A ‘bad colonial habit’

Branko Marcetic

Since the start of the Ukraine war last February, many arguments have been deployed against the notion that the United States should engage in serious diplomatic efforts to negotiate an end to the war. One of the most persuasive has cast the idea as a form of neo-imperialism.
Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-N.Y.) has called it a “bad colonial habit” that assumes peace “depends upon the wishes of the great powers and the great powers alone,” as he renounced the letter he had signed calling for greater U.S. involvement in diplomacy.
His words echo the charge of “Westsplaining” that has frequently been lodged against those calling for peace talks. The correct position, according to these voices, is for Washington and Ukraine’s other military backers relatively unaffected by the conflict to simply support Ukraine’s leaders as long as they are willing to fight – even if, as the White House openly acknowledges, this path increases the risks of nuclear escalation.
This ignores, of course, the enormous costs being disproportionately paid by the Global South as a result of the war’s prolongation and the fact that it’s overwhelmingly developing countries – which continue to struggle with the legacy of centuries of Western colonialism – calling for negotiations.
A brief and incomplete list of the states that have added their voices to this appeal for negotiations to end the war includes China, India, Turkey, Indonesia, Pakistan, Mexico, South Africa, the 22-member-state Arab League, and the 55-member-state African Union. To that list we can add Brazil, where both just-defeated far-right incumbent Jair Bolsonaro and his victorious left-wing challenger Lula da Silva have separately called for talks to end the conflict. Together, these governments and bodies represent over 5 billion people, or roughly 65 percent of the world’s population.
The 30 member states of NATO, by contrast, are – other than Turkey – all located in the Global North, many of them the former colonial powers that carved up and subjugated the countries listed above. They represent just shy of 950 million people, though adding prospective new members Finland and Sweden, as well as Ukraine’s pre-war population, would put this a hair over one billion, or roughly 13 percent of the world’s population.
This is, in fact, a generous count given known differences in enthusiasm for the war among NATO states, with at least Italy, Hungary, Turkey, France, and Germany being more eager to negotiate than other members, including the United States, UK, and a number of former Eastern Bloc states, who favor keeping the war going indefinitely.
This global divide isn’t surprising when you consider the stakes. Should the conflict turn into an all-out U.S.-Russian nuclear war, of which there’s a very real risk, it’s not just those two nations that would suffer. Scientists have estimated that anywhere between roughly 60 percent and 90 percent of the human population would die in the wake of such a war. Most of the billions dead would be the result of a subsequent, nuclear winter-driven famine – people and countries entirely uninvolved in the war, and who have no say over the nuclear deliberations going on today in Russia and the NATO states.
“In a US-Russia nuclear war, more people would die [from starvation] in India and Pakistan alone than in the countries actually fighting the war,” Rutgers University climatologist Alan Robock, the co-author of a recent study, told reporters.
It’s also not surprising when you factor in the disproportionate costs being paid right now by the developing world as a result of the war’s economic ripple effects. Between January and September, more than 90 countries were gripped by sometimes deadly protests over skyrocketing fuel prices, a third of them countries that saw no such protests a year earlier. Washington’s own ambassador to the United Nations warned in August that the war is plunging 40 million people into food insecurity, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa, while France’s permanent mission to the UN estimates 13 million more people could face starvation over this and next year.
A World Food Program regional chief has warned of impending widespread famine to explain why “ending the war is critical.”
Perhaps this is why one African diplomat expressed befuddlement back in August at the Western posture toward the war: “Most puzzling to us is the idea that a conflict like this is in essence being encouraged to continue indefinitely.”
Yemen, which is already suffering grievously from the eight-year-old Saudi-led military intervention offers a particularly cruel example. Dependent on Ukraine and Russia for 40 percent of its wheat imports, the price of basic foods in Yemen has soared, worsening its already severe levels of malnutrition. But this war has largely been forgotten in the West, where calls to end crucial U.S. and British support for the Saudi-led coalition brutalizing Yemenis have all but disappeared from public discourse.
Not only has the war in Ukraine forced cash-strapped African governments still recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic to spend more of their meager resources on preserving their social safety nets, thus diverting funds from long-term development projects, but war-induced inflation has resulted in a sharp increase in global interest rates that makes it much more difficult for these governments to service their external debt.
When an African Development Bank asked Canadian Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland – who has said that the world will only be safe when “the Russian tyrant and his armies are entirely vanquished” – about signals from the West that the massive deliveries of aid to Ukraine would mean fewer resources would flow to Africa, and the dangers of the continent “backsliding” as a result, Freeland responded that “democracy can only be defended by people themselves if they’re actually prepared to die for their democracy.”
“[Ukrainians] are fighting for themselves,” she said. “The countries of Africa – this is a choice they need to make for themselves. … We have to set aside paternalism.”
This notion – that the war must continue no matter the risks and the suffering borne by both Ukrainians and the rest of the world, while dominant in Western discourse, gains little currency elsewhere and particularly in the Global South where the vast majority of the world’s population resides. It is only a relative fraction of the world’s nation states – concentrated in the wealthy, former imperial powers and their allies in the Global North — that appear indifferent to the suffering of their former colonial subjects – and that view talks to end the war as soon as possible as being out of the question. Calls for diplomacy aren’t part of a “colonial reflex.” But rejecting them might just be.
Courtesy: Responsible Statecraft.