The four years of the Trump administration left the United States estranged from its most important allies and reinforced perceptions of diminished U.S. leadership abroad. This tumultuous period for American democracy raised doubts among partners regarding the durability and reliability of U.S. moral leadership. It also revealed a credibility gap, stemming from perceived inconsistencies in the application of liberal norms. Russia, among other autocracies, have been all too eager to discredit the United States by exploiting these democratic deficits, which—for many parts of the world—embody the contradictions and limitations of U.S. foreign policy.
Against this background, Russia’s narrative of the war has found an audience. Rather than recognizing Russia’s aggression in Ukraine as a violation of the country’s sovereignty and an assault on democratic norms, this alternative narrative holds that the United States and its allies are intensifying the conflict and destabilizing international peace and security.
In their recent visit to Ukraine and Russia, an all-African peace delegation—including several African heads of state—refrained from assigning responsibility to Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. Senegalese President Macky Sall captured this sentiment, stating, “We don’t want to be aligned on this conflict … Very clearly, we want peace … That’s the African position.” Brazil’s President Lula da Silva has taken the position even further, holding that not just Putin—but also the United State and the European Union—are responsible for the war. Their hedging, while troubling in its attempt to provide cover for the criminal Russian invasion, nonetheless resonates with many in the Global South.
In a March 2022 vote at the U.N. General Assembly condemning Russia’s illegal invasion, several countries in the Global South—including India and South Africa—chose to abstain. Amid reports of atrocities, a subsequent April 2022 vote to expel Russia from the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC) netted even more abstentions, this time from regional heavyweights Brazil and Mexico. Shortly after the UNHRC vote, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador articulated his reservations, noting, “We do not want to participate either for or against, we do not want to get involved.”
The Russian-backed narrative—which portrays supporting Ukraine as endorsing U.S. power projection—has served as a convenient pretext for Delhi, Pretoria, and Brasília to avoid condemnation of the war. Against the context of historic injustices; perceived biases in global institutions; and their own aspirations for greater influence, these countries are navigating a delicate diplomatic landscape.
The hard truth is that the United States has struggled to present a persuasive, affirmative case for the rules-based international order, particularly in a world where China and other emerging powers offer alternative models of governance and development. From international trade to climate change, and even in areas like agriculture and industrial policy, many in the Global South find themselves on the receiving end of an altogether different set of rules. In an increasingly multipolar world where an ascendant China offers an alternative axis of influence, many countries seek to navigate these emergent power dynamics without being forced to pick sides.
The consequences are far-reaching. As the United States grapples with its own internal divisions and an inability to effectively muster support for its leadership on Ukraine, it risks losing its ability to shape global norms and institutions––a risk that became a reality after the administration greenlighted the delivery of cluster munitions to Ukraine.
Delivering a recent speech in Warsaw, Poland, President Biden asserted, “And now in the perennial struggle for democracy and freedom, Ukraine and its people are in the front lines.” While the rise of autocracy is indeed a pressing global issue—with evidence from organizations such as V-Dem and Freedom House indicating significant democratic backsliding in recent years––the dichotomy may ring hollow in the parts of the world where the West is hardly viewed as the standard bearer for democracy.
The Biden administration’s framing risks coming across as disingenuous. Fiona Hill—a former official in the National Security Council—keenly observed in her dissection of U.S. foreign policy that America’s allies and adversaries, but most importantly the American public, have long detected the difference between America’s aims and its actions.* Indeed, this inconsistency has nurtured a mistrust both at home and abroad at exactly the moment when U.S. leadership is most needed to address a slew of global security challenges.
Working toward greater inclusivity
To ensure sustained international support for Ukraine, the United States should recognize that many states see benefits in aligning with Russia over the West—or, at the very least, have little to lose by playing both sides.
Committing to a global order where the U.S. truly advances liberal democratic ideals will not only lend credence to Washington’s interest in defending democracy worldwide but, more practically, can offer important incentives as the United States seeks to shore up international support for Ukraine. These commitments should be structured around three pillars that enhance inclusivity and bolster participation in international political and economic decision-making structures: U.N. Security Council (UNSC) reform; greater cooperation with international legal institutions; and urgent debt relief for the world’s LDCs.
First and foremost, UNSC reform can help address grievous representational deficits. Increasing the number of permanent seats––a step President Biden endorsed in his remarks at the U.N. General Assembly last year––would not only encourage a more balanced representation at the U.N. Security Council, it would also help build a shared sense of responsibility among member states. In turn, these member states would be more likely to support collective action in response to acts of aggression.
Second, the United States should expand its cooperation with international legal institutions, specifically the International Criminal Court (ICC). Most immediately and tactically, the United States should explore ways to cooperate with the ICC’s ongoing investigation into alleged Russian war crimes in Ukraine by supporting warrants of arrest and endorsing their mandate to hold individuals, including high-ranking state officials, accountable for serious international crimes. To these ends, the Defense Department should take all necessary steps to comply with existing U.S. law and hand over evidence of Russian war crimes to ICC investigators.
More strategically, ratifying the Rome Statute and recognizing the jurisdiction of the ICC would demonstrate a commitment to the principles of justice and accountability outlined in the U.N. Charter and promote the universality of international law.
Third, the United States should champion significant debt relief for the world’s LDCs. In doing so, the United States can play a leading role in fostering global economic stability, alleviating poverty, and encouraging sustainable development. These efforts are especially significant at a time when the world is grappling with severe socioeconomic strains, largely amplified by the ongoing war in Ukraine. The war has led to rising food prices and scarcity of other essential resources, exacerbating an already acute global hunger crisis.
Debt relief for LDCs would bolster the United States’ standing in the Global South. By leading the charge on debt forgiveness, the United States can demonstrate its commitment to economic equity and its willingness to address the systemic imbalances that often disadvantage developing nations. Moreover, it would send a powerful signal that U.S. interests extend far beyond supporting Ukraine militarily and encompass a broader commitment to global development and democracy.
By ensuring more voices are heard through UNSC reform; upholding the rule of law through enhanced cooperation with the ICC; and fostering economic stability through debt relief, the international community can build stronger foundations of trust and collaboration and provide powerful incentives for supporting democracies worldwide. Ultimately, such an approach could help create the conditions for a global community more inclined to collective action in response to acts of aggression, irrespective of the parties involved. By embracing these principles, we can begin to reshape the prevailing narrative around Ukraine and move away from the divisive “West versus the Rest” binary.
* Correction, August 16, 2023: This article has been updated to reflect that the author’s original analysis was misattributed as a quotation of another individual.