Wednesday, 31 May 2023

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There are only two global superpowers left

There are only two global superpowers left

While the Russian ship Lady R docked at the South African port Simon’s Town last December, it was loaded with arms intended to kill Ukrainians, says the US. For Europeans, the news was as baffling and upsetting as India guzzling Russian oil, or Brazil’s president Lula blaming Russia and Ukraine equally for the war.

We’re right to be upset. These southern powers gloss over crimes happening outside their neighbourhood. They watch Russia’s invasion with impotent nihilism, asking only how they can benefit. But then, European states today are similar. We have given up on faraway crises. The ambitions of France, the UK and even Russia are shrinking to the point that they are now mere neighbourhood powers. It’s just that, whereas the southern powers accept that that’s what they are, Europe’s fallen empires still pretend to be something more.

Southern powers start from an understanding of western hypocrisy. They know our habit of casting our own problems as the world’s — for instance, calling Ukraine “a war for global democracy”. They are equally clear-eyed about Russia. They don’t buy Vladimir Putin’s story that the west forced him to destroy Ukraine. An official from one Russia-friendly southern power told me that as Russia “goes down the drain”, his government is quietly pivoting away. His country isn’t pro-Russian or anti-western. It’s just pro-itself.

Southern powers tend to be insular: even their elites rarely travel abroad. They are scarcely heard in the global conversation. They don’t fight foreign wars. They are overwhelmed by basic domestic problems: providing their citizens with food, electricity and toilets. South Africa’s president Cyril Ramaphosa worries less about Russian massacres than about rivals inside his ruling party, the ANC.

Until very recently, big European powers still had global ambitions. That often meant treating poor countries as their hunting grounds. Britain sent troops to Afghanistan and Iraq, and France to west Africa. Together, in 2011, they deposed Libya’s leader Colonel Gaddafi. Russia adventured everywhere from Syria to Mali.

But they all over-reached. Since 2021, the UK and France have abandoned their failed foreign missions. The British army is the smallest it’s been since Napoleonic times. Only 0.2 per cent of the remaining troops are based in Asia or Oceania. Britain has reached the end of its “great game”, the Foreign Office’s former lead official, Simon McDonald, told…

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