternatives to the present order, but a clear third way, whether economically or politically, has yet to emerge. A growing debt crisis has affected over 50 countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America since before the pandemic, according to the International Monetary Fund. This limits the developing world’s ability to strike out on an independent economic path. Indeed, most countries have respected the sanctions on Russia in practice.

Politically, too, the present situation inhibits the emergence of a single or coherent third way akin to the Non-Aligned Movement during the Cold War. A crucial difference is that today, unlike in the Cold War, there is no bipolar order. For all the talk of autocracies and democracies facing off against each other, economic interdependence between China and the United States and the reality of a globalized economy mean that the world does not have a clear two-part division offering opportunities for traditional balancing. Instead, it is a world in which great-power rivalry is not between two superpowers but among multiple players. As a result, the multisided competition and great-power rivalry have led many countries in the global South to be unaligned rather than nonaligned, dissociated from the present order and seeking their own independent solutions rather than an alternative set of widely held approaches to global issues.

Alienated and resentful, many developing countries see the war in Ukraine and the West’s rivalry with China as distracting from urgent issues such as debt, climate change, and the effects of the pandemic. Take South Asia. Three countries in the region—Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka—have been in talks with the IMF for more than a year about adjustment packages to deal with their debt. And over the last 18 months, five countries in the region—Afghanistan, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka—have also changed governments, and not always smoothly or constitutionally. Sri Lanka defaulted on its international debts in April 2022. During the summer, one-fifth of Pakistan’s population was rendered homeless by floods inundating one-third of the country—a devastating consequence of climate change. Neither international institutions, nor the West, nor its Chinese and Russian rivals, have found or offered meaningful solutions to these problems.

Great-power rivalry complicates the task of addressing such issues. In dealing with Sri Lanka’s debt, for instance, the West is naturally reluctant to pay for Sri Lanka to settle accounts with China, the country’s largest creditor. For its part, Beijing is waiting for the rest of the international community to act, worried that if it moves to reschedule Sri Lanka’s debt, it will set a precedent for other countries that have taken on significant loans in China’s $1 trillion Belt and Road Initiative, many of which are only marginally more solvent than Sri Lanka. Indeed, the situation in South Asia is paralleled in many other parts of the developing world. Many countries now feel that they have been left to their own devices in the absence of a working multilateral system or international order. But this malaise has yet to produce a coherent or organized response.

INDIA’S OPPORTUNITY?

All in all, the war in Ukraine and the growing rivalry between China and the United States has produced a fluid situation for countries outside the United States and Europe. For some larger and more powerful middle powers, there are new opportunities in this uncertain world. India, for example, can work with neighbors to build the peaceful and more prosperous periphery that its own development demands. It can participate in the remaking of the rules of the international system now underway, particularly in new domains such as cyberspace. And it can reengage economically with the dynamic economies of Asia, participating in global value chains, to further its own transformation.

But many smaller states are more vulnerable than ever. And overall systemic risk is higher than it has been for many decades. That heightened risk is less about the prospect of a direct great-power conflict: as the first year of the war in Ukraine and the aftermath of former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August have shown, the United States and other great powers are capable of avoiding direct conflict among themselves. But their ability to contain local conflicts, or even to get their way in their own neighborhoods, has been constrained by their rivalry and by the demands of a globalized economy. It is also limited in Asia in particular by the fact that power in the region is much more evenly distributed than it was during the Cold War or the subsequent unipolar moment of U.S. dominance.

With India chairing the G-20 in 2023, New Delhi may be tempted to try to mediate between Ukraine and Russia, though that seems unlikely to produce results for now. A more fruitful way ahead would be for India to bring the concerns of the global South to the forefront of the international agenda. For the time being, however, it seems likely that the international system will continue to drift. Amid a prolonged war and continued great-power rivalry, the coming year is unlikely to see more than incremental progress in addressing the urgent issues that preoccupy much of the developing world.

Shivshankar Menon is Visiting Professor of International Relations at Ashoka University. From 2010 to 2014, he served as National Security Adviser to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

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