While the Russian ship Lady R docked at the South African port Simon’s Town last December, it was loaded with arms intended to kill Ukrainians, says the US. For Europeans, the news was as baffling and upsetting as India guzzling Russian oil, or Brazil’s president Lula blaming Russia and Ukraine equally for the war.
We’re right to be upset. These southern powers gloss over crimes happening outside their neighbourhood. They watch Russia’s invasion with impotent nihilism, asking only how they can benefit. But then, European states today are similar. We have given up on faraway crises. The ambitions of France, the UK and even Russia are shrinking to the point that they are now mere neighbourhood powers. It’s just that, whereas the southern powers accept that that’s what they are, Europe’s fallen empires still pretend to be something more.
Southern powers start from an understanding of western hypocrisy. They know our habit of casting our own problems as the world’s — for instance, calling Ukraine “a war for global democracy”. They are equally clear-eyed about Russia. They don’t buy Vladimir Putin’s story that the west forced him to destroy Ukraine. An official from one Russia-friendly southern power told me that as Russia “goes down the drain”, his government is quietly pivoting away. His country isn’t pro-Russian or anti-western. It’s just pro-itself.
Southern powers tend to be insular: even their elites rarely travel abroad. They are scarcely heard in the global conversation. They don’t fight foreign wars. They are overwhelmed by basic domestic problems: providing their citizens with food, electricity and toilets. South Africa’s president Cyril Ramaphosa worries less about Russian massacres than about rivals inside his ruling party, the ANC.
Until very recently, big European powers still had global ambitions. That often meant treating poor countries as their hunting grounds. Britain sent troops to Afghanistan and Iraq, and France to west Africa. Together, in 2011, they deposed Libya’s leader Colonel Gaddafi. Russia adventured everywhere from Syria to Mali.
But they all over-reached. Since 2021, the UK and France have abandoned their failed foreign missions. The British army is the smallest it’s been since Napoleonic times. Only 0.2 per cent of the remaining troops are based in Asia or Oceania. Britain has reached the end of its “great game”, the Foreign Office’s former lead official, Simon McDonald, told the New Statesman magazine this month. Similarly, Russia is so overextended in Ukraine that it’s even losing control of its other neighbourhood, Central Asia.
European powers still talk global — literally, in the case of “Global Britain”. France, ludicrously, calls itself an “Indo-Pacific power” based on having 1.5 million citizens scattered across various poor islands there. But the French naval chief of staff likened competing with other navies in the Pacific to “showing up in a 2CV car for a Formula 1 race”. The western military alliance, Nato, now limits itself to Europe, where it has still never fought.
Russia aspires to be the west’s bogeyman, which is like a second-division team imagining it’s Manchester City’s rival. In fact, Europe’s widest-ranging neighbourhood power may be Turkey, which benefits from what estate agents call “location, location, location”. Its neighbourhood covers Syria, grain exports through the Black Sea and the refugee crossing from the Middle East.
But outside their neighbourhood, European powers display the same impotent nihilism we deplore in others. When Sudan’s capital Khartoum erupted in fighting, the height of French ambition was to evacuate Europeans; Saudi Arabia and the US brokered a peace deal. Likewise, European powers have watched war criminal Bashar al-Assad win Syria’s civil war and start to rehabilitate himself internationally. They sold Saudi Arabia weapons that decimated Yemen. And they have abandoned the Palestinians, and Ethiopia’s region of Tigray, where more people may have been killed than in Ukraine. Our helplessness renders absurd Putin’s fantasy that the west plans to invade and subjugate Russia. We couldn’t even subjugate the Taliban.
There is Global China and Global US (for now), but not Global anything else. If the two superpowers clash over Taiwan, every neighbourhood power intends to watch from the audience, though only Emmanuel Macron has been crude enough to say so.
I’m delighted we’re backing Ukraine. It’s the right thing to do. Secondarily, it helps the west: having a common enemy creates unity, reduces silliness, and reminds us that we actually have some values. But we are only doing it because Putin is killing white people in our neighbourhood. We care as much about Yemen as South Africa does about Ukraine.
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