Tuesday, December 26, 2023

Why US double standards on Israel and Russia play into a dangerous game

Why US double standards on Israel and Russia play into a dangerous game

Diplomatic editor

The west’s equivocation on Gaza exposes a global order facing mutiny over its domination of the international discourse

Tue 26 Dec 2023 16.00 AEDT

The Biden administration seems to know it is gradually losing diplomatic support. Illustration: Israel Vargas

Richard Haass, the distinguished global analyst, once wrote: “Consistency in foreign policy is a luxury policymakers cannot always afford.”

But, equally, glaring national hypocrisy can come with a high price tag, in terms of lost credibility, damaged global prestige and diminished self-respect.

So Joe Biden’s decision to defend Israel’s methods in Gaza so soon after, in a different context, condemning Russia’s in Ukraine, is not just an occasion for hand wringing from liberals and lawyers.

It is already having a real-world impact on relations between the global north and south, and west and east, creating consequences that could reverberate for decades.

The Biden administration, reluctant to change course, may say the parallels between Gaza and Ukraine are far from exact, but it also seems to know it is gradually losing diplomatic support.

When the US and Israel are joined at the UN general assembly by only eight other nations, including Micronesia and Nauru, as happened when they rejected a ceasefire resolution for Gaza this December, it is harder to argue that America remains the indispensable nation – a phrase from former secretary of state Madeleine Albright frequently referenced by Biden.

By contrast, Vladimir Putin, after a period of his own global isolation, “really feels everything at this point is trending in his favour”, according to Fiona Hill, the former US state department official specialising in Russia.

In a context in which many rising nations anyway viewed the “international rules based order” with scepticism, the script for Sergei Lavrov, the veteran Russian foreign minister, writes itself. Speaking at the Doha Forum in December, Lavrov complained: “The rules were never published, were never even announced by anyone to anyone, and they are being applied depending on what exactly the west needs at a particular moment of modern history.”

For Hill, Biden’s speech in October linking Ukraine and Israel together in his effort to persuade Congress to release funds for the former “may have been good congressional politics, but perhaps not good global politics”. The victim in all this, she fears, would be Ukraine’s president, Volodymr Zelenskiy. He was “going to have a hard time navigating this”.

But America’s selectivity, as perceived across much of the Global South, is likely to cause a wider reckoning. Quite often in the past Palestine has been treated as a special historical case in global politics, and as an accepted preserve of the US.

But now, according to the Israeli specialist Daniel Levy, the issue has hurtled “to the heart of what some people have called the poly crisis”.

Levy says: “A US monopolistic exercise [regarding the fate of Gaza] is out of sync with the world we live in today and with contemporary geopolitics. In that respect, something important and interesting has happened, and perhaps even a source of some hope, which is, we’ve seen that for so much of the so called Global South and in many cities in the west, Palestine now occupies this kind of symbolic space. It’s a kind of avatar of a rebellion against western hypocrisy, against this unacceptable global order, and against the post colonial order.”

At a time when multilateral institutions are fighting what António Guterres, the UN secretary-general, calls “the forces of fragmentation”, how the US handles Gaza matters, not just to Gaza, but to multilateralism.

If the US defence of Israel continues to go wrong, one or two outcomes are likely. The trend to shifting transactional non-ideological alliances will grow. Forum shopping by countries or strategic hedging, requiring active portfolio management like financial hedging, will become even more the norm. Alternatively, America could find itself confronting larger and more assertive alternative blocs, whether it is an expanded BRICS, led this year by Putin, or other Chinese-led alliances.

Six short months ago it looked so different. After a period of so-called westlessness – code for the division and malaise fed by a Trump presidency – the west in 2022 rediscovered itself and was proud it responded to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine with unprecedented solidarity. Not afraid of war, or of losing Russian energy sources.

Russia’s army had not just been repelled at the gates of Kyiv, but been exposed as a morally bankrupt force guilty of heinous acts of barbarism in Bucha and elsewhere. Ukraine became the beating heart of today’s European values, as Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, said.

The liberal order, tattered by Iraq and defeated in Afghanistan, had revived itself. A total of 140 nations at the UN general assembly condemned Russia’s invasion. Moscow’s allies were silent.

Biden staged democracy summits, and launched infrastructure schemes for the global poor to rival those of China. Biden, it was said, was making a pitch to the Global South as part of a distinct democratic tradition that harked back to Franklin D Roosevelt’s anti-imperialism, Truman’s advocacy of the UN Charter (signed in 1945), and Kennedy’s efforts to forge closer links with non-aligned governments.

Yet even then alongside this self congratulation was a nagging question of why so many of the west’s natural partners viewed Ukraine differently. For instance, at the UN general assembly, when asked to do something practical to support Ukraine, such as impose sanctions, the number of countries supporting Kyiv dropped closer to 90.

Some leaders just shrugged their shoulders with indifference. Paul Kagame, the Rwandan president, said: “It is possible in my case that I don’t have to take sides with either side since I have nothing to contribute to this debate. It is in the hands of other countries, it does not concern me.”

Evidently, large tracts of the world did not see Ukraine as a global anti-imperialist struggle but a regional conflict within Europe, bringing them only higher food prices.

“We believed that the invasion of sovereign territory and the extremely serious violations of international laws committed by the Russian army would automatically put countries on our side. We underestimated how strong Russian influence was on the African continent,” said Alexander Khara, an international relations specialist at the Center for Defense Strategies, a Kyiv-based thinktank.

Indeed, as Hill explained in the Lennart Meri lecture, held in Tallinn, Estonia this May, Putin skilfully tapped into a pre-existing well of resentment with a dying Pax Americana. “This is a mutiny against what they see as the collective west dominating the international discourse and foisting its problems on everyone else, while brushing aside their priorities on climate change compensation, economic development, and debt relief. The rest feel constantly marginalised in world affairs.”

India’s external affairs minister S Jaishankar put it succinctly: “Somewhere Europe has to grow out of the mindset that Europe’s problems are the world’s problems but the world’s problems are not Europe’s problems.”

Now with Gaza, the latent anti-American mood has been given boosters. That any legal or moral parallel exists between Russian and Israeli behaviour is of course rejected by the Biden administration, which instead says the true parallel lies between the war crimes of Hamas and the Russian army.

Putin’s invasion and destruction of Ukrainian cities was not an act of self-defence. It was not a response to a specific outrage in which Ukrainian forces had crossed into Russia and massacred young party-going Russians. It was a Russian assertion of empire and its sphere of influence.

But once the bombed-out buildings of Gaza get juxtaposed on social media alongside those of Mariupol on social media, it gets more complex. The issue of proportionality comes into play. The Israeli response looks closer to the US post-9/11 revenge, which Biden had specifically counselled Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, against.

Yet, by and large, the west, with some exceptions, fell silent about Gaza when Israel’s assault began. Josep Borrell, the EU foreign affairs chief, was one who broke ranks, saying: “I think that to deprive a civilian population of the basic services – water, food, medicine, everything – is something that looks like being against international law.”

By contrast, the UK representatives at the UN in no less than 11 security council debates urged Israel to comply with humanitarian law yet never said whether the country had failed to do so.

Pressed for weeks to say if the loss of 18,000 mainly civilian lives could be in breach of international law, western leaders spoke only in conditional tense, adding they could not pass judgment since this was a matter for the courts. “We will not be drawn into a judge and jury role in the midst of all this,” Jake Sullivan, the US national security adviser, recently said.

Contrast that with the words of John Kerry, US secretary of state in 2016 on the Russian role in the destruction of Aleppo. He said: “It is inappropriate to be bombing the way they are. It is completely against the laws of war, it is against decency, it is against any common morality, and it is costing enormously.”

Or Biden in Poland on the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “They have committed depravity, crimes against humanity, without shame or compunction. They’ve targeted civilians with death and destruction. Used rape as a weapon of war. Stolen Ukrainian children in an attempt to steal Ukraine’s future. Bombed train stations, maternity hospitals, schools, and orphanages.”

Nor was this just presidential stump rhetoric. In March 2022 the state department formally declared that, based on information then available, the US government assessed that members of Russia’s forces had committed war crimes in Ukraine. “Our assessment is based on a careful review of available information from public and intelligence sources,” said the state department.

In a speech to the Munich Security Conference, in February 2023, Kamala Harris, the US vice-president, repeated that the US had formally determined that Russia has perpetrated crimes against humanity. “We will seek justice for the war crimes and crimes against humanity continuing to be committed by the Russians,” she said. Not much equivocation or deference to higher judicial authority.

Moreover, Ukraine broke a logjam in the US Senate about war crimes and its ambivalence towards the international criminal court, to which the US is not a state party. Within weeks, the Senate, under the urging of the Republican Lindsey Graham, had unanimously passed a resolution pushing for accountability measures, both internationally through the ICC and bilaterally.

The resolution asserting “the US was a beacon for the values of freedom, democracy and human rights” led to the (US) Justice for Victims of War Crimes Act, which was ultimately sponsored by a bipartisan coalition.

The act dramatically expanded the scope of those who could be prosecuted under the War Crimes Act. Previously, the justice department could prosecute war crimes wherever they occurred, but only if either the perpetrator or victim of the war crime was a US national, a US lawful permanent resident, or member of the US armed forces. The amended law allows for the prosecution of anyone present in the US, regardless of the nationality of perpetrator or victim.

At the same time the US as a member of the Atrocity Crimes Advisory Group for Ukraine started furnishing the ICC with its evidence of war crimes, deploying a team of investigators and prosecutors to assist the Ukrainian prosecutor, general Andriy Kostin, “in documenting, preserving and preparing war crimes cases”. A more comprehensive reversal of congressional attitudes is hard to imagine.

By contrast, after two months of destruction in Gaza, the US state department has said it sees no need to begin any formal internal examination of whether Israel has committed war crimes, even though the weapons it has been using were supplied by the US, and by some counts more civilians were killed in Gaza in two months than were killed in Ukraine more than two years.

Even the news that unguided dumb bombs had been used in almost half of the Israeli strikes, or that the president himself said he feared the bombing was indiscriminate, led the State Department to say it felt the need to conduct a formal investigation into breaches of humanitarian law.

A cursory journey round the world reveals the impact this has had. The US, whether it likes it or not, risks becoming synonymous with double standards.

Udo Jude Ilo, the Nigerian born executive director of Civilians in Conflict, is only one of countless African figures to give a warning. He said: “We are now in a situation where the identity of the aggressor or the identity of the victim determines how the world responds, and you cannot maintain an international framework of protection if it is available a la carte.” The result he said is that respect for international humanitarian law is hollowed out.

Mandla Mandela, Nelson Mandela’s grandson, said: “US officials are asked about the Israeli army’s disproportionate use of force in Gaza, and the response is: ‘We are not going to talk about specific strikes’. But isn’t this a question of principle, in light of the past weeks and the past wars in Gaza?”

At a more stolid official level, Egypt’s foreign minister, Sameh Shoukry, said: “The Global South is looking very carefully at the progression of this conflict and is making comparisons. And I believe that it is losing confidence in the viability of the values that have been projected by the Global North. This is a very dangerous situation because it can cause the unravelling of the world order.”

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Brazil’s president, and this year’s chair of the G20, said at a Voice of the Global South summit in November this year that it was necessary “to restore the primacy of international law, including humanitarian law, which applies equally to everyone, free of double standards or unilateral measures”.

Malaysia’s prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim, himself a former political prisoner, has repeatedly denounced Putin’s invasion. “We’ve been asked to condemn the aggression in Ukraine, but some remain muted in front of the atrocities inflicted on the Palestinians. It doesn’t concern their sense of justice and compassion,” he complained at the gathering of Asia-Pacific leaders hosted by Biden in San Francisco this November.

The Biden administration, with its unique relationship with Israel and insular political culture, has sometimes sounded tone deaf.

“Name me one other nation, any nation, that’s doing as much as the United States to alleviate the pain and suffering of the people of Gaza,” said John Kirby, the NSC coordinator for strategic communications. “You can’t. You just can’t. The United States, through [Biden], is leading the effort to get trucks, food, water, medicine and fuel into the people of Gaza … and name another nation that is doing more to urge the Israeli counterparts, our Israeli counterparts, to be as cautious and deliberate as they can be in the prosecution of the military operations. You can’t.”

Or take the deputy ambassador to the UN, Robert Wood, casually scrolling through his iPhone as the Palestinian ambassador made an impassioned plea for Palestinian survival. Or Biden, one minute defending Israel, the next suddenly admitting indiscriminate bombing was happening. These are unforced errors, and they ricochet around the world, and on to Arab satellite channels, in seconds.

Julien Barnes-Dacey, of the European Council on Foreign Relations, argues that the damage to American standing may ultimately be felt most not in the Global South but in the west itself.

He said: “That blow may be felt more by Europeans than the Global South. The west’s response to what’s happening in Gaza, and our inability to call out Israel, hasn’t suddenly woken the Global South up to double standards but it has re-confirmed to them what they believe the West is about.

“If you are a citizen in the Middle East or Africa you’ve experienced double standards for quite some time, whether it be through European migration deals or compacts with authoritarian governments. But this conflict is forcing an unprecedented degree of self-reckoning in Europe that is creating deep discomfort among many here.”

The same is true in left-wing politics in the US where, according to the Pew Centre, 45 % of Democrats think Israel is going too far,militarily while just 18% think it is taking the right approach.

Matthew Duss, a former foreign policy adviser to the senator Bernie Sanders, said: “If we simply say that those rules can be ignored by countries we like, or countries we have a special relationship with, we’re not really creating a rule-based order at all. We’re creating an order of might makes right.”

So what comes next?

Putin feels he already knows. He recently told a group of new diplomats: “The world is undergoing cardinal transformation. The underlying change is that the former unipolar world system is being replaced by a new, more just, multipolar world order. I believe this has already become obvious to everyone. Naturally, such a fundamental process will not be smooth, but it is objective, and – as I want to emphasise – irreversible.”

By trying to dominate the diplomacy around Israel, and exclude other countries, Biden showed he did not understand the world being forged, he argued. Putin hopes all he has to do is encourage some sanctions busting, and wait for 5 November 2024 – US election day – when Donald Trump could be re-elected. Trump’s pledge to “end the war in 24 hours” is widely seen as requiring a significant loss of Ukrainian territory to Russia.

To prove Putin wrong, and to protect himself, Biden occasionally seems to realise he needs the Gaza war to end and this requires ending his self-defeating unconditional support for Netanyahu. The Arab states, however much they dislike Hamas and political Islam, want the conflict over, and so does much of Ukrainian civil society for which Gaza has been a triple tragedy – it diverted world attention, it discredited the concept of rules-based order, and it divided the west, weakening Biden and the EU.

It is understandable why Zelenskiy took the unambiguously pro-Israeli position he did, but Timothy Kaldas, deputy director of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, said: “If you are arguing for a rules-based international order, if you want to be pushing back against countries taking territory with the use of force, then Ukraine should not be seeing itself as aligned with the Israelis.”

For others such as Borrell, the worry is that the pre-existing trends towards a more more multi-polar, yet less multilateral world will accelerate.

Only the memoirs will reveal how much senior figures in the Biden administration feared, in real time, about the scale of the cumulative reputational damage being inflicted not just on Biden but to American prestige.

For the moment they give the impression of an administration slowly realising the limits of their ability to direct not just the outcome of this war, but what global order will come in its aftermath.


  1. The vast majority of the Global South played a hypocritical stance, doing business as usual with Russia , parroting Russian talking points over Ukraine ,while condemning Israel.

    Malaysia Madani , for example, sent a whole bevy of Ministers to Russia , totally ignoring Russia's aggression against Ukraine.

    1. A surprisingly open & fair description of the current polities facing the international discourses of any legal or moral parallel exists between Russian and Israeli behaviour by a known demoNcratic mouthpiece.

      This apt write-up proves yr f*cked accountability flies like shit droplets in yr equally heinous political/moral selectivity!

      Condemned Russia using whatsoever definitions of the international rules based order while keep silent & consistently whitewashing the atrocities committed by the zionists!

      Mfer, do u sleep tight at night?