While Western leaders have achieved a certain amount of unity amongst themselves vis-à-vis sanctions against Russia, they’ve failed to convince many non-Western countries to join them – only traditional Western allies like Singapore, Japan and South Korea (which some people already consider part of ‘the West’).
Major players like China, India, Brazil, Mexico, Israel and Saudi Arabia have all so far refused to sanction Russia. Here’s a map of the current state of play (only the purple countries have actually imposed sanctions):
What explains the Western/non-Western schism on this issue? Is it just that Western countries are more ‘moral’, or that non-Western countries don’t care about people dying in Ukraine? I don’t think so.
As the foreign policy analyst Trita Parsi notes in this piece for MSNBC, different non-Western states have their own reasons for not joining Western sanctions, but there are some reasons that apply across the board. (Parsi’s piece is worth reading in full.)
Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. have eschewed Western sanctions not only because of their shared interest with Russia in controlling global oil prices, but also because of their indignation at recent U.S. policy vis-à-vis Iran (which they consider far too accommodating).
Israel has eschewed Western sanctions in part thanks to the country’s large Russian Jewish population, which accounts for about one tenth of the total, and in part for geostrategic reasons. Its control over the Golan Heights could be threatened if Putin stopped turning a blind eye to Israeli air strikes in that region.
China has eschewed Western sanctions, it seems reasonable to assume, due its interest in cultivating a norm against sanctioning countries that invade their neighbours. (Many analysts believe China will at some point try to take Taiwan, which it considers to be Chinese territory.)
Beyond these country-specific reasons, there are also considerations that apply more generally.
Above all, non-Western leaders do not accept the West’s argument that sanctions are needed to uphold the ‘rules-based international order’. “From their vantage point,” Farsi explains, “no other country or bloc has undermined international law, norms or the rules-based order more than the U.S. and the West.”
In defending his country’s own neutral stance back in March, the Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni accused the West of “double standards”, describing NATO’s bombing campaign in Libya – to which many African states had been opposed – as a “criminal and unacceptable act”.
Another illustration of the West’s double standards, in the eyes of many non-Western observers, is how differently it has reacted to Russia’s treatment of Ukraine versus Israel’s treatment of Palestine. In fact, a map of the countries that have formally recognised Palestine is almost a mirror image of the one above.
Although non-Western leaders “largely sympathise with the plight of the Ukrainian people”, Parsi notes, they will not make costly sacrifices to uphold a ‘rules-based international order’ the West doesn’t bother to uphold itself.
As countries like China and India grow in strength, and we move from a unipolar to a multipolar world, the West’s strategy of pretending it doesn’t regularly flout its own alleged principles will become increasingly difficulty to maintain.