The Great De-Centering: The World after Ukraine

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In the US many have the impression that the entire world is aiding Ukraine, but the truth is that most countries are sitting this out

The Ukraine war is a turning point in history, but not the one you might be expecting. It won’t revive the Cold War. It won’t determine the survival of the Liberal World Order (whatever that is). And most decidedly, it won’t rehabilitate the moral reputation of Europe and the US. If Westerners could peek out from under the flower crowns and Ukrainian flags they have draped across their social media pages for just one minute they might notice that few countries are joining their parade of support for Ukraine.

Wars mean different things to different peoples, and while this war is seen across the planet as an undeniable tragedy for the people of Ukraine, for many it is also bringing into focus emotions and anger that have been building for years. Pushed to choose a side in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, many are choosing to walk away instead.

Turkey: Not your Father’s NATO Ally

I’m spending the year in Ankara, Turkey as a Fulbright Scholar, giving me a ringside seat to observe one of the players distancing itself from the Western posse. Policy makers keep chanting “Turkey has been a key NATO ally since 1952” as if it were a magic spell, but so far it hasn’t produced the outcome the West wants. Turkey hasn’t implemented sanctions or offered much to Ukraine beyond contracts inked before the war. Western leaders rationalize the disappointing response as a product of Turkey’s “difficult economic position” or “strategic vulnerabilities,” but they are missing the bigger story here. The Turkish government might still be a NATO member, but to many Turks it hasn’t felt like an alliance for a while.

My students here in Turkey were born after 9/11 and have zero nostalgia for Cold War NATO. They associate NATO and its states with twenty years of war and occupation in Afghanistan, not the defense of the free world. Others I meet are old enough to wonder about the NATO bombing of Libya in 2011, which always seemed an action less likely to protect Libyan civilians than oil investments. Those born a decade earlier question NATO’s bombing of Belgrade in 1999. Neither do they have warm feelings for the 1990s NATO mission in Bosnia; instead they ask why the West was so ineffectual in protecting Bosnian Muslims. In short, for many born after 1980 NATO appears less peacemaker and more rogue agent in the system.

This antipathy to NATO states is born out in recent surveys. A March, 2022 poll found that 48 percent of Turks blamed the US and NATO for the war in Ukraine, while only 34 percent blamed Russia. A German Marshall Fund survey found that 58 percent of Turks saw the US as the greatest threat to their security; only 31 percent considered Russia the greatest threat—and these were polls conducted after the invasion of Ukraine.

Pundits are quick to dismiss these poll results as outcomes of Russian misinformation and politicized media. There is some truth to these charges, but Westerners are mostly avoiding another unflattering truth: NATO states’ actions alone are responsible for negative views of the alliance.

The Elephants in the Room

The biggest elephant in the room is the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. Every speech that Western leaders make on Ukrainian sovereignty, international norms, or civilian deaths only digs the hypocrisy hole deeper. The failure of the US to acknowledge its abuse of the international system and public opinion with trumped-up charges of weapons of mass destruction only widens the gulf between the West that Westerners want to project and the West the world has encountered. The US invasion of Iraq cost the lives of 200,000 Iraqi civilians. Overall, the War on Terror that began with the Afghan invasion and continues across theaters from Central Asia to North Africa today has resulted in almost a million deaths, 400,000 of them civilians.  Despite damning reports quantifying the humanitarian disaster left in their wake (like that by the Brown University Cost of War Project (COW)), Americans refuse to acknowledge the tragedies their wars have provoked.

This image from a Belgrade soccer stadium showing banners critiquing NATO hypocrisy circulated on Twitter and other social media platforms in March

And with the disappointing unraveling of those wars America has moved to disown even the memories of the conflict. My students in the US know nothing of US military actions abroad over the last twenty years, and even older Americans have little sense of what kind of wars the US waged. They know little of Abu Ghraib prison abuse, the use of torture, or the US blocking the International Criminal Court’s investigation of war crimes committed by US troops. They don’t want to know.

Americans won’t even have to suppress memories of US drone warfare, because they have never acknowledged it as war. Despite repeated reports, Americans ignore the civilian “collateral damage” in drone strikes just as they ignore the dubious legality of carrying out executions outside of war zones. The rest of the world, however, considers the grisly aftermath and wonders: how is this not considered intervention?

Hypocrisy and Humanitarian Racism

Of course, my students in Turkey were horrified by news that Africans, Arabs or others who did not look like a white European were being discriminated against in the flight to cross the Ukrainian border to safety.  Western leaders realized the public relations disaster this overt racism posed and acted quickly to condemn it, but they missed the bigger context of global anger. My students look at the outpouring of aid for Ukrainian refugees, the offers of housing, tuition for students, medical care, etc., and wonder why such sympathy follows racial patterns. Haven’t the Syrians and Afghans and Yemenis lived through total destruction of their communities? Even though the West bears tremendous responsibility for creating refugees (37 million of them, according to COW), its sympathy flows overwhelmingly along racial lines.

My students are sympathetic to the Ukrainians’ misery, but they see the Western response through the lens of a global pattern of racialized human control. They have all seen the pictures of children in cages at the US border, the cowboy border patrolman “herding” Haitians away from the US, and the tear-gassing of asylum seekers. They know firsthand that the EU’s primary interest in aiding the more than four million Syrians sheltering on Turkish soil is to keep them far away from Europe. And they watch the naval power of NATO states used not to rescue, but to intercept and imprison would-be migrants in Libya. Context is everything here, and Western aid to Ukrainians appears not as the West would like to see it, as evidence of heroic benevolence, but as confirmation of the global racial privileges of whiteness.

Sanctions, Global Bullying and the Decline of the Dollar Economy

The West is quite proud of its economic sanctions against Russia, tossing off numbers of superyachts impounded and accounts frozen, but most of the world is sitting this one out—and not just for economic reasons. While the West promotes sanctions as a clean, non-lethal tool to force a change in state behavior, my students see it as yet another form of Western bullying. And despite attempts to tailor sanctions to specific actors, they, like bombing campaigns, have many unacknowledged victims, from medical patients to small businesses. My students know this because of the US-imposed sanctions on Turkey after it purchased a Russian missile defense system in 2019. Their anger is palpable.  How is the US decision to punish Turkey for diversifying its defense sources different from Russia’s refusal to accept Ukraine’s moves out of the Moscow orbit? Obviously, the Russian invasion is exponentially worse, but what strikes people is less the difference in degree than the similarities in arrogant superpower behavior.

Some analysts have speculated that China will be the biggest beneficiary of the sanctions on Russia as countries reorient their financial exposure away from the West, but I think other possibilities are also likely. Turkey didn’t abandon its effort to diversify arms sources after the US sanctions, it doubled down on its efforts to develop its own arms production. For individuals, sanctions prompted interest in Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies as a way to reduce vulnerability. The world is wider than it was during the Cold War, and the Ukraine war will not solidify the “free world” but only accelerate the move to diversify financial and defense dependencies.

A Plague on Both Your Houses

Exasperation with the Western hypocrisy on display doesn’t translate to support for Russia; the Turkish memory goes back much further than the Cold War duality that the West favors. It is no surprise that the West would like to think of the war as an encore to the moments of shining clarity of the Atlantic alliance heyday: the Marshall Plan, the Berlin Airlift, the fall of the Iron Curtain . . . what could be more flattering to recall?

In Turkish history and in popular Turkish television dramas of the moment, however, different memories are on display. It is the memories of the catastrophic long nineteenth century that shape the Turkish sentiments on the Ukraine war: memories of the British aiding the Greek and Arab independence movements against the Ottomans to serve their own imperial interests, of Russia expelling millions of Muslims in its ruthless conquest of the Black Sea shores, and of Habsburg Vienna promoting nationalist movements in Ottoman lands before moving shamelessly to their annexation.

That is the long history that the West would rather forget: a history where European great powers, including Russia, shared a common interest in dismembering the Ottoman Empire, calling out each other’s fouls in the imperial game only when they interfered with their own goals. Those are the memories that shape current apathy toward the Ukraine war and explain why Turkey sees the war as a family struggle in its closing act.

The West After Ukraine: United in Denial

The war has created a moment of clarity for many around the world, but Western allies refuse to acknowledge the unflattering history that provides the context for the world’s apathetic response. For much of the world the tone-deaf call for solidarity is symptomatic of the declining relevance of Western power. My students regularly preface remarks with “now that the US is in decline . . .” or “in the post-Western age . . . .” Their assessment has nothing to do with the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, but it has everything to do with the arrogance and ignorance that brought about the invasion. Choosing to use a legal strategy (an option the US rejected in favor of an invasion) to bring Bin Laden to justice in 2001 would have made all the difference twenty years later. The US might not have captured or eliminated Bin Laden any more quickly, but the US probably wouldn’t have created the world of wrecked lives and landscapes we have become associated with.

The West would like to use Ukraine to rehabilitate Atlantic solidarity, but if it is the same solidarity that has brought racist policing of the globe, my students aren’t buying it. This doesn’t mean that people are not horrified by Russia’s invasion, but they see the Russian brutality as part of the violent Western tradition they have experienced themselves. My students see Ukraine through the context of drone wars, European anti-immigrant populism, US police murders of African Americans, and the violent storming of the US capital. Who has the high ground here? This war has unleashed a wave of anger over past and present interventions that are still unacknowledged by their perpetrators, and led to profound reconsiderations of attitudes toward the West. My students wonder what else the world has to offer.

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