The global order has remained relatively static over the past 70 years, that is until recently. Up until two months ago, before the invasion of Ukraine, the post-World War 2 victors continued to be the dominant players shaping global politics. The war between Russia and Ukraine has laid bare the myth that the “end of history” is at hand given the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.
The big powers continue to flex their muscles around the world with a sense of impunity. The numerous conflicts between the big powers themselves over the past few decades suggest that the Cold War never in fact ended.
With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, conflict in fact proliferated. These conflicts violated the territorial integrity of other countries, as competing former Cold War adversaries exploited discontent within developing countries. They instigated violent conflict by arming factions which they believed would support their respective agendas and narrow interests.
The war in Ukraine is the latest instalment of the big powers contesting for hegemony through a proxy war. As is the case in Ukraine, these wars have been for the most part illegal under international law, and without sanction by the United Nations. Other examples were the invasions by Western powers of Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia. Countries comprising the so-called coalition of the willing were never held accountable for their gross violations of international law.
Unilateral collective action is no less illegal than when Russia takes unilateral action. Wars inspired by liberal imperialism are no less illegal and abhorrent than wars inspired by conservative nationalism.
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Over the past few weeks, some of the most disturbing statements we have heard included suggestions by European diplomats that the war in Ukraine was worse than other wars as Russia is an “autocratic” country, invading a “democratic” country. The inference was that other countries were perhaps deserving of being bombed because their governments were not democratic. These diplomats hardly noticed the racism implicit in their statements, as most of the countries subjected to military aggression since World War 2 have been in either Asia, the Middle East or Africa.
There has always been a violent edge to the civilisational discourse that shaped colonialism, the League of Nations and even aspects of the United Nations Charter.
The acceptance of wars associated with liberal imperialism and its racism partly explains the difference in the global responses to the war in Ukraine and other illegal wars. South Africa has not taken a neutral position on the war in Ukraine, but rather a non-aligned one since it prefers not to be aligned with any of the protagonists or major powers involved.
South Africa’s position has consistently been that no country deserves to be invaded and subjected to endless conflict.
The war in Ukraine and the wars waged against Iraq and Afghanistan are similar in nature in that the big powers have executed their aggression with a sense of impunity. Most of the protagonists in these wars are not state parties to the International Criminal Court (ICC). This is because the big powers prefer to operate outside of the norms and rules provided for by international law.
Former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger stated that the use of force is a legitimate tool of diplomacy, and that the US would not want this tool to be subjected to scrutiny, or for the US to be held accountable by an international institution, including the ICC.
What Kissinger articulated forms part of the ideology that gave rise to the notion of “endless wars” as being part of the duty of great nations.
Wars take on an endless character when two conditions are met: when a belligerent pursues objectives while lacking the capacity to achieve them; and when despite the inability to achieve its objectives, the belligerent is not at risk of being defeated. When these two conditions hold over a prolonged period with no clear possibility of change in sight, endless war emerges.
South Africa is not immune from these geopolitical realities, and the proliferation of endless wars. We have maintained a clear position that wars can only be prevented through dialogue without conditions, and that once wars have started, the only way to end them is through negotiations. In other words, there can never be a military solution to violent conflict, since peace is only sustainable through political solutions.
Given the ramifications of “endless wars” for the global economy and the developmental agenda of the Global South, we are in urgent need of a revitalised non-aligned movement that can push for the transformation of the system of global governance.
The non-aligned movement must advocate for transformative internationalism to effectively address issues such as persistent inequality, poverty, climate change and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
South Africa’s foreign policy is based on principles derived from our foundational values and informed by the needs of our people. These guiding principles allow us to be consistent in our foreign policy stance, and there is strength in this type of consistency since we can explain and justify our actions.
At times our positions will be at odds with our friends and allies, but we are confident in the fact that we take positions guided by our commitment to human rights, international law and the equality of nations. DM