News | Globalization - War / Peace - Eastern Europe - Israel - Palestine / Jordan - War in Israel/Palestine Gaza, Ukraine, and the Moral Bankruptcy of the “Rules-Based Order”

The vastly different responses to the two wars reveal the hypocrisy at the heart of global statecraft


Protests against the war in Gaza in Indonesia, 13 November 2023. Photo: IMAGO / Pond5 Images

The last two years have witnessed impassioned debates about the role of the “Global South” in international politics to an extent not seen since the early 1980s. In early 2022, countries in the Global North criticized the Global South’s reluctance to participate in the unilateral sanctions against Russia, a country that invaded its neighbour — a clear violation of international law — and triggered a war that has cost hundreds of thousands of lives. By refusing to participate, the argument went, the countries of the Global South were crudely prioritizing their own strategic interests over the principles of sovereignty, territorial integrity, democracy, and human rights.

Chelsea Ngoc Minh Nguyen worked at the UN Development Programme in Indonesia (2019–22) and the UN Economic and Social Commission for the Asia-Pacific in Thailand (2016–17) on rural development, peacebuilding, trade policy, and survey data and analysis.

For the Global South, however, the overriding question since 24 February 2022 has been, would support for the West’s cause in Ukraine lead to a more egalitarian and consistent rules-based world order, or rather reinforce the hierarchical status quo, characterized by the selective application of and compliance with international law across different wars and occupations? The answer to that question has been on full display since Israel’s latest war on Gaza, triggered by the Hamas attack on 7 October 2023, began. The result has been an ongoing collapse of confidence in the so-called “rules-based international order” not only in the eyes of the Global South, but also in the eyes of many feminist, environmentalist, and human rights movements around the world, who are appalled at their Western counterparts’ treatment of the Palestinians.

Popular anger continues to rage against a peripheralized, liberal notion of humanity that values civilian lives differently across different wars and occupations.  On 21 November 2023, following Israel’s siege and destruction of the Indonesian Hospital in northern Gaza, the Indonesian aid organization that ran the hospital, the Medical Emergency Rescue Committee, published a searing open letter to US President Joe Biden, stating: “You have destroyed the international rules of the game, insulted the authority of the United Nations (UN), torn apart the sense of justice, hurt human values, and tarnished the face of human civilization.”

On 21 October 2023, King Abdullah II of Jordan spoke against the West’s unabashed renunciation of international law when it comes to the Palestinian people: “The message that the Arab world is hearing is loud and clear. Palestinian lives matter less than Israeli ones. Our lives matter less than other lives. The application of the international laws is optional. Human rights have boundaries, they stop at borders, at races, at religions. That is a very, very dangerous message, as the consequences of continued international apathy and inaction will be catastrophic — on us all.”

Notwithstanding the internal contradictions and divergent “national interests” pursued by various states within the Global South, Western leaders, diplomats, and publics are living in denial as they continue to disregard this anger and provide, whether tacitly and openly, unconditional support for Israel’s occupation. By displaying such flagrant double standards, they undermine their own credibility in the eyes of billions. Indeed, the long-term consequences of this deepening but longstanding North–South alienation will be grave.

Western Moralizing and the Illusion of Reciprocity

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, the West was unequivocal in its condemnation, while even in the Global South, shock and repugnance were common beneath the layers of official neutrality.

Indeed, two UN General Assembly (UNGA) resolutions to this effect were passed on 2 and 24 March 2022, relying on widespread support — or at least abstention — from the Global South. Among the major abstainers, discomfort with openly endorsing Russia’s invasion stemmed not only from the country’s undeniable violation of the UN Charter and international law, but also how the West’s unilateral sanctions and weaponization of various multilateral institutions and the global economy — from the scrambling of alternative energy sources to foreign currency — would leave their already pandemic-hit economies and societies even more fragile and weakened.

In March 2023, Kenyan president William Ruto explained his country’s opposition to the Russian invasion as follows: “It is not about the Global North or South, but about what’s right and wrong.” Nevertheless, he said this while sharing the Global South’s many fundamental grievances with the current international system, including inadequate climate finance commitments, indebtedness constraining health and education spending, and wasteful and discriminatory "vaccine nationalism" throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ukraine's government, for its part, acknowledged its decades of lacklustre diplomacy with the Global South, and 2023 saw an unprecedented expansion of engagement beyond the trans-Atlantic world. Particularly noteworthy were the preliminary meetings held in Copenhagen in June 2023, Jeddah in August 2023, and Malta in October 2023 — all which were attended by national security advisors and negotiators from China, Brazil, India, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Turkey, and Qatar, among others — in preparation for a “global peace summit” based on Ukraine’s ten-point peace plan.

Overall, condemning attitudes toward the Global South’s neutrality or reluctant support for Ukraine overshadowed Western perceptions in 2022 and 2023. Yet, export data from major EU economies revealed accelerated trade and commercial flows with Russia via a host of third-party countries, complicating Western accusations that Russia’s sustained war efforts rests primarily on the complicity of the Global South.

Rather than a sense of betrayal per se, the events of the last six months seem to confirm an unprincipled opportunism — in the West as much as in the East.

At the same time, Western and Ukrainian diplomats put serious efforts into rallying support across the Global South. This was less about sending arms to wartime Ukraine, and more about Ukraine’s imperative of developing long-term relationships in the Global South in light of the objective fact that geopolitical, technological, and economic developments in the twenty-first century will increasingly be centred on this part of the world.

During the meetings in Copenhagen, an EU official affirmed that any just peace in Ukraine “must be based on the principles of the UN Charter and the international laws concerning territorial integrity and sovereignty”. Yet, this political and moral certainty on the part of the Global North, which appeared rock-solid in the face of Russia’s war on Ukraine, seemed to evaporate with Israel’s war on Gaza and escalating violence across the West Bank

By the same token, in 2015, France and Mexico jointly proposed restricting the veto power of permanent members of the UN Security Council (UNSC) in cases of abject genocide and crimes against humanity. The proposal evoked a sense of urgency and gained broader international support following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and by July 2022 it had been endorsed by 106 UN member states, including Ukraine. Yet, to this day, France remains the only permanent member of the Security Council to endorse it, and whatever momentum it had collapsed after the collective punishment of Palestinian civilians and unprecedented devastation of Gaza began to unfold in the wake of 7 October 2023.

Perhaps the most morally and legally crushing complication, however, has been the West’s all-out diplomatic, financial, and military support for Israel’s punitive assault across Palestine. The West’s contrasting responses to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the risks of a prolonged and expanded Israeli occupation over the Palestinian people have fundamentally called into question whether the Global South’s gestures of tacit cooperation around Ukraine over the last two years will ever be translated into reciprocity from Ukraine and the West on other pressing issues that concern the Global South, including (but by no means limited to) Palestine.

Empathy for Ukraine, Apathy for Gaza

Dehumanizing portrayals of Palestinian civilians, including children, have emanated from powerful governments and influential media alike in a bid to justify violence against a besieged population. In the words of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), “Gazans feel that they are not treated as other civilians. They feel the world is equating all of them to Hamas.”

Such portrayals are part of a broader pattern of bottomless apathy when it comes to Palestinian suffering. This pattern rings tragically similar to Russia’s justifications for invading Ukraine, citing an alleged need to “de-Nazify” the Ukrainian population and incorporate the latter into the “Russian world”. In the eyes of Russia and Israel — occupying forces according to international law — both the Ukrainian and Palestinian senses of nationhood are false, and can only be redeemed through a civilizational “liberation” by extermination. This disregard for genuine political grievances and aspirations on the ground, treating local resistance movements as mere puppets of nefarious geopolitical powers, has historically often justified untold destruction, as was the case during the Vietnam War (1955–75).

On 27 October 2023, following the passage of a UNGA resolution calling for a humanitarian truce and protection of civilians in Gaza, Malaysia and Indonesia, both of which voted in favour of the Ukraine resolutions in 2022, railed against Ukraine and the West’s contrasting responses by drawing direct comparisons between the pleas of civilians in Ukraine and Palestine. In the words of an Indonesian diplomat: “Those who did not support this resolution are those who scream loudly about the civilian casualties in the Ukraine war. Unfortunately, they do not recognize the civilian victims, especially children, who have been massacred in the completely disproportionate fighting in Gaza.”

The message emanating from smaller nations like Palestine and Ukraine is that long-suppressed political aspirations and indeed history itself have returned to the world stage.

The second anniversary of the Russian invasion arrived at a time of faltering global momentum for Ukraine and the West. On 24 February 2024, the countries of the Global North uncharacteristically refrained from introducing a new UNGA resolution in support of Ukraine, largely out of fear that the latter’s declining support across the world would be confirmed. These non-binding resolutions, which have little practical implication or enforcement, are more about mobilizing and sustaining global relevance for Ukraine’s enduring cause. The same approach has been crucial to the political and legal struggle of the Palestinians, as demonstrated by the more than 180 Palestine-related UN resolutions passed since 1948.

At the Raisina Dialogue in New Delhi on 24 February 2024, various EU officials argued that Indian purchases of discounted Russian fuels were “producing Russian bullets”, while ignoring their own support for Israel’s carnage in Gaza. This scene serves as an exemplary case of a more fundamental point: among the major countries that were initially principled enough to symbolically support Ukraine at the UN, Ukraine’s and the West’s votes on Gaza and treatment of the Palestine question “will be remembered”. Rather than a sense of betrayal per se, the events of the last six months seem to confirm an unprincipled opportunism — in the West as much as in the East. In this sense, the position of Ukraine abstainers from a strategic geopolitical viewpoint, regardless of their moral and legal justifications, may in fact have been vindicated.

Ukraine’s Agency in the Current Global Predicament

In our age of renewed great power rivalries, the message emanating from smaller nations like Palestine and Ukraine is that, unlike the depoliticized age of capitalist economic globalization (1991–2020s), long-suppressed political aspirations and indeed history itself have returned to the world stage. They can no longer be ignored in the name of international trade, freedom of navigation, and the stability of the “rules-based” order.

There are nevertheless crucial differences in the ideological nature of the conflicts in Palestine and Ukraine: the paths of either insisting on a more egalitarian and consistent application of international law across different wars and occupations, or rejuvenating a decaying liberal notion of hierarchical selectivity in the application thereof. In that sense, Ukraine, along with the rest of the West, bears much responsibility for its current diplomatic isolation.

Following the killing of some 1,200 Israeli civilians and combatants by Hamas on 7 October 2023, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made his country’s position clear by siding with Israel in a manner that went beyond rightfully condemning the attack. In many statements made between 7 and 17 October 2023, Zelenskyy portrayed the longstanding Israeli–Palestinian conflict in terms of a belligerent “war on terror” framework, rather than the historical and legal contexts and the escalatory situation in the lead-up to the attack.

As courageously implied by the UN General Secretary António Guterres on 25 October 2023, the conflict’s history began 56 years ago. Prior to 7 October, 2023 had already been the deadliest year in Palestine the past decade, with Save the Children describing it as the deadliest year on record for Palestinian children in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Meanwhile, the current death toll of over 8,000 children in Gaza since the war began (the final figure will almost certainly be much higher) can only make anyone with a conscience feel anguished as much as numb.

Yet the Ukrainian state, from its presidential office to the armed forces, immediately drew equivalences between Ukraine and Israel, and between Hamas and Palestinian civilians. The office of Ukraine’s armed forces released a video portraying both Israel and Ukraine as waging wars in defence of “civilization”. Further escalatory violence was in effect encouraged. This contrasts sharply with the immediate responses of Singapore and Kenya, both close defence and security partners of Israel, who nevertheless called for mutual de-escalation and voted for a ceasefire at the UN on 27 October 2023.

On 13 October 2023, Zelenskyy’s aide, Andriy Yermak, published an op-ed in which he made the unambiguous case of “why Ukraine stands with Israel”. This was published on the same day that Israel asked the UN to forcibly transfer 1.1 million people out of northern Gaza within 24 hours, a  move that was widely condemned as an attempt at ethnic cleansing, if not what could plausibly amount to genocide, according to an interim assessment by the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Personnel, patients, and new-borns were not spared, and for many the move indeed ended up being a death sentence. Even Norway and Ireland, two close partners of the US, immediately demanded Israeli restraint and highlighted Palestinian suffering alongside their Israeli counterparts. In the words of the Irish Ministry of Foreign Affairs: “In the laws of armed conflict, there is no hierarchy in pain and suffering.”

The wars taking place in Gaza and Ukraine serve as a poignant reminder that how conflicts are portrayed is ultimately about securing one’s place on the privileged side of an already deeply unequal world order.

Beyond Israel’s allies and partners across the West, no other leader of a country that formally recognizes Palestinian statehood espoused as much support for Israel’s unrestrained retaliation as Zelenskyy. But as a Ukrainian poll from 15 December 2023 revealed, it goes beyond Zelenskyy: Israel’s military actions enjoy widespread support within Ukrainian society, as “a choice being in favour of a free democratic world against a world of medieval terror”.

Ukraine and the West began to belatedly express their humanitarian concern for Palestinian civilians on 17 October, only after the latest Israeli assault in Gaza had already obliterated 825 entire families from Gaza’s civil registry. The epitome of this was reached on 31 January 2024, when Ukraine’s envoy to the UN, Sergiy Kyslytsa, stood next to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu together with a handful of other UN envoys in a united call to defund and replace the UNRWA — despite the apocalyptic scale of devastation in Gaza and escalating settler violence in the West Bank.

The scene poignantly contrasted with how many middle- and low-income countries generously donated to Ukraine at the height of the Russian invasion through various UN agencies, sometimes under Western pressure. These countries also saw substantial Western development aid in key areas — from renewable energy to education — abruptly cut throughout 2022–3, as funds were diverted towards supporting refugees coming from Ukraine and the country’s wartime survival. This sort of zero-sum game is precisely why many governments and peoples across the Global South do not share the illusion that the end of the Russo–Ukrainian War will produce a more egalitarian and consistent “rules-based order”.

As much was symbolically manifested by a 14 November 2022 UNGA vote on setting up an “international reparations mechanism” to make Russia pay war reparations to Ukraine: 94 countries voted in favour, while 87 either abstained or voted against. Many understand that such a mechanism is unlikely to be invoked in other wars or occupations — in other words, serving selective justice. It is less a matter of applying double standards as such (of which no country is innocent), but the standards of self-proclaimed democracies themselves. An accelerated loss of attention and support for Ukraine’s cause is the result.

The Global South’s Moment?

The actions of both Russia and Ukraine are symptoms rather than causes of a general crisis in contemporary international politics, in which one’s own liberation necessitates the dehumanization of civilian victims of other wars, occupations, and oppressive regimes. In turn, the violence of unipolarity — i.e., the attempt to rejuvenate an ostensibly liberal, hierarchical rules-based order — is countered by the violence of multipolarity, in which only the politics and agency of rising great powers and their predominantly conservative ruling elites matter.

The wars taking place in Gaza and Ukraine serve as a poignant reminder that how conflicts are portrayed is ultimately about securing one’s place on the privileged side of an already deeply unequal world order. This indeed constitutes the ongoing tragedy of the Global South: although rightfully outraged at the double standards of the West, they themselves remain unable to collectively devise a more universalistic and progressive mode of governance, whether at home or abroad. In that sense, criticism of the West for its own sake often becomes regressive.

In this context, South Africa’s case against Israel at the ICJ was welcomed as a rare exception to the tide of post-colonial realism, characterized by the pursuit of “national interests” and depoliticized developmental and security-driven imperatives across the Global South since 1991. Accordingly, the provisional measures announced by the ICJ on 26 January 2024 were viewed by many observers as “a moment of the Global South”. This sentiment is partly justified: for many ordinary people around the world, their empathy with the Palestinian people also constitutes a protest against their own governments’ apathy and cynically transactional foreign policies. A degree of realistic scepticism vis-à-vis said sentiment is nevertheless warranted.

For South Africa’s courage must be appreciated not only in contrast to the complicity of the West, but also to the calculated and tepid approach of the rising global powers. Many governments across the Global South are themselves no longer driven by democratic and egalitarian imperatives, as they (at least ostensibly) were for most of the twentieth century. The contemporary politics behind the terms “Global South” and “decolonization” have increasingly become captured by right-wing governments and political forces, in which past transnational struggles for political, economic, and social equality and justice against the discontents of liberal universalism, imperial rivalries, and global capitalism have been replaced with civilizational particularism and culturalism.

Once defined by its anti-colonial heritage, India’s foreign policy is currently undergoing a profound ideological transformation, and the country has issued deeply dehumanizing rhetoric against the Palestinians. Many governments in the Arab world continue to be cautious in their support for Palestine, well aware that the issue remains a potential catalyst for criticism of their own administrations. The protracted disunity within the Palestinian political leadership should also not be downplayed.

When hearts and minds quietly change below the surface of an otherwise resilient and powerful liberal order, then imaginations and preparations toward a viable alternative have inevitably begun, even if only unconsciously.

In Asia, India and Vietnam are perhaps the only states that enjoy strong relations with the US, Israel, Russia, and Iran simultaneously, despite their traditional anti-colonial solidarity with Palestine. During Vietnam’s own struggle for national liberation, the Palestinian Liberation Organization offered unwavering support in its wars with the United States (1965–73), the Khmer Rouge  (1979–89), and China (1979–89). As a result, unlike India, Vietnam has consistently voted for a ceasefire in Gaza at the UN and pledged diplomatic and financial support for UNRWA. But beyond its formal proclamations of support for Palestinian statehood, its overall response to Israel’s onslaught has been marked by an unusual tepidity and at times disturbing silence. While evocations of Vietnam’s national liberation and the global anti-war protest movements of the 1960–70s have only grown louder across the world since 7 October, such references remain almost absent in Vietnamese government discourses, state media coverage, and public debates.

Along with growing bilateral military and security cooperation, Vietnam became the second Southeast Asian country to sign a free trade agreement with Israel in July 2023. Vietnam announced the agreement’s ratification by its national assembly on 27 February 2024, as the carnage across Palestine continued. If Che Guevara declared in 1967 that “Vietnam — a nation representing the aspirations, the hopes of a whole world of forgotten peoples — is tragically alone”, then today, Vietnam has been replaced with Palestine.

South Africa’s case against Israel is reminiscent of patterns from the nineteenth century whereby, in the words of legal historian Ntina Tzouvala, “non-Western international lawyers subscribed to the logic of improvement, wholeheartedly embracing the process of capitalist transformation”, while “the same lawyers challenged the self-appointment of their Western colleagues as the sole arbiters of the civilizing process”. Such tensions have re-emerged periodically ever since. Moreover, although the UNSC has been paralyzed by great power rivalries and unable to address abject war crimes around the world, various UN agencies and personnel on the ground have stood up against the organized violence directed at the Palestinian people.

What these simultaneous phenomena indicate about the future is that major countries in the Global South will grow bolder in re-claiming international law, seeking to counteract the ways it has been weaponized or renounced with impunity, as most evidently in Palestine. In other words, international law as the normative foundation of any claim to legitimacy and justice will remain a vital tool, especially for Palestinian statehood. The Global South, notwithstanding its own contradictions and prejudices, has a major role to play here.

The Slow Decay of Liberal Humanism

The West’s response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine may in the end be remembered as an unsuccessful attempt at reinvigorating a decaying, selective, and hierarchical liberal “rules-based” order. The latest Israeli–Palestinian War, by contrast, may be remembered as the war that changed the world — because it also changed the hearts and minds of its liberal adherents across the Global South. It is less a question of Western or Eastern, but rather liberal humanism as such that has died. When hearts and minds quietly change below the surface of an otherwise resilient and powerful liberal order, then imaginations and preparations toward a viable alternative have inevitably begun, even if only unconsciously.

In many ways, this moment echoes the lamentations of anti-colonial intellectuals, activists, and statesmen around the Global North’s betrayal of liberal humanism with respect to national self-determination in the twentieth century. If the horrifying images from the Vietnam War and subsequent anti-war movements constituted a watershed moment across the world, then the ongoing carnage across Palestine and global protests against it may constitute yet another such moment. It could have transformative implications for the global majority’s perception of the Global North’s values and principles, and build momentum for a new, multipolar, and anarchic world that nobody is prepared for.

At stake now is not only Ukraine’s and Palestine’s national survival, but the survival of international law and anything that is left of basic human decency. The violence and brutality of the last two years must prompt all of us — whether in the Global South or North, East or West — to enter into an honest and thorough introspection about the kind of world that we want to live in. What kind of geopolitics, notions of sovereignty, human rights, and legality are needed to overcome today’s challenges?  Otherwise, we will slip ever closer towards the abyss of a more violent, nihilistic, and soulless world, in which the weak are crushed in the interests of the powerful few.