UN vote on Ukraine shows racial subtext of global politics

“Like sex in Victorian England. . . race is a taboo subject in contemporary polite society. This is how the late RJ Vincent, a highly regarded British international relations theorist, began his 1982 article, “Race in International Relations”. Behind the mistrust of race, he said, lie terrible apprehensions about racial divisions in international affairs. Apparently, Alec Douglas-Home, British Prime Minister in the early sixties, was among the few politicians to publicly acknowledge such forebodings. Douglas-Home reportedly said, “I believe the greatest danger ahead is that the world will be divided on racial grounds. I don’t see any danger, not even the nuclear bomb, which could be that catastrophic.”

His fears were not unfounded. It was during his brief tenure as Prime Minister (1963-1964) that radical black American leader Malcolm X called on the leaders of newly independent African countries to place the issue of persecution and violence against black people on the agenda. UN agenda. “If South African racism is not a national problem,” he said, “then American racism is not a national problem either.” US officials feared that if Malcolm X failed to win over a single African government, US domestic politics would become the subject of UN debates. It would undermine US efforts to establish itself as a leader of the West and a protector of human rights.

Two years ago, the global protests against racism and police brutality sparked by the police killing of George Floyd reminded everyone that influential black intellectual WEB Du Bois’s assertion that America’s racial problem ” is only a local phase of a global problem” still resonates widely. parts of the world.

Perhaps US Ambassador to the UN, Black diplomat Linda Thomas-Greenfield could have pondered DuBois’ prophetic words before commenting on the large number of African abstentions in the UN General Assembly vote lamenting the Russian invasion of Ukraine. She strenuously rejected any analogy with the non-aligned position of former colonial nations during the Cold War. The resolution was supported by an overwhelming majority of countries: 145 to 5 with 35 abstentions – India, China and South Africa among them.

Since many UN member countries have tiny populations, there is a growing tension between the “one country, one vote” and “one person, one vote” doctrines. Many see the latter as more genuinely democratic. Certainly, the fact that small countries have their own voice is an important democratic guarantee. But it is certainly significant that the countries that abstained in the UN vote make up the majority of the world’s population. They come from all parts of the world except Europe and its North American offshoots. Moreover, the abstainers include major non-Western democracies, which contradicts the official American framing of the war in terms of democracy versus autocracy.

Commentators have mostly speculated on the interests of abstaining countries rather than trying to understand their positions. One of the lessons of Vincent’s essay is that the Cold War was not the only thing that captured the attention of newly independent countries. He drew on the work of Kenyan-born political thinker Ali Mazrui and underscored the importance attached to the “principle of racial sovereignty” by many former colonial countries. Mazrui believed it was recognition of the “inherent sovereignty” of “racially recognizable peoples” that led many African and Asian leaders to hail India’s annexation of Goa in 1961 since the ruling colonial power in the territory – Portugal – was of a “different racial stock”.

For the newly independent countries, Vincent said, “the dignity and worth of the human person” was a far more important fundamental principle of the UN than peace and security, which for the Western powers were its “primary objectives”. That is why the defeat of the apartheid regime in South Africa has become a more pressing issue for the United Nations than questions of territorial aggrandizement.

Ukraine has a long history as a rebellious border country resisting aggressive Russian nationalism. This happened even in Soviet times since, in the hands of the Bolsheviks, as the Indian-born colonial cosmopolitan revolutionary MN Roy put it, Communism became “nationalism painted red”. Roy’s phrase appears on the title of a book about this period of Ukrainian history by Stephen Velychenko.

Ukrainians now identify strongly with “Europe” and “the West”. Unfortunately, these concepts are haunted by memories of colonialism and racial segregation. Orientalism, as Edward Said memorably put it, “is never far … from the idea of ​​Europe, a collective notion of identifying ‘us’ Europeans against all ‘those’ non-Europeans”.

The Treaty of Rome, the founding act of the European Union, limits membership of the Union to “European” states. In 1987, Morocco’s application to join the European Communities — the precursor to the EU — was rejected on the grounds that it was not a “European state”.

However, the geographical borders of Europe are not self-evident. The nine “outermost regions” of the EU are not in Europe. These are French Guadeloupe, French Guiana, Réunion, Martinique, Mayotte and the overseas collectivity of Saint-Martin, the Portuguese Azores and Madeira and the Spanish Canary Islands. Kuouro in French Guiana, at the northern tip of South America, is where the European Space Agency has its satellite launch site. In addition, three EU member states, Denmark, France and the Netherlands have non-sovereign ‘overseas countries and territories’.

The very existence of these territories and possessions, according to Swedish scholars Peo Hansen and Stefan Jonsson, is “fundamentally at odds with the dominant self-understanding of the EU”. The steps taken by the EU to turn itself into Fortress Europe – by militarizing its external borders and maintaining a liberal commitment to the free movement of people across internal borders – is not a pretty picture either.

That the scramble of certain countries to join Europe or to “return to Europe” is a source of a certain ambivalence in the “non-Europe” should hardly come as a surprise. The struggle for recognition as privileged “Europeans” cannot be expected to inspire warm feelings of solidarity in non-Europe. Under these circumstances, abstaining from voting to reprimand Russia for its war against Ukraine was not an untenable position.

This column first appeared in the print edition of March 26, 2022 under the title “Not the World War”. The writer is a professor of political studies at Bard College, New York

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