Over the past decade and a half, I have attended many meetings and conferences, and met many people in Western governments, think tanks and academia who have been concerned about the rise of autocracies across the world. Many of them believe that authoritarian tendencies are the biggest threat to the liberal world order and rules-based system.
But I beg to differ. I believe the biggest threat to the liberal world order comes from liberal democracies and not their autocratic nemeses. That is because there is a widening chasm between the values Western governments proclaim to uphold and their actual conduct. That has triggered a credibility crisis that threatens to unravel the liberal world order.
What we say about our value system and how we project our foreign policy objectives in our statements is important, but even more important is what we do afterwards. People have eyes and ears, and when what they see is the opposite of what they hear, they lose trust.
This is what is happening now with Western rhetoric and actions in relation to Israel and Palestine. This mismatch between what is said and what is being done is, of course, nothing new.
I come from a region where we have suffered immensely as a result of the great liberal promise of the West; our neighbour Afghanistan faced disaster not once, but twice because of it. As we moved from one war to another after the 9/11 attacks in the US, the Western-made liberal order started to lose its credibility faster than the West had time to realise. It left behind a debris of chaos, bloodshed and broken promises of “democratisation” and “emancipation”. The “others” started questioning the Western narrative and its legitimacy.
Wars leave behind devastation that persists long after the fighting and funding for “reconstruction” end and long after the media spotlight, the fervent hashtags and impassioned posts move on, as the world’s collective conscience loses interest. The aftershocks are felt in the geography where the wars are conducted for generations, as people continue to experience a conflict’s intended and unintended consequences.
I was in office when the Russian war on Ukraine started and I experienced firsthand how the US, the EU, the UK and other Western countries tried to convince many in the developing world that they must not stand on the side of aggression, that they must not be “on the wrong side of history”.
As the UN Security Council could not pass any resolution because of Russia’s veto, the West expended a great deal of political capital to bring resolution after resolution in the General Assembly in support of Ukraine. It aimed to show the world that Russia was using its veto power against the global consensus and was in fact isolated on the world stage.
And then came the war in Gaza. I watched with incredulity when pleas echoed from Gaza in the form of resolutions brought forward to the UN Security Council urging an end to the bloodshed and asking for a humanitarian ceasefire only to be vetoed by the US.
As the UN pleaded for action – calling Gaza a “graveyard for children” and reporting that more UN aid workers had died in the last few months in Gaza than in any other conflict – the West, which had historically been a champion of multilateralism, did nothing. In fact, it came in the way of those who were trying to stop the indiscriminate killing of civilians.
This forced UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to invoke in early December Article 99 – used only at times when international peace and security are threatened. Even then, the West took no action; the US vetoed a subsequent resolution for a humanitarian ceasefire at the UNSC and then voted against a nonbinding resolution at the General Assembly supported by 153 countries. The UK abstained in both votes. Let that sink in.
What makes this more unpalatable than Russia’s veto at the Security Council is that unlike Russia, the US and UK sanction people and countries on human rights violations and call for interventions on human rights grounds. How can the rest of the world have trust in the West’s self-declared “value-based leadership” when countries like the US and UK abdicate their responsibility and side with the aggressor?
This obvious hypocrisy is reminiscent of the tale of the emperor’s new clothes: Everyone can see Western rhetoric is naked.
The West talks about commitment to human rights and democratic values, while at the same time offering full diplomatic cover to the state of Israel and ensuring its impunity in massacring as many Palestinians as it desires in the pursuit of its official, declared goal of complete extermination of the Palestinian people.
In supporting Israel and enabling it to kill tens of thousands of civilians, the majority of them women and children in the name of “self-defence”, Western countries are putting themselves at the opposite end of the values and principles of multilateralism and respect for human rights they have put mammoth effort in promoting in the past. They are going against the very fundamentals on which the United Nations was built.
I believe in the commonality of our values, I believe that the West has much to celebrate in its human rights and development records, but I also know that the West has shown glaring disregard for these principles outside of its own geography.
Anyone concerned with the US’s global leadership or retention of its status as the leader of “the free world” should certainly be asking themselves why it has decided to isolate itself on the world stage and why it is willing to pay such a high diplomatic price that will have reputational and credibility repercussions for decades.
Washington’s stance today would not only undermine efforts to promote it as the only reliable world power, but would also sabotage its ability to play the role of a peace builder in the future.
If the US wants to save its global reputation, it should first and foremost stop standing in the way of Security Council resolutions demanding a humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza. It should also stop opposing General Assembly resolutions that commit to a two-state solution and condemn Israeli settlements; both of these elements are already part of US-stated policy. Finally, it needs to respond to the appeals of UN institutions and stop obstructing its actions.
Those who claim the UN has failed in the wake of this crisis are grotesquely wrong. The UN continues to unambiguously report what is happening on the ground and call for global action. Whether it is the UNGA, the voice of the collective conscience of the world, or the secretary-general, or the WHO chief or the UNICEF chief – they have all made incredible efforts to get the world to act and stop the violence.
I have served in government long enough to know that as officials, we often make the mistake of thinking our job is to maintain positions on certain issues that our countries have historically held. But this is the wrong way to go about building policy. Our job should be to hold principles not positions. Leadership requires strength to stand on the side of what is right not on the side of historical positions.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.