The West and the rest of us
By Femi Olugbile
The war between Russia and Ukraine has been an eye opener for the world in many ways.
In all the history of mankind, nations have related on the basis of self- interest. The attempt to create a ‘World Order’ based on a notion that it is possible, even necessary, to balance the interests of all the nations of the world in a way whereby everybody gets a fair deal began, in effect, with the creation of the League of Nations in 1920. This initiative itself arose because of the horrors experienced during the First World War, and a sense that Europe, the main theatre of the War, could ill afford a repeat of such a painful spectacle.
The concept effectively morphed into the United Nations in 1945. The UN is a body in which all nations of the earth, irrespective of their race or geographical location, are entitled to membership.
The socio-political implication of such unprecedented ‘inclusiveness’ in the affairs of nations took a long time to sink in. Soon, a bipolar world emerged, with an ideological war between Capitalism and Socialism to recruit members to their camp. It became a nasty, no holds barred battle prosecuted not just through logic and suasion but also with the open or covert instigation of coups, assassinations, and revolutions by the most powerful nations. The world was divided into East and West by a metaphorical Iron Curtain. In this battle which raged in all the corners of the world, including the newly independent nations of Asia and Africa, each side justified its actions as a necessary struggle to create a perfect society. Even the efforts of oppressed nations to free themselves from the yoke of colonialism were re-cast in the light of this Left against Right battle. Generally, the ‘Left’, led by the Soviet Union, supported the anti-colonial Liberation Movements, whereas the ‘Right’, with America in the vanguard, often rooted for the status quo. Good examples of such scenarios were the battle of the ANC against apartheid South Africa, and the anti-imperialist wars in the erstwhile Portuguese territories of Southern Africa.
When the Iron Curtain came down dramatically with the dissolution of the Soviet Union into its component nationalities, the general perception was that Socialism, in the form of Marxism-Leninism in which it was advanced by the Soviets, had lost out, and Capitalism, as embodied by America and the Western World, was now the only game in town. There was a promise that, with the ‘New World Order’, a global architecture would be created in which every nation could thrive. There would be free trade between nations, and multilateral institutions would be set up to facilitate equitable exchange in a general ambience of mutual respect and equality between nations. Capitalism and the profit motive would be the main basis of economic pursuit, and the deepening of Democracy across the world would be a common goal. Innovation would be used to advance the good of all mankind.
The architecture began to fray even before the glue that held the pieces together had had time to set. Other nations were not content simply to lie down and play second fiddle to the USA and the West. China was on the rise, economically and militarily. In technological innovation, it proved it could hold its own and even outstrip the West in competition, as evidenced by the Huawei 5G saga. By any criteria, it was now a World Power. And even if the Soviet Union had gone into abeyance, Russia was not going to lie down and die. To further compound issues, a body known BRICS made up of – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, and claiming to be independent in its allegiance, began to find its voice.
What was emerging was not a world with America as sole power, but one with multiple centres of power. There was a distinction, though. Only America and the West made any pretensions to idealistic, high-moral motives. The others operated unabashedly on the basis of their national or group interests.
The BRICS countries, and many others in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, have been less than effusive in their support for the Western position on the war in Ukraine. South Africa and India abstained in the UN vote. Listening to a snippet of the debate in the South African Parliament revealed a resentment of America and the West that went back to the struggle against apartheid and the shenanigans of the West. But it also showed anger at the assumption by the West that they carry an unassailable moral position. Although the Nigerian National Assembly is not a ‘thinking’ body like its South African counterpart, that resentment is prevalent on the streets and in intellectual circles in Lagos and Abuja, too. While they sympathize with Ukrainians for their suffering and worry President Putin has crossed the line, they also empathize with Russia’s worry at the effrontery and insensitivity of NATO in assuming it could plant itself on its doorsteps of Russia. They remember the missile crisis in Cuba, and Iraq, and Chile and Venezuela, and see nothing but hypocrisy in the moral posturing that has taken over the western media.
How will the world align after the war in Ukraine? Will Russia and China form a power bloc?
The West is hypocritical in the application of the virtue it claims for itself as an open, democratic society, true. Its problems are compounded by a rampant racism that it is yet to fully acknowledge and address.
Still, many of the people in Africa who resent their pretentions, would, given a choice, prefer to live in a society similar to those imperfectly open, imperfectly democratic societies of the West, rather than one like China or Russia which makes no pretension to openness or democracy. The difference is captured graphically by the general feeling that the spectacle of a lone Russian woman with a placard sacrificing her freedom and career to protest on live national television recently captures the essence of what is wrong with life in Russia.
Many Africans have a love-hate relationship with the West. But even imperfect freedom, and imperfect democracy, are innately appealing to the African psyche, no matter how traumatized or ambivalent, it would seem.
It is a paradox of human psychology that the people themselves are yet to fully accept or understand.