What kind of geopolitics are needed to overcome today’s challenges?

Will support for the West's cause in Ukraine lead to a more egalitarian and consistent rules-based world order? Or will it reinforce the hierarchical status quo, characterised by the selective compliance with international law across different wars and occupations? That has been the question on the minds of many of us in the Global South since the outbreak of the Ukraine war in February 2022.

The answer has been on full display since the start of Israel's latest war on Gaza, triggered by the Hamas attack on 7 October 2023. The result has been an ongoing collapse of confidence in the so-called 'rules-based international order', not only in the eyes of the Global South but also in the eyes of many feminist, environmentalist and human rights movements around the world, who are appalled at their Western counterparts' treatment of the Palestinians.

Popular anger continues to rage against the liberal notion of humanity that values civilian lives differently across different wars and occupations. After Israel's siege and destruction of the Indonesian Hospital in northern Gaza in November last year, the Indonesian aid organisation that ran the hospital, published a searing open letter to US President Joe Biden, stating: "You have destroyed the international rules of the game, insulted the authority of the United Nations (UN), torn apart the sense of justice, hurt human values, and tarnished the face of human civilization."

One month earlier, King Abdullah II of Jordan had spoken against the West's unabashed renunciation of international law when it comes to the Palestinian people: "The message that the Arab world is hearing is loud and clear. Palestinian lives matter less than Israeli ones. Our lives matter less than other lives. The application of the international laws is optional. Human rights have boundaries, they stop at borders, at races, at religions.

"That is a very, very dangerous message, as the consequences of continued international apathy and inaction will be catastrophic - on us all."

Yet when Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, the West was unequivocal in its condemnation. Even in the Global South, shock and repugnance were common beneath the layers of official neutrality. Two UN General Assembly (UNGA) resolutions to this effect were passed on 2 and 24 March 2022, relying on widespread support - or at least abstention - from the Global South.

Among the major abstainers, including China, India, Iran, Pakistan and South Africa - discomfort with openly endorsing Russia's invasion stemmed from the country's undeniable violation of the UN Charter and international law, but also how the West's unilateral sanctions and weaponisation of various multilateral institutions and the global economy - from the scrambling of alternative energy sources to foreign currency - would leave their already pandemic-hit economies and societies even more fragile and weakened.

Ukraine's government, for its part, acknowledged its decades of lacklustre diplomacy with the Global South, and 2023 saw an unprecedented expansion of engagement beyond the trans-Atlantic world. Particularly noteworthy were the preliminary meetings held in Copenhagen in June of that year, Jeddah in August, and Malta in October - all which were attended by national security advisers and negotiators from China, Brazil, India, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Turkey, and Qatar, among others - in preparation for a 'global peace summit' based on Ukraine's ten-point peace plan.

Perhaps the most morally and legally crushing complication, however, has been the West's all-out diplomatic, financial and military support for Israel's punitive assault across Palestine.

Dehumanising portrayals of Palestinian civilians, including children, have emanated from powerful governments and influential media alike in a bid to justify violence against a besieged population. In the words of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA): "Gazans feel that they are not treated as other civilians. They feel the world is equating all of them to Hamas."

Such portrayals are part of a broader pattern of bottomless apathy when it comes to Palestinian suffering. This pattern rings tragically similar to Russia's justifications for invading Ukraine, citing an alleged need to "deNazify" the Ukrainian population and incorporate the latter into the "Russian world". In the eyes of Russia and Israel - occupying forces according to international law - both the Ukrainian and Palestinian senses of nationhood are false, and can be redeemed only through a civilizational 'iberation' by extermination.

This disregard for genuine political grievances and aspirations on the ground, treating local resistance movements as mere puppets of nefarious geopolitical powers, has historically often justified untold destruction, as was the case during the Vietnam War between 1955 and 1975.

On 27 October 2023, following the passage of a UNGA resolution calling for the protection of civilians in Gaza and a humanitarian truce, Malaysia and Indonesia, both of which voted in favour of the Ukraine resolutions in 2022, railed against Ukraine and the West's contrasting responses by drawing direct comparisons between the pleas of civilians in Ukraine and Palestine.

The second anniversary of the Russian invasion arrived at a time of faltering global momentum for Ukraine and the West. On 24 February of this year, the countries of the Global North uncharacteristically refrained from introducing a new UNGA resolution in support of Ukraine, largely out of fear that the latter's declining support across the world would be confirmed.

These non-binding resolutions, which have little practical implication or enforcement, are more about mobilising and sustaining global relevance for Ukraine's enduring cause. The same approach has been crucial to the political and legal struggle of the Palestinians, as demonstrated by the more than 180 Palestine-related UN resolutions passed since 1948.

There are nevertheless crucial differences in the ideological nature of the conflicts in Palestine and Ukraine. In some sense, Ukraine, along with the rest of the West, bears much responsibility for its current diplomatic isolation.

After the killing of some 1,200 Israeli civilians and combatants by Hamas on 7 October 2023, Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made his country's position clear by siding with Israel in a manner that went beyond rightfully condemning the attack. In many statements made between 7 and 17 October 2023, Zelenskyy portrayed the longstanding Israeli-Palestinian conflict in terms of a belligerent "war on terror" framework, rather than the historical and legal contexts and the escalatory situation in the lead-up to the attack.

As courageously implied by the UN General Secretary António Guterres on 25 October last year, the conflict's history began 56 years ago. Prior to 7 October, 2023 had already been the deadliest year in Palestine the past decade. The current death toll reported by the Palestinian Health Authority, of over 8,000 children killed in Gaza since the war began (the final figure will almost certainly be much higher), can only make anyone with a conscience feel anguished as much as numb.

Yet the Ukrainian state, from its presidential office to the armed forces, immediately drew equivalences between Ukraine and Israel, and between Hamas and Palestinian civilians. Ukraine's military released a video portraying both Israel and Ukraine as waging wars in defence of "civilization". Further escalatory violence was in effect encouraged. This contrasts sharply with the immediate responses of Singapore and Kenya, both close defence and security partners of Israel, who nevertheless called for mutual de-escalation and voted for a ceasefire at the UN on 27 October.

Meanwhile, South Africa's case against Israel at the ICJ was welcomed as a rare exception to the tide of post-colonial realism, characterised by the pursuit of "national interests" and depoliticised developmental and security-driven imperatives across the Global South since 1991. Accordingly, the provisional measures announced by the ICJ on 26 January 2024 were viewed by many observers as "a moment of the Global South".

South Africa's courage must be appreciated not only in contrast to the complicity of the West, but also to the calculated and tepid approach of the rising global powers. Many governments across the Global South are themselves no longer driven by democratic and egalitarian imperatives, as they (at least ostensibly) were for most of the twentieth century. The contemporary politics behind the terms 'Global South' and 'decolonisation' have increasingly become captured by right-wing governments and political forces.

Once defined by its anti-colonial heritage, India's foreign policy is currently undergoing a profound ideological transformation, and the country has issued deeply dehumanising rhetoric against the Palestinians. Many governments in the Arab world continue to be cautious in their support for Palestine, well aware that the issue remains a potential catalyst for criticism of their own administrations.

In Asia, India and Vietnam are perhaps the only states that enjoy strong relations with the US, Israel, Russia, and Iran simultaneously, despite their traditional anti-colonial solidarity with Palestine.

During Vietnam's own struggle for national liberation, the Palestinian Liberation Organisation offered unwavering support in its wars with the United States (1965-73), the Khmer Rouge (1979-89), and China (1979-89). As a result, unlike India, Vietnam has consistently voted for a ceasefire in Gaza at the UN and pledged diplomatic and financial support for UNRWA.

But beyond Vietnam's formal proclamations of support for Palestinian statehood, its overall response to Israel's onslaught has been marked by an unusual tepidity and at times disturbing silence. While evocations of Vietnam's national liberation and the global anti-war protest movements of the 1960-70s have only grown louder across the world since 7 October, such references remain almost absent in Vietnamese government discourses.

The West's response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine may in the end be remembered as an unsuccessful attempt at reinvigorating a decaying, selective, and hierarchical liberal 'rules-based' order. The latest Israeli-Palestinian War, by contrast, may be remembered as the war that changed the world - because it also changed the hearts and minds of its liberal adherents across the Global South. It is less a question of Western or Eastern, but rather liberal humanism as such that has died.

In many ways, this moment echoes the lamentations of anti-colonial intellectuals, activists, and statesmen around the Global North's betrayal of liberal humanism with respect to national self-determination in the twentieth century. If the horrifying images from the Vietnam War and subsequent anti-war movements constituted a watershed moment across the world, then the ongoing carnage across Palestine and global protests against it may constitute yet another such moment.

This could have transformative implications for the global majority's perception of the Global North's values and principles, and build momentum for a new, multipolar, and anarchic world that nobody is prepared for.

At stake now is not only Ukraine's and Palestine's national survival, but the survival of international law and anything that is left of basic human decency. The violence and brutality of the last two years must prompt all of us - whether in the Global South or North, East or West - to enter into an honest and thorough introspection about the kind of world that we want to live in.

What kind of geopolitics, notions of sovereignty, human rights, and legality are needed to overcome today's challenges? Otherwise, we will slip ever closer towards the abyss of a more violent, nihilistic, and soulless world, in which the weak are crushed in the interests of the powerful few.

From openDemocracy

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