Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Why the World Isn’t Really United Against Russia

Global institutions have long relegated much of the world to second-class status.

Howard French
Howard W. French
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy.
A black and white image shows men and women seated around a U-shaped conference table.
A black and white image shows men and women seated around a U-shaped conference table.
An undated picture shows a session of the League of Nations Extraordinary Council in Geneva. Mondial Photo Presse/AFP via Getty Images

Putin’s War

As Russian President Vladimir Putin’s army reduced one Ukrainian city after another to rubble, crushing civilians caught in apartment blocks and shopping malls under a rain of artillery and missile fire, many observers in the rich world bemoaned the dysfunction of the United Nations for not being able to overcome an obstacle written into its very charter: Russia, like the Soviet Union before it, is one of the U.N. Security Council’s five permanent members and, as such, enjoys veto power—allowing it to block any measure it disapproves of.

The scattered calls for United Nations reform that this provoked came against the backdrop of another source of Western displeasure. After exuberant claims in Washington and European capitals that the world was united against Russia’s brutal and unprovoked invasion of its neighbor, people who paused to take more careful stock of the situation began to note that in fact, much of the world was sitting on the sidelines in the dispute.

Putting China to the side because of its special relationship with Moscow, this included large nations, such as India, and small nations—and left no continent spared. In fact, a tally of their collective population would show that governments representing a majority of the human population were not taking a position one way or another in a conflict that many of them saw as having familiar echoes of a previous era’s contests between East and West.

As Russian President Vladimir Putin’s army reduced one Ukrainian city after another to rubble, crushing civilians caught in apartment blocks and shopping malls under a rain of artillery and missile fire, many observers in the rich world bemoaned the dysfunction of the United Nations for not being able to overcome an obstacle written into its very charter: Russia, like the Soviet Union before it, is one of the U.N. Security Council’s five permanent members and, as such, enjoys veto power—allowing it to block any measure it disapproves of.

The scattered calls for United Nations reform that this provoked came against the backdrop of another source of Western displeasure. After exuberant claims in Washington and European capitals that the world was united against Russia’s brutal and unprovoked invasion of its neighbor, people who paused to take more careful stock of the situation began to note that in fact, much of the world was sitting on the sidelines in the dispute.

Putting China to the side because of its special relationship with Moscow, this included large nations, such as India, and small nations—and left no continent spared. In fact, a tally of their collective population would show that governments representing a majority of the human population were not taking a position one way or another in a conflict that many of them saw as having familiar echoes of a previous era’s contests between East and West.

Instead of mere coincidences, what if these two issues were connected—deeply, in fact? An examination of the history of the institutions at the heart of what we casually refer to as the “international community” provides powerful but broadly overlooked reasons to believe just that.

This is a history that far predates the alienating contests of the Cold War, which consumed so much of humanity’s collective wealth and energy and produced huge casualties in proxy warfare around the world. And what it reveals is an international political infrastructure that from its very inception in the early 20th century consigned the nations of what were long known as the “third world” to all but permanent second-class status—or what the Indian historian Dipesh Chakrabarty has called “the imaginary waiting room of history.”

The proximate birth of the international civil society we are familiar with today should probably be situated in the period at the closing of World War I when the Treaty of Versailles was signed, eventually leading to the formation of the League of Nations amid much high-flying rhetoric.

The League of Nations failed for many reasons, not least that the United States, an early proponent of a new system of international governance, never joined the organization. Much less famous though are the many ways that the progressive-sounding diplomacy begun at Versailles failed a vast majority of the world’s people by not making their interests a priority—or even taking them into consideration. China’s nationalist government, to take one example, was surprised to learn that as a result of a kind of horse-trading at the organization’s high table among Britain, France, and Italy, the league granted legitimacy to Japan’s takeover of its territories that had been controlled by Germany before World War I. As a result, China refused to sign the treaty.

Japan, for its part, was disgusted by the league’s failure to address notions of racial hierarchy then so dear to the West. As scholar G. John Ikenberry noted in his recent book, A World Safe for Democracy: Liberal Internationalism and the Crises of Global Order, former U.S. President Woodrow Wilson “projected a vision of universalism in rights and values, but quickly compromised when it was expedient.” When the Japanese put forward a resolution affirming equality among nations with no distinctions based on race or nationality, Washington backed down in deference to Britain, which saw an idea like this as a threat to the legitimacy of its settler colony project then underway in Australia. This may have been the operative rationale in this diplomacy, but it should also not be forgotten that the United States at the time was itself a country that practiced legally enforced white supremacy and separatism. Wilson, himself, praised the Ku Klux Klan and oversaw the segregation of the federal work force.

China and Japan both had obvious reasons to feel disserved by the era’s international diplomacy, but as bad as they were, the humiliations they suffered were of a categorically smaller nature than the insults delivered to a large host of then-still-colonized lands. The League of Nations gave powerful endorsements to Western imperialism, granting European countries the authority to extend their control over broad stretches of territory under the guise of the league’s so-called mandates.

The continent of Africa was especially targeted by these arrangements. African colonies had just supplied hundreds of thousands of troops and invaluable economic support to their European masters during World War I, and returning African veterans clamored for independence. In response, European powers argued that Africans had not yet reached a level of civilization required to even begin contemplating self-rule. The irony was lost on the Europeans that they themselves had just emerged from what was arguably the most barbarous war in history.

This was not the end of the insults though. To impose their authority on the few independent African states, the league—at European direction—challenged self-rule in Liberia and Ethiopia, claiming a humanitarian obligation to do so because of alleged enslavement in those states. As political scientist Adom Getachew wrote in her recent book, Worldmaking After Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination, “That the charge of slavery became the idiom through which black self-government would be undermined should strike us as deeply perverse not only because of Europe’s central role in the trans-atlantic slave trade and slavery in the Americas but also because of the labor practices that characterized colonial Africa in the twentieth century.” Yet at the time, and for decades to come, European powers brutally imposed forced labor on their African colonies to ensure high production rates of coveted raw materials, such as rubber and cotton.

The next big opportunity for a Western-led international community to introduce more democracy and equity in global governance came after the next world war. Similar lofty rhetoric ensued, as did similar compromises at the expense of the world’s colonized people. After even greater sacrifices—measured in the lives of colonial soldiers fighting in European wars—and greater extractions of wealth were made to keep the economies of the imperial powers afloat, expectations were even higher this time, especially among Africans, that great powers would willingly pave the way for their independence.

Amid new rounds of high-flying progressive rhetoric about freedom, accountability, and timetables for self-rule, the discussions that produced the Atlantic Charter fueled this optimism. But as much as Wilson had done with regard to Japanese expectations of an enshrined equality among nations, former U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was principally concerned with the emerging great-power rivalry against the Soviet Union, bowed to the interests of Great Britain and other European imperialist nations in deferring talk of universal self-government and independence. As Harvard University professor Caroline Elkins points out in her new work, Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire, Roosevelt wasted no time in the aftermath of the charter, saying that the promises made to the colonized were aspirational, merely “pronouncements” that would have to wait.

A sense of the spirit in the halls of Western power in this moment when a new global order was being designed can be felt through the words of one of its most important architects: economist John Maynard Keynes. As delegates from 44 nations gathered in New Hampshire to design a new international monetary system, Keynes bemoaned the presence of representatives from what would soon become known as the third world. As historian Vijay Prashad notes in his book The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, Keynes denounced the composition of the delegates as “the most monstrous monkey-house assembled for years” and said the representatives of the poorer and weaker nations “clearly have nothing to contribute and will merely encumber the ground.”

Within a few years, the two-track nature of the world being built would become fully evident. The United States famously devoted billions of dollars to rebuilding European economies after the devastation of World War II. Left unaddressed though—both at the time and indeed ever since—was the West’s unacknowledged obligations toward the world’s newly decolonized countries. As I have argued in my own book, Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War, the extraction of wealth and labor from Africa alone over a period of centuries played a central yet still largely unacknowledged role in European prosperity in the modern age.

Indeed, the pillaging of Africa of human beings created what we call “the West.” Although few stop to define it these days, this of course means the condominium between Atlantic-facing Europe and that continent’s colonies and, later, allies in the Americas. As I have written, until the year 1820, four times as many people were brought to the New World from Africa than from Europe, and it was the labor of these enslaved millions of people—producing commodities like sugar and cotton on a vast scale, clearing lands, and performing all kinds of other unpaid labor—that made the American colonies profitable for Europe and made the so-called Old World new and rich.

This may feel like ancient history to some, but the subordination of justice for the colonized—and especially for peoples and lands subjected to slavery—is of a piece with every other chapter of history discussed here, and this topic won’t magically go away because people wish to ignore it or find it intractable or bothersome.

In fact, the current structure of the United Nations, whose impotence in the face of a moral horror like Ukraine some bemoan today, is lodged in the special rights of a select few through the U.N. Security Council. This arrangement is little different from the arguments in the Wilsonian era that the colonized were inadequately civilized to be granted full rights.

The U.N. Security Council was democratized to some extent by China’s entry as a permanent member in 1971. Other than China though, whose size made it difficult to deny, the U.N. Security Council is composed of predominantly white nations whose history is bound up in imperial rule. The United States is the only one with a very large population, currently third in the world. Russia, whose economy is roughly the size of Italy’s, will soon drop out of the top 10 most populous countries. France and Britain trail far behind. Where is India? Where is Africa, whose Nigeria is projected to have more citizens than the United States by the middle of this century and will likely trail only India and China by 2100. Where is Brazil or Mexico or Indonesia?

In his book The World That FDR Built: Vision and Reality, historian Edward Mortimer wrote, “A world war is like a furnace, it melts the world down and makes it malleable,” leading to major changes in the subsequent order. Many people have begun to speak of the invasion of Ukraine in these terms—as a portal to a new, if as-yet undefined, global order. Few, however, have begun to address with any seriousness of purpose or urgency the unfinished business of the major re-orderings of the 20th century, which left the people of the third world completely out of the picture. Can this be justified on the basis of civilization or race? Or is it a matter of raw wealth or sheer power in which might is allowed to make right?

Putting morality aside, few of the big problems facing human life in this century are amenable to being managed well on the basis of exclusion on a scale like this—not prosperity and inequality, not global warming, not migration, not even war and peace.

Howard W. French is a columnist at Foreign Policy, a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and a longtime foreign correspondent. His latest book is Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War. Twitter: @hofrench

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

Oleg Salyukov salutes to soldiers during Russia’s Victory Day parade.
Oleg Salyukov salutes to soldiers during Russia’s Victory Day parade.

Stop Falling for Russia’s Delusions of Perpetual Victory

The best sources on the war are the Ukrainians on the ground.

A fire rages at the Central Research Institute of the Aerospace Defense Forces in Tver, Russia
A fire rages at the Central Research Institute of the Aerospace Defense Forces in Tver, Russia

Could Sabotage Stop Putin From Using the Nuclear Option?

If the West is behind mysterious fires in Russia, the ongoing—but deniable—threat could deter Putin from escalating.

China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi is received by his Kenyan counterpart, Raychelle Omamo, in Mombasa, Kenya.
China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi is received by his Kenyan counterpart, Raychelle Omamo, in Mombasa, Kenya.

While America Slept, China Became Indispensable

Washington has long ignored much of the world. Beijing hasn’t.

A bulldozer demolishes an illegal structure during a joint anti-encroachment drive conducted by North Delhi Municipal Corporation
A bulldozer demolishes an illegal structure during a joint anti-encroachment drive conducted by North Delhi Municipal Corporation

The World Ignored Russia’s Delusions. It Shouldn’t Make the Same Mistake With India.

Hindu nationalist ideologues in New Delhi are flirting with a dangerous revisionist history of South Asia.