Neoliberal values are not sustainable, and neither is the global system built on them

What was clearly missed by the international community, even as it was perplexed by the three South Asian nations abstaining from UN condemnation of Russian action in Ukraine, was how much the world has changed.

South Asia’s response to the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine tells a story. It’s a story of how the responses of three countries — Pakistan, India and Bangladesh — to the tragedy unfolding in front of the eyes of the world reflect the limits of the neoliberal-inspired constructs of international relations today.

Pakistan, much to the surprise of the West and the US in particular, abstained in the UN General Assembly vote to condemn Russian aggression in Ukraine at the (UNGA). Moreover, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan did not cancel or postpone his visit to Moscow even after Russia recognised two breakaway regions in Ukraine, Donetsk and Luhansk, as independent entities and ordered Russian troops to “maintain peace” there. Responding to what it calls an “invasion”, the US has announced crippling and targeted sanctions against Russia. These actions can be explained through an exploration of the limits of neoliberalism when it comes to a sustainable global system.

Neoliberals tend to believe that the state is a rational actor in pursuit of national interest and that it is in the pursuit of “absolute gains” rather than “relative gains”. For neoliberals who focus on absolute gains, a trade deal, for example, is worth it even if the signatories do not benefit equally as long as they both benefit in the long run. The same can be said for all kinds of international partnerships.

The limits of such cooperation is fairly clear when one considers Pakistan’s role in the US war in Afghanistan, where Pakistan was not given a choice when it came to partnering with NATO in the neighbouring country even though doing so was not going to be as beneficial to Pakistan as it would become, perhaps, to NATO. This takes into account the fact that Pakistan had already suffered through being abandoned by the US; faced sanctions once the Soviet Union was defeated in Afghanistan; had good relations with the Taliban-led Afghan government in 2001; and also shared a long, porous border with Afghanistan that would still exist once NATO left, creating security concerns. By agreeing to join the US war in Afghanistan, Pakistan found itself drawing the short straw in the deal. Its response to the conflict thus far as noted above makes sense because, contrary to neoliberal ideals, one country’s gain does not necessarily mean an equal gain for the other, or even any gain at all, and that may no longer be acceptable to Pakistan.

India’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has also raised many eyebrows. New Delhi has recently become close to the US and the West as it plays a leading role in the “Quad”, a group of nations meant to be allies of the West in Asia countering China’s influence in the “Indo-Pacific” region, a newly-coined term within US think tanks meant to replace “Asia Pacific”.

India’s growing significance can be deciphered from the fact that it did not get sanctioned in the way that Turkey did for buying the S400 anti-missile defence system from Russia. In 2019, India was also able to revoke the UN-guaranteed Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, leading to significant human rights violations in Indian-administered Kashmir, including the right to life, property and movement, similar in nature to the human rights violations being encountered by Ukrainians at the moment. However, the international community did not respond with the same indignation and outrage three years ago.

Hence, when India opted to abstain from the General Assembly vote against Russia, the neoliberal concept of “anarchy” in international relations was challenged. It may be that the international political system is constantly in a natural state of anarchy that makes cooperation between nations fleeting and difficult to achieve, and that which necessitates self-help for countries. International organisations such as the UN or the European Union can only help to a certain extent, beyond which they are toothless.

Clearly, cooperation between India and the West has been fleeting, with India prioritising its own interests. While being a part of the oft-touted Quad, as well as insisting on permanent membership of the UN Security Council, India is still one of the biggest clients for Russian military equipment and is dependent on Moscow for the maintenance of that equipment for decades to come.

As is evident, anarchy seems very like an unchanging condition of the international political system. Nations that rely on international organisations such as the UN, the EU or NATO to protect them while their borders become meaningless and their sovereignty is challenged may, unfortunately, end up like Ukraine with its leader pleading for a NATO enforced no-fly zone and fast-tracked admission to the EU while both international organisations look the other way, even as maternity hospitals are blown up and civilians take up arms.

Bangladesh also abstained from condemning Russia at the General Assembly. Lithuania, an EU member, promptly blocked a shipment of Covid-19 booster vaccines for Bangladesh, even though many of the recipients of these vaccines are likely to be ordinary people with as much direct influence over Russia, Putin or even their own leaders as anyone else, which is nil. Neoliberalism tends to focus on the upholding and protection of human rights as a significant driver of international peace with international organisations as guarantors, but it seems that the same organisations can be used as tools by stronger nations to assert dominance over those which are weaker.

What was clearly missed by the international community, even as it was perplexed by the three South Asian nations abstaining from UN condemnation of Russian action in Ukraine, was how much the world has changed. The writing is on the wall: neoliberal values are not sustainable, and neither is the global system that has been built upon them.

This article originally appeared in the opinion section of the website Middle East Monitor.

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