Washington has spent the better part of two years painstakingly building support for the U.S.-led international order after Russia flagrantly violated international law when it launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. But what success the U.S. has had in building support in the Global South for the rules-based order is coming apart in the wake of President Biden’s muscular support for Israel’s assault on Gaza, which has left at least 9,000 people dead, two-thirds of them women and children.
In the aftermath of Hamas’s Oct. 7 massacre, which left an estimated 1,400 people dead in Israel, Western leaders rightly came out in full condemnation of that attack. That did not create a rift with a Global South that also largely expressed outrage over the horrific attack. But what did was the impression given by many Western politicians, especially in the U.S., that there was a carte blanche for Israel to “defend itself.” The death toll in Gaza is now far above the combined death toll of all prior Hamas-Israel wars.
The linking of Ukraine’s struggle to Israel has also rankled many in the Global South—a comparison encouraged by President Volodymr Zelensky when he said that it recalled “the early days of Russia’s full-scale war on Ukraine” and urged all leaders to visit Israel. It’s an analogy that others, including Biden, have drawn and one in which many in the Global South have rejected. Russia invaded and occupied Ukraine; Hamas launched a horrific attack on Oct. 7, but it is Palestinians who have lived under Israeli occupation for decades.
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As the death toll mounts in Gaza, Bolivia has cut ties with Israel, while Colombia and Chile have recalled their ambassadors. The latter’s President, Gabriel Boric, said during his visit to the White House this week that the Israeli government’s response to the Hamas attack “deserves our clearest condemnation” in a politically awkward moment for Biden (though Boric declined to comment on Biden’s Gaza approach). The U.S. decision to veto a U.N. Security Council resolution on Oct. 18 calling for a “humanitarian pause” also provoked anger. One African diplomat told Reuters that, “They lost credibility with the veto. What is good enough for Ukraine is not good enough for Palestine. The veto told us that Ukrainian lives are more valuable than Palestinian ones.” An Arab diplomat said, “We cannot choose to call on the U.N. Charter's principles to protect Ukraine and ignore it for Palestine.”
Some senior Western officials have acknowledged that perception of double standards. “What we said about Ukraine has to apply to Gaza. Otherwise we lose all our credibility,” one G7 diplomat told the Financial Times. When Egypt convened the Cairo peace summit on Oct. 21 to discuss ways to de-escalate the Israel-Hamas war—drawing attendance from U.S., European, Arab, African, and Asian officials—some Arab leaders railed at what they called hypocrisy in how Russia had previously come under fire for breaches of humanitarian law, but not Israel. (Israel has been accused of war crimes, including air attacks on Gaza’s Jabalia refugee camp that left at least 195 dead; the U.N. has also said that Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack is a crime under international law.) That’s “geopolitical kryptonite,” as the FT’s Brussels bureau chief put it.
It would be too easy to claim that this is just a Global South vs. Global North rift. When the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen traveled to Israel on Oct. 13, declaring support for Israel, several European nations expressed outrage over the trip before a common E.U. position was agreed to, and criticized her for not calling on Israel to respect international law amid its ongoing bombardment of Gaza.
In the U.S., it’s clear the Democratic voting base is also in a different place than most Democrat politicians on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and there is considerable discontent within the Biden Administration among more junior personnel, who have used the “dissent channel” to voice concern. One noted State Department employee publicly resigned over Biden’s approach to the Israel-Hamas war.
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For their part, several hundred Western specialists on the Middle East have published an open letter in favor of a ceasefire, reflecting a strong current of thinking across the political spectrum and leading think-tanks.
In cities like New York, London, and Paris, there have been mass demonstrations in favor of a ceasefire—a position that Biden has shied away from. Most countries, however, back one; 120 U.N. General Assembly member nations voted for a ceasefire in a non-binding motion on Oct. 27. (Fourteen nations, including the U.S. and Israel, voted against; 45 abstained.)
There will be further crises in the future—such is the nature of international affairs. Successive U.S. administrations in the post-World War II era have made a lot out of the need for a global order underpinned by international law; if we truly believe that, then a great deal will have to change in Western capitals when it is our allies and ourselves that commit violations. Our partners in the Global South can see double standards clearly enough—from the U.S-led war in Iraq, to Israel’s disproportionate use of force in Gaza.
Let me be clear, the U.S.-led international order is preferable to a “might is right” approach favored by Russia and China. But it needs to be reformed, applied consistently, and based on international law. Otherwise, we can take the words of that G7 diplomat as given: “We have definitely lost the battle in the Global South… Forget about rules, forget about world order. They won’t ever listen to us again.”
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