By RFE RL
By Todd Prince
(RFE/RL) — Ever since Russia launched the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, starting Europe’s biggest war in generations, U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration has been scrambling to unite the world against Moscow’s aggression, highlighting its attacks on civilians and evidence of war crimes.
Two years later, that job is getting a lot tougher — and not just because people around the world, including in the United States, are losing interest in the war.
Israel’s pummeling military response to the deadly October 7 attack by Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip and is considered a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union, has outraged governments and populaces in the Global South that the United States has been trying to woo.
The U.S. response to ally Israel’s bombing of civilian infrastructure in Gaza and the humanitarian crisis it has exacerbated for the Palestinian population has been more muted than its criticism of Russia’s attacks — and those nations have taken notice, accusing Washington of applying a double standard.
“Global North countries are suddenly quiet as they watch humanitarian violations. Where’s all the lectures they often give about human rights? Doesn’t Palestine have the same rights as the rest of us?” Retno Marsudi, the foreign minister of Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim nation by population, told a press conference on January 8.
For decades, critics have accused the United States of upholding what is often called the “rules-based international order” when it suits its needs and ignoring it when it doesn’t. The 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq in defiance of a UN vote may be the most explicit example this century.
That criticism has potentially become more consequential today as China and Russia seek to reshape the geopolitical world and undermine U.S. influence while increasing their own clout — and, in Russia’s case, attempting to alter the map by attacking Ukraine and occupying its territory. Beijing and Moscow are seizing on such perceived double standards to pull the countries of the Global South into their corner.
“The U.S. doesn’t have the same leverage that it used to,” Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and professor of international affairs at Georgetown University, told RFE/RL, pointing to China’s growing role on the world stage.
The United States has struggled to get countries in the Global South to go along with its sanctions against Russia over Moscow’s war on Ukraine. Many also refused to support the U.S. designation of Beijing’s persecution of Muslim Uyghurs in China’s Xinjiang region as genocide.
Russian and Chinese officials and state media have used the U.S. response to Israel’s bombing to discredit Washington’s criticism of own their countries’ policies and actions.
“Western politicians who didn’t throw away any opportunity to accuse other countries of committing genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity suddenly don’t know how to describe the slaughtering of thousands of innocent civilians despite the tragedy being played out in front of media cameras,” said an October 27 article in China Daily, the Chinese Communist Party’s English-language propaganda outlet.
Israel has been besieging Gaza since Hamas forces invaded Israel on October 7, killing some 1,200 people, mainly civilians, in the deadliest attack on the Jewish state since its creation in 1948. More than 25,000 Palestinians have been killed in the war, according to the Health Ministry in Gaza.
In the face of criticism over its approach to the Israel-Hamas war, the Biden administration has staunchly defended Israel’s right to self-defense. Though it has urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to change tactics and protect civilians and is leading international efforts to find a way to end the war, it has largely refrained from harsh public criticism and continued to supply weapons to Israel.
Biden has also suggested that the U.S. approaches on Russia’s war against Ukraine and the Israel-Hamas war are consistent, saying in a national address in October that Russian President Vladimir Putin and Hamas “represent different threats” but “both want to completely annihilate a neighboring democracy — completely annihilate it.”
Western officials have also pointed out disparities between the two wars, including a major difference: Ukraine did not attack Russia.
‘Enduring Consequences For Ukraine’
But for many people around the world, there is little difference between the Russian bombing of Ukrainian cities and Israel’s bombing of Gaza.
“With every civilian casualty from an Israeli airstrike, the West’s arguments in defense of a rules-based order ring hollower in the global South,” Mark Leonard, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in the U.S. magazine Foreign Affairs this month.
“This could have enduring consequences for Ukraine, which derives the legitimacy for its struggle from the order-breaking nature of Russia’s aggression.”
Kupchan said there is more sympathy with the Palestinian cause than for Ukraine in the Global South, especially in the Middle East, and a broad perception that Israel’s retaliation for the October 7 attack is causing too much death.
“And the U.S. — as Israel’s most visible backer — ends up paying a reputational price. It’s guilt by association,” he said.
Moscow and Beijing’s message that the West is simply trying to preserve its hegemony plays well in the Global South, Kupchan added.
“There is a lot of talk in Washington about the rules-based order, and at times China and Russia try to turn that talk against the United States and say, ‘Well, what about Gaza? Where is the rules-based order right now?'” he told RFE/RL.
The United States also faced accusations of double standards in late July, a few months before Hamas invaded Israel, when Biden ordered his administration to start sharing evidence of suspected Russian war crimes in Ukraine with the International Criminal Court (ICC).
It was a major shift: In part because of fears that cooperation with the court could open the door to politicized prosecution of U.S. troops abroad, the United States has historically opposed the ICC extending its jurisdiction over nationals of countries that — like itself — are not members of the court.
In 2021, the United States opposed an ICC investigation into Israelis for their alleged crimes in Palestine on the grounds that Israel is not an ICC member. But Russia isn’t either.
The change in tack “certainly undermines the credibility of the U.S. to speak out and to consider itself a promoter of justice and accountability for serious international crime,” Elizabeth Evanson, international justice director at Human Rights Watch, told RFE/RL.
“It risks exacerbating perception problems of whether the international system is working on behalf of everyone fully,” she said.
Even before the Israel-Hamas war, there was already plenty of talk about selective international justice, Evanson said.
The outpouring of international support for an ICC investigation into alleged Russian atrocities led people to ask, “If this kind of response can happen here, why are we not seeing it in other places?” she said.
While its diverse approaches to Russia and Israel are drawing particular attention to the United States, many other countries — including those of the Global South — also face accusations of hypocrisy in international affairs.
Indonesia has been at the forefront of criticism leveled at Israel for its bombing of Palestinian civilians but has remained quiet about China’s detainment of hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
The same goes for South Africa. It has brought a genocide suit against Israel at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) but has kept silent about China’s abuse of Uyghurs. It has abstained on UN resolutions condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
South Africa and Indonesia have at least one thing in common: Both have China as their largest trading partner. And China, the world’s second-largest economy after the United States, has not been shy about using its economic might to punish countries that publicly condemn its actions.
The Global South’s frustration with the West and the world order had been growing for years, Bruce Jones, an analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington, told RFE/RL.
The West failed to meet its climate investment goals in the Global South or equitably distribute vaccines during the COVID-19 pandemic, he said. Its uneven response to the war in Ukraine compared with horrific wars in Africa further underscored to the Global South that the world order wasn’t working for them, he said.
In the eyes of many in the Global South, “none of this seems to resonate” with the United States and Europe, Jones said.
“The United States tends to look at these countries primarily in traditional bilateral terms and not to think much about how they perceived the international order writ large,” he said.
Kupchan said the United States will simply have to face the consequences of its policies on attitudes around the world while the two wars continue.
“The big policy question is what we do when the dust settles,” Kupchan told RFE/RL. “How do we up our game and enhance our appeal in the Global South?”
It will start with listening more closely to their concerns, he said.
- Todd Prince is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL based in Washington, D.C. He lived in Russia from 1999 to 2016, working as a reporter for Bloomberg News and an investment adviser for Merrill Lynch. He has traveled extensively around Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia.