By Chelsea Ngoc Minh Nguyen. 3 April 2023
OPINION: Ukraine, take note: values of democracy, equality and fairness are not exclusively Western or European
A head of the first anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, president Volodymyr Zelenskyi declared Russia to be “the biggest anti-European force of the modern world” in a speech to the European Parliament.
By “European”, Zelenskyi was referring to the continent’s “way of life”, which was, he said, “steeped in rules, values, equality and fairness”. Europe, he added, was “a place where Ukraine is firmly at home”.
It was a prominent example of how Ukraine has come to focus on its relationship to ‘Western civilisation’ in its wartime public diplomacy. Other examples include popular rhetoric about Russia becoming “more Asian” as a result of its illegal war on Ukraine, or that Ukraine’s struggle for national survival amounts to “extending Europe’s borders eastwards”.
But at a time when struggles for the values of democracy, equality and fairness are taking place not only in Ukraine, but elsewhere in the world from Myanmar to Palestine, this emphasis on the supposedly superior value of Western or European civilisation is limiting, to say the least.
This presentation of Ukraine’s struggle is set in a framework that sidelines similar fights in many countries in the Global South. It focuses public attention on the prospect of a new, exclusionary European future – rather than a more consistently and universally shared, equal and humane one.
Several actions by Ukraine’s diplomats in the Global South in the past year have made me critical of the country’s overall approach to wartime diplomacy.
Take Indonesia, whose years of domestic military dictatorship opened with the mass killings of communist sympathisers and others in 1965 and 1966. Those events led to the overthrow of nationalist leader and Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno, and his replacement by the Western-backed military dictator Suharto.
Although the country was a firm US ally during the dictatorship, which lasted until 1998, Indonesians have retained a fond appreciation for, and memories of, their years of cooperation with the Soviet Union, based on culture, education and a shared politics of moving towards a non-capitalist, postcolonial future and a new world order.
Indonesia has not been neutral over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (although domestically, there have been debates on whether the country could have done more for Ukraine.) It has voted in favour of all UN General Assembly resolutions calling for the withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine.
Moreover, as the chair of the G20 summit in 2022, not only did Indonesian president Joko Widodo (or ‘Jokowi’) become the first statesman from the Global South to visit wartime Kyiv, but he also allowed Zelenskyi to present (virtually) his ten-point peace plan for the first time to the world at the summit.
But Ukrainian diplomats’ language has not always fostered this support.
On the one hand, speaking a week after the invasion, Ukraine’s ambassador to Indonesia sought to invoke support from both the Indonesian government and its public. The ambassador, Vasyl Hamianin, drew similarities between Indonesia’s past anti-colonial wars of independence, notably against the Dutch and the Japanese, and Ukraine’s ongoing war of defence against Russia.
He also emphasised that the invasion of Ukraine was a threat to world peace and the post-Second-World-War international security order. Indeed, as Indonesia’s ambassador to Germany has argued, Russia’s invasion does have ramifications for other smaller states that rely on international laws to defend their territorial integrity and sovereignty against great-power bullying. Indonesia, in its dealings with China over the South China Sea, is one such instance.
At the same time, however, Hamianin invoked Indonesia’s bloody anti-communist past, telling his audience: “You [Indonesia] are a wise nation that was able to ward off the communists’ seductions and not to submit to them.” He went further, claiming that “today’s Russia is a continuation of the communist regime.”
If Ukraine is to make successful outreach to states outside Europe, it needs to recognise the similarity in struggles across the world for the same values of democracy, equality and fairness
While a brewing Islamic populism and anti-communism go hand-in-hand in contemporary Indonesian politics, the evocation of memories of one of the 20th century’s most bloody periods of history – massacres that left between 500,000 and a million people dead – at best revealed a lack of diplomatic judgement and sensitivity.
The suffering of this period has just recently been acknowledged. It was only in January 2023 that Jokowi formally extended the Indonesian state’s “deep regrets” with an acknowledgement that the 1965 massacres did indeed take place. On what grounds did Hamianin believe it was appropriate to intervene with comments that seemed to stand against a historically sensitive and long-standing political agenda within Indonesia – that of gradual reconciliation and more candidness about the 1965 massacres?
Israel and Palestine
Another disturbing episode took place in relation to Israel’s escalatory violence in Gaza in August 2022, which Indonesia resolutely condemned, in accordance with its tradition of solidarity with Palestine. Indonesia is among the few countries in the world that still do not have formal diplomatic relations with Israel.
In response to its condemnation of the Israeli attacks, Hamianin tweeted, in all caps: “How about strong condemnation of brutal attacks on Ukraine during the last five months? And deaths of hundreds if not thousands of children, including Muslim kids?”
Shortly afterwards, Ukraine’s ambassador to Israel, Yevgen Korniychuk, released a public statement that read: “As a Ukrainian whose country is under a brutal and prolonged attack by its nearest neighbour, I feel great sympathy for the Israeli public. Terrorism and malicious attacks against civilians have become the daily routine of Israelis and Ukrainians.” The Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs later retweeted Korniychuk’s statement.
The Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned Hamianin, having expressed its “displeasure and resentment” over the comments, which were seen as “hurtful to Indonesians who consider Ukrainians as friends”.
This apparent conflict of values in calling for support for Ukraine against Russia while at the same time taking Israel’s side in its disproportionate use of violence against the Palestinians is a case in point of the language of ‘civilisation’ being applied only to the West. This has the potential to alienate those in the Global South. Large segments of the Indonesian public have been galvanised in recent decades by the cause of Palestinian statehood and freedom.
If Ukraine is to make successful outreach to states outside Europe, it needs to recognise the similarity in struggles across the world for the same values of democracy, equality and fairness – instead of centring the notion of ‘civilisation’ exclusively in Europe.
Lessons from Vietnam
The US has been and remains the most significant external rearguard behind Ukraine’s war of defence against Russia, materially, financially and militarily. As a result, US and Ukrainian wartime diplomatic efforts have been well coordinated and largely in unison.
Yet, here again we can see signs of an exclusionary approach. Last March, when Russia alleged (falsely) that US biological weapons programmes were being run in Ukraine, the US embassy in Vietnam released a brazen statement that said: “Russia, not the United States, has a long and well-documented track of using chemical weapons.”
Unsurprisingly, the embassy’s Facebook page was engulfed with outraged comments from local Vietnamese. According to official Vietnamese figures, between three and 4.8 million people in Vietnam were exposed to Agent Orange, a toxic chemical deployed by the US Army between 1961 and 1971, during the Vietnam War.
While the revolts and protests of 1968 were an age of optimism across former colonies, today is marked by profound global cynicism that a more democratic and socially just tomorrow is possible
Even more profoundly than in Indonesia, significant segments of the Vietnamese population continue to hold a deep-seated appreciation of the Soviet Union. Following the US military’s withdrawal in 1973 and the reunification of Vietnam in 1975, it was largely the USSR and the Eastern Bloc that helped a war-ravaged Vietnam fill its acute human capital and infrastructural gaps, training its modern state-builders (medics, engineers, agronomists, geologists, economists, teachers, architects and so on).
This support happened under the harsh external conditions of an intense Chinese- and US-led diplomatic crusade and blockade of international humanitarian aid, trade and other assistance to the country.
But while Vietnam and Ukraine have both suffered invasions by great powers with imperialist ambitions of control and dominance, the similarities end when we consider Vietnam’s efforts at wartime diplomacy in the 1970s.
Those efforts were about promoting the universality of national liberation, civil rights and solidarity movements that were simultaneously taking place across the world, particularly in the lands of the “enemy governments” of the US and France. It was about creating a new and more just world based on non-capitalist relations of international solidarity, rather than a movement towards an ancient civilisational past.
And it wasn’t just government-to-government diplomacy. In a separate front of people-to-people diplomacy, Vietnamese diplomats travelled extensively across Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe to extend their solidarity with people and social movement-led struggles, to find meeting points between each other’s struggles for a more just, decolonial world.
Ordinary people were rarely, if ever, a target of official wartime propaganda and denunciations. Instead, American and French intellectuals, students, politicians, military veterans and cultural icons were fully embraced in a united campaign to have the US withdraw from South Vietnam.
Ukraine as a source of inspiration
Ho Chi Minh allegedly once said: “The first front against US imperialism is in Vietnam. The second one is right inside the US.” In Ukraine’s case, that would entail engaging more courageously with Russian opposition to the invasion, even if that’s only 1% of the population.
However, it must be said that Ukraine’s daunting task of engaging with its friends in Russia and in the Global South is spectacularly more challenging than it ever was for Vietnam’s wartime diplomacy. While the revolts and protests of 1968 were an age of optimism across former colonies, today is marked by profound global cynicism that a more democratic and socially just tomorrow is possible.
Nevertheless, Ukraine’s most sustainable long-term solution must also become a transformative solution for Russia’s draconian authoritarianism – which is why a civilisational and exclusionary diplomatic approach is self-defeating.
This is not a call for Ukraine to solve the world’s problems while driving an invading Russian army out of its country. For many countries in the Global South, the concern is not about preserving objectively needed ties to Russia, but more fundamentally about Ukraine’s self-identification and values in relation to them.
Diplomacy, in times of war and peace, isn’t only about maximising your country’s national interests: it’s also about conveying to the world what values you would like the world to understand and, preferably, share with you, in mutual solidarity, respect and admiration.
Can Ukraine become a source of inspiration for an independent and progressive political agency that rejects the civilisational traps of both the West and Russia? One can only hope so.