“Like sex in Victorian England . . . race is a taboo subject in contemporary polite society.” This is how the late R J Vincent, a highly regarded British international relations theorist, began his 1982 article, ‘Race in international relations’. Behind the diffidence about race, he said, there lurk dire 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 is reported to have said, “I believe the greatest danger ahead of us is that the world might be divided on racial lines. I see no danger, not even the nuclear bomb, which could be so catastrophic as that”.
His fears were not unfounded. It was during his brief tenure as prime minister (1963-64) that radical Black American leader Malcolm X appealed to the leaders of newly-independent African countries to place the issue of the persecution and violence against Blacks on the UN agenda. “If South African racism is not a domestic issue,” he said, “then American racism also is not a domestic issue.” US officials worried that if Malcolm X were to convince just one African government, US domestic politics might become the subject of UN debates. It would undermine US efforts to establish itself as leader of the West and a protector of human rights.
Two years ago, the worldwide protests against racism and police violence sparked by the police killing of George Floyd reminded everyone that the influential Black intellectual W E B Du Bois’s contention that America’s race problem “is but a local phase of a world problem” still resonates in large parts of the world.
Perhaps America’s Ambassador to the UN, Black diplomat Linda Thomas-Greenfield could have given some thought to DuBois’s prophetic words before commenting on the large number of African abstentions in the UN General Assembly vote deploring the Russian invasion of Ukraine. She vigorously rejected any analogy with the non-aligned stance 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 the “one person one vote” doctrines. Many regard the latter as more truly democratic. To be sure, small countries having their own voice is an important democratic safeguard. But it is surely significant that countries that abstained in the UN vote constitute the majority of the world’s population. They come from all regions of the world except for Europe and its North American offshoots. Moreover, the abstainers include major non-Western democracies, which contradicts the US official framing of the war in terms of democracy versus autocracy.
Commentators have mostly speculated on the interests of the abstaining countries rather than try to understand their positions. One lesson 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 the Kenyan-born political thinker Ali Mazrui and pointed at the significance attached to “the principle of racial sovereignty” by many former colonial countries. Mazrui believed that it was the recognition of “the inherent sovereignty” of “peoples recognisable in a racial sense” that led many African and Asian leaders to welcome India’s annexation of Goa in 1961 since the colonial power ruling the territory — Portugal — was of a “different racial stock”.
To the newly-independent countries, says Vincent, “the dignity and worth of the human person” was a far more important foundational principle of the UN than peace and security, which for the Western powers were its “master purposes”. That is why defeating the apartheid regime in South Africa became a more urgent issue for the UN than matters of territorial aggrandisement.
Ukraine has a long history as a rebellious borderland resisting aggressive Russian nationalism. This happened even in Soviet times since, in the hands of the Bolsheviks, as the Indian-born colonial cosmopolitan revolutionary M N Roy put it, communism became “nationalism painted red”. Roy’s phrase appears on the title of a book on this period of Ukrainian history by Stephen Velychenko.
Ukrainians now strongly identify with “Europe” and “the West”. Unfortunately, these concepts are haunted by the memories of colonialism and racial segregation. Orientalism, as Edward Said put it memorably, “is never far from… the idea of Europe, a collective notion identifying ‘us’ Europeans against all ‘those’ non-Europeans”.
The Treaty of Rome, the European Union’s founding act, limits membership of the Union to “European” states. In 1987, Morocco’s application for admission to the European Communities — the precursor of the EU — was rejected on the ground that it was not a “European state”.
Yet the geographical borders of Europe are not self-evident. The EU’s nine “outermost regions” are not in Europe. These are France’s Guadeloupe, French Guiana, Réunion, Martinique, Mayotte and the overseas Collectivity of Saint Martin, Portugal’s Azores and Madeira, and Spain’s Canary Islands. Kuouro in French Guiana, on the northern tip of South America, is where the European Space Agency has its satellite-launching site. Moreover, three EU member states, Denmark, France, and the Netherlands possess non-sovereign “Overseas countries and territories”.
The sheer existence of these territories and possessions, say Swedish scholars Peo Hansen and Stefan Jonsson, is “fundamentally at odds with the EU’s dominant self-understanding”. EU’s moves to turn itself into Fortress Europe —by militarising its external borders and maintaining a liberal commitment to the free movement of peoples across internal borders — is not a pretty picture either.
That the scramble among some countries to join Europe or to “return to Europe”, would be a source of some ambivalence in “non-Europe” should hardly be surprising. One can’t expect the struggle for recognition as privileged “Europeans” to inspire warm sentiments of solidarity in non-Europe. In these circumstances, abstaining from the vote to reprimand Russia for its war on Ukraine was not an untenable position.
This column first appeared in the print edition on March 26, 2022 under the title ‘Not the world’s war’. The writer is professor of Political Studies at Bard College, New York