Indonesia, the world’s only democratic Muslim republic, has just presented its plan for peace in Ukraine. Unsurprisingly, the Russians have accepted it wholeheartedly, as the proposed measures are entirely in their favor and to the detriment of the Ukrainians. But surely one democracy should support another? The same question could be asked of Brazil, South Africa, and India, all of which have either voiced support for Russia or declared neutrality in what they describe as a Western conflict. In fact, the South—now known as the global South—is refusing to get involved, totally contradicting its own principles of national independence and inviolable borders. How can we explain such widespread dissidence? After all, any keen observer can see that the war in Ukraine is above all a battle between democracy and despotism.
One answer is that the global South is driven by an even stronger sentiment of bitterness and resentment. The global North colonized all these nations at some stage in their histories—and decolonization has failed to remove an unconfessed desire for revenge. Refusing to support Ukraine is one way to make Europe pay for its past acts of exploitation and slavery. And it is true that every country actively supporting Ukraine was once a colonizing power. Russia, on the other hand, colonized its inland regions in Central Asia but never ventured south. Among all these former colonizers, the United States occupies a place right at the top. In the nineteenth century, it colonized Cuba and the Philippines, in keeping with the Western approach of the time. But once these territories had been returned to their native peoples, the U.S. revamped colonialism by replacing it with imperialism—or rather an ideology viewed as such in the South.
From the U.S. perspective, the Pax Americana has provided the world with relative peace while exporting democracy, the market economy, and liberal morals since 1945. What the West considers the best of all possible worlds, however, the South sees as a submission to foreign values combined with thoughtless contempt for local culture. Did the Portuguese ever apologize for colonizing (and inventing) Brazil and Angola? Have the Spanish ever made amends for building a Latin American empire on the rubble of Aztec, Mayan, and Incan civilizations? Has the United States paid sufficiently for slavery? Has the U.K. returned the African artwork kept at the British Museum? Did the Netherlands not make a fortune by extracting spices from its colonies in Indonesia? And, though France may have apologized repeatedly for colonizing Algeria, this gesture has amounted to little in the eyes of the formerly colonized.
Meantime, in the Sahel region of Africa, the governments of Mali and the Central African Republic have deported French soldiers and their U.S. counterparts, and instead entrusted their security to Russian mercenaries. Some may assume that American imperialism, with its values, free trade, and democracy, would have made the global South more prosperous. Yet the region remains poor, and the gap between North and South is growing wider. Even aid sent by the North to the South mainly benefits companies from the North and their corrupt partners in the South. The people of these countries see little of it.
Of course, I am not describing the reality of the situation, which is far more complex than this. I’m merely attempting to characterize the feelings and perceptions of these nations’ leaders, and of their highly educated youth, who are particularly hostile to the North. If Europe and its allies are tearing themselves apart, this is hardly the South’s problem.
The war in Ukraine is therefore an extraordinary revelation of deep-seated yet rarely expressed feelings. This is the taboo concealed within the Indonesian peace project, which could just as well be coming from India or Argentina. As for the Russians, we know that their power in the South has dwindled and that the former Soviet socialist model has failed completely. Supporting or condemning Russia thus carries no risks or consequences, and the South can use the situation to make a point. What’s more, taking a stance against the global North is an effective way to distract the people of the global South from their incompetent leaders and domestic problems, including poverty and civil war.
In Europe and in the United States, we are busy containing Russia’s folly and preparing for a conflict with China (which would be disastrous). Meantime, the entire global South is slipping away from us. We need to ask some probing questions: Who benefited from colonization in the North and in the South, yesterday and today? Who are the beneficiaries of the public and private aid from the North toward the South? Who are the beneficiaries of global trade right now? How is the history of colonization written and taught in the North and in the South? In the North, we still have no idea how to put a satisfactory end to this long history, but asking such questions is one way to begin. We will probably need to do more than return a few looted works of art to their original owners.
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