Three months into Putin’s war on Ukraine, he has succeeded in one respect. He has divided the world into two camps: those countries that condemned his invasion at the first opportunity, and those that did not.
The vote was held at the UN on 2 March and it was sobering. Although far fewer countries sided with Russia than against her, those that did or abstained accounted for more than half the world’s population. They also boasted nearly as many soldiers at arms. In a fight to the death between these two vast groupings – one labelled free, the other autocratic – it looked like a close-run thing.
Such comparisons occasioned a good deal of free-world handwringing.
- Was Putin emboldened by western weakness?
- Were the autocrats already winning, as Anne Applebaum argued before the war?
- Was the West vulnerable to rogue regimes because – as some senior British Tories thought – it was too woke?
Self-doubt is a vital feature of free societies, but it’s not clear that the data warrants so much of it. We’ve crunched the numbers and they are broadly – if grimly – reassuring. In this war for the future of the world, the countries lined up behind Ukraine are not just freer than those explicitly or implicitly supporting Russia. They are overwhelmingly richer, more innovative, better fed (at least in terms of fast-food calories) and better armed as well.
So has the West been underestimating its own strength?
- The case for yes. The combined economic and military strength of the countries that voted to condemn Russia on 2 March not only exceeds that of countries that backed Moscow or abstained. The West also wields enormous cultural and institutional power across the globe and shouldn’t be coy about it, says Sophia Gaston, director of the British Foreign Policy Group: “Democracies and other partially free societies remain the dominant architects of global governance, and continue to wield enormous influence in terms of cultural, capital and knowledge exchange.”
- The case for no. While most UN countries voted to condemn the invasion, the bulk of the world’s people don’t live in them and that may be indicative of the West’s current global standing. “Neither world public opinion nor much of the Global South is on the side of the West,” says Leslie Vinjamuri of the US and Americas programme at Chatham House. “Where we see moral clarity, they see Western hypocrisy. Many states that we increasingly refer to as ‘fence sitters’ (because they abstained from the UN vote) are in fact choosing very clearly to abstain. Why? Because they have competing interests and this war doesn’t matter enough to their own survival.”
Are we in a new world order?
- Russia says so. Sergei Lavrov, Putin’s foreign minister, has spoken of the war as a turning point marking the end of a unipolar, US-dominated globe. That is Moscow’s positive gloss on its new reality. An alternative one was articulated on Monday night in a rare and stinging rebuke for Putin on state-backed TV from Mikhail Khodarenok, a military analyst and former air defence lieutenant colonel. Ukraine could now muster a million reservists backed by western arms, he said. “Practically the whole world is against us.”
- So does the US. Joe Biden has already formed much of his foreign policy agenda around “the battle between democracy and autocracy”. In his first State of the Union address on 1 March, he said Putin had “sought to shake the foundations of the free world”, and that his administration was relying on “a coalition of freedom-loving nations” to oppose Russia’s invasion.
- And yet… Ukraine’s new allies aren’t all democracies. They score an average of 6.1 on the Economist’s Democracy Index (which gives 10 points to full democracies and 0 to dictatorships). Taken together, they’re flawed democracies – but only just. They’re hybrid regimes, and UCLA’s Daniel Treisman says their vote to condemn the invasion should “not necessarily been seen as a vote of support for democracy, per se, but as a vote for the right not to be invaded”.
It’s not a clear-cut picture. There were a range of reasons why some countries did not condemn Russia at the UN. What is clear is that those that did have everything it takes to win if they can only channel the materiel, money and know-how to where it’s needed, in Ukraine.
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