This week I saw first-hand the impact on civilians of the war in Ukraine. While travelling through the country I visited International Rescue Committee teams on the ground and heard the testimony of Ukrainians fleeing the fighting.
It would be comforting to think that the war in Ukraine has united the world in horror. Comforting, but wrong. So as the Western world mobilises to help Ukraine to defend itself and offers humanitarian support, it needs to work through the wider geopolitics.
Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has been widely described as a wake-up call for the West. Despite the squalls of Brexit, the divisions of the French election and the re-election of Viktor Orbán as prime minister of Hungary, the invasion has produced greater unity and action from the liberal democratic world than many thought possible.
The EU has unanimously adopted a progressive policy towards the rights of five million refugees to stay, work and access services — though notably only for Ukrainians. Aided by a sure-footed and collaborative US administration, there have been massive economic sanctions, a new alignment of climate and natural security-driven policies to end dependence on Russian oil and gas, and new security agreements, including weapon flows to Ukraine and prospective applicants for Nato membership in Scandinavia.
Despite the show of Western unity, two thirds of the world’s population lives in countries that are officially neutral or supportive of Russia, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit. These countries do not fit into a convenient “axis of autocracy”, as they include South Africa, India and Brazil. Their shrug, rather than shock, relates to a number of factors.
There is the point that impunity is perceived to be the province of many strong countries, not just Russia. So the charge of hypocrisy is present. There is the allegation of double standards relating to conflict and victims of war, because of US involvement in places like Afghanistan or Yemen, for example. There are the interests that bind countries to Russia, for example through its arms industry. And there is fear of being caught on one side of a stand-off between the US and China.
The G7 meeting next month, hosted by Germany and comprising seven crucial countries of the democratic world plus the EU, could have an enormous effect on the wider global picture if the following four areas are put on the agenda.
First, the framing of the argument over Ukraine is important. The Western, democratic tilt of Ukraine, especially over the last decade, has been a source of irritation and fear in Moscow. But there are limitations to framing the Ukraine crisis as emblematic of a “democracy versus autocracy” battle. It is the rule of law under the hammer, not just a democratic state.
Framing the conflict as a fundamental attack on the rule of law broadens the potential coalition of support, so that countries like Singapore, which has taken a very strong stand against the breach of the sovereignty of Ukraine, would feel at home. And it tests China at its weakest point, namely its purported support of a rules-based system.
Second, there is a pressing need to get the liberal democratic house in order when it comes to foreign engagement. The charge of double standards needs to be addressed systematically, from development aid to military partnerships to climate change and human rights. A good start would be, for instance, the treatment of asylum seekers along the US and EU’s borders, or an end to the economic isolation sending Afghanistan into further humanitarian distress.
Third, the G7 needs to show that it is not just willing to pay homage to the goals of a rules-based international order, but to strengthen it for the modern world. In addition to changes to the aid architecture, there must be an agenda for reform in the way humanitarian access is protected, war crimes are investigated and prosecuted, and the UN Security Council deals with cases of mass atrocity. The G7 should not be frightened of the debate about the future of the UN that Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, has proposed.
Fourth, take seriously the challenge from the Global South that Western engagement is episodic and erratic when it needs to be strategic and consistent. Countries in these regions are desperately exposed by the inabilty of the world to deliver “global public goods” — from health and economic security to support for refugee-hosting states. This is part of a broader “system failure” detailed in the IRC’s 2022 Emergency Watchlist: states failing in their duties to their citizens, diplomacy failing to resolve conflicts, the legal regime failing to uphold protections for civilians, and humanitarian operations failing to fill the widening gap. The “swing voters” in the international system want to see more from the G7 to address this system failure.
There is a clear and urgent priority that links to Ukraine, including the growing food crisis in large parts of the developing world. At the moment the risk is that sanctions, rather than invasion, get the blame. G7 leaders can combat this perception by urgently ramping up investments in agri-food systems in vulnerable countries and regions around the world, such as the Horn of Africa.
Joschka Fischer, the former German foreign minister, described the 1941 Atlantic Charter as the “birth certificate of the West”. He meant that its commitments to human rights and free trade marked the birth of a movement distinguished by a political vision not geography. But one big difference between 1941 and today is that the West as a geopolitical entity has less diplomatic, security and economic influence relative to the rest of the world. The shock of the Ukraine crisis cannot turn back the clock, but it can set in motion a much-needed change of approach.