RUSSIA’S WAR WITH UKRAINE HAS invited widespread calls for de-escalation and diplomatic resolution. Still, countries worldwide are more reluctant to express outright condemnation for Putin’s aggression, or to join the West’s efforts in actively deterring Moscow (chiefly through sanctions and supplying armaments.)
The most concrete bellwether for the position of African states came through the UN General Assembly’s Resolution ES-11/1 vote held a week after invasion. That vote registered one African state against, 17 abstentions and eight absentees.
In South Africa, the government urges “all South Africans not to take sides in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, as this could go against our principles.” This position is echoed by many other states in Africa and the Global South writ large. But this raises the question: is neutrality the same thing as non-alignment?
Responsibility for the war
First, a word on the sides, and the proper apportionment of responsibility. It bears repeating that the West failed to disband Nato, an organisation with no credible raison d’etre in the 21st century. Further, it made overtures to Ukraine of Nato inclusion without any sincere commitment, and it jostled for a Cold War with Russia and China to feel important again. In short, it shoulders great blame.
But there is a difference between contextualising Russia’s decisions and morally justifying its invasion. One side invaded a sovereign nation and is subjecting its people to senseless brutality. By no means was Putin backed into a tight corner such that full-scale invasion was the only option. And, as most analysts thought until the 24th of February, even a calculation in his own interests comes out with war as the worst option.
Whatever the rationale for Putin’s invasion – imperialistic adventurism, great-power competition with the West, consolidating autocracy in the home by suppressing democracy at the doorstep – there is no justification for it. Thus, there can be no morally tenable “both-sides” approach when it comes to pressing for a resolution to the conflict. Any sincere effort must begin with the recognition of Russia’s ultimate culpability.
Alas, it would be naïve to see the international order of nation-states as a site of the tenable and sincere. Indeed, the hesitancy to embrace the West’s sudden ability to call out unjust war has much to do with the West’s well-established history of waging unjust war itself. The attitude throughout a lot of the global South, where the West (especially the United States) has made a habit of reprehensible intervention, is very much one of, “that’s rich, coming from you.”
Anti-western animus runs through much of the “neutrality” on display by governments of the Global South. As David Adler summarises in The Guardian, the war uncovers “a rift between north and south, between the nations that we call developed and those we call developing. And by revealing this tectonic shift, the map can tell us something important about geopolitics in the coming age of multipolarity.” If so, this then reveals neutrality to be something of a chimera: the countries refraining from taking a side are simply not taking a side yet. Simply, they are hedging their bets: hoping for a multi-polar order that tips in the favour of Russia and China. They are exhausted by a world dominated by the West.
Neutrality is not non-alignment
There is a stark difference, then, between the non-alignment of the high noon of anti-colonialism, and the neutrality of today, in the ruins of neoliberalism. Non-alignment was attached to broader emancipatory projects like national liberation and socialism. Its goal was to reshape the world into a post-imperial order. Ghana’s first post-colonial leader, Kwame Nkrumah, put it best when he declared, “We face neither East nor West, we face forward.”
The emancipatory horizon which made non-alignment possible during the twentieth century has since faded. State vs state conflict in Europe now plunges the whole world into a new Cold War.
Yet, unlike yesterday’s Cold War, today’s one is motivated less by a confrontation of ideologies concerned with the basic organization of society, but rather from the inability of elites everywhere to exert the moral and intellectual leadership required to answer for the fate of human civilization in the face of multiple crises (paramount of which is imminent ecological catastrophe).
The conjuncture is bleak. At the “end of the end of history,” it’s hard to know what, if anything, comes next. What is for sure, is that it is the poor and working-class bearing the harshest brunt of war: immediately, in Ukraine and Russia, and increasingly, all over the world as the disruption of economic production prompts spikes in fuel and commodity prices. This is the problem that global elites will have to inevitably confront: you can partake in conflict to distract the masses from socio-economic decline, but eventually those conditions of decline become harder to ignore.
States in Africa and the rest of the Global South may be implicitly backing Russia now, but Russia’s actions will have reverberating consequences that prove to be against their interests. While we are in no revolutionary situation, we are witnessing a time when capitalism
is becoming an unviable form of life, a collision course this war will only escalate. As the saying goes, nothing is more ungovernable than hungry men and women. As Nkrumah was often wont to say: “When the bull and elephant fight, the grass is trampled down.”
Non-alignment, then, does not mean indifference. It means solidarity with those who stand to suffer from war most, and against war because it causes suffering for most. The real war to wage is class war
William Shoki is Staff Writer of Africa Is A Country and a member of the Amandla Collective.