Where’s the contest? Why so many democracies are unwilling to condemn Russia?

At first glance, the war in Ukraine would seem to confirm President Biden’s oft-expressed view that the world today is marked by a contest between democracies and autocracies. After all, autocratic Russia is waging a savage assault on democratic Ukraine, and the latter enjoys the staunch support of Western democracies. On closer examination, however, that framework turns out to be neither accurate nor helpful as a guide for U.S. foreign policy.

It’s true that many of the world’s democracies have lined up to support Ukraine. But the world’s most populous democracy, India, has neither condemned the Russian aggression nor promised to abide by the sanctions against Moscow.

And it’s not just India. Asia’s second-largest democracy, Indonesia, has been reserved in its stance on Russia. The largest successful democracy on the African continent, South Africa, has also refused to condemn Russia and has even blamed NATO expansion for provoking Moscow’s invasion. The two largest democracies in Latin America, Brazil and Mexico, have mostly remained neutral, and abstained from voting to remove Russia from the United Nations’ Human Rights Council. Iraq, the Arab world’s only functioning democracy, voted to abstain on the resolution condemning Russia. Most people who live in democracies have chosen, in this great ideological struggle, to sit on the fence.

At one level, this might seem a simple case of national interest trumping idealism. Many of these countries have economic interests that would suffer were they to cut ties with Moscow. India, for example, gets most of its advanced weaponry from Russia. South Africa and Brazil have trade relations with the Russians that, although not crucial, are significant. Yet the idea of a grand ideological crusade against autocracies leaves most developing countries very nervous. Many of them have strong economic ties to China and are closely allied to other autocracies in their neighborhoods.

A much better way to frame the division in the world is between countries that believe in a rules-based international order and those that don’t. Russia has revealed itself to be the world’s leading rogue state, intent on attacking the heart of this order: the norm that borders do not get changed by force. Moscow is seeking to return to a realm of pure power politics, one in which, in the words of Thucydides, “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”

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