By Michael Shank
Citizens around the world are setting a new and impressive precedent in engaging in international affairs. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has raised a level of interest that dwarfs that of other recent conflicts or wars. This is undoubtedly a good thing: We need more voices raising awareness about the awful impact of war, the need to protect human life and the importance of preserving international law and order.
But while this activism is inspiring to witness, it’s also frustrating; the unavoidable truth is that the West just has not had this level of global engagement for equally destructive and damaging invasions by superpowers in other parts of the world.
Many have tried to claim that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is somehow unique and thus deserving of a new level of urgent response. But this excuse falls apart upon examination. The truth is there is little that differentiates Russia’s invasion of Ukraine from the last two decades-worth of similar superpower invasions of other sovereign nations, things like U.S. attacks in or on more than a half-dozen nations throughout the Middle East, South Asia, and the African continent.
The United States has also threatened to use nuclear weapons in war; President George W. Bush’s administration was very clear about America’s willingness to use them in Iraq. The U.S. has also contravened, dismissed, and undermined international law and order, with recent (bipartisan) examples including the Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations. And multiple U.S. presidents—also of both parties—have been justly accused of war crimes, including Presidents Bush and Obama. Moreover, recent U.S. wars have killed hundreds of thousands of civilians, created millions of refugees, and have been equally deserving of economic boycotts and sanctions.
But few of these have been met with the kind of global response that we’re seeing now. Few have received reprimand for undermining international law and order, or calls for war crimes accountability. Few have received the kind of media treatment and involvement we’re seeing now. Few received the kind of refugee response that we’re seeing now. And few of them are getting the kind of layperson approach to economic boycotts—things like banning Russian vodka, or Dostoyevsky—that we’re seeing now.
This activism is new and it’s different.
As someone who has worked in and written about many of the countries in the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa that have been invaded or attacked by global superpowers, it’s heartbreaking to see a lackluster response when it comes to the Black and brown victims of war and refugees, and the devastating resource destruction in these Black and brown communities. Even when Russia was bombing and shelling innocent Syrians, there wasn’t the anti-Russian and anti-war activism that we’re seeing now.
What’s the difference now? The explanation is unavoidable: Because this war is in the global north, because it’s impacting white Christian communities, and because it’s close to home, not in some far-off land.
Many living in invaded and destroyed regions of the Middle East, South Asia and North and East Africa see the inconsistencies. They see the public, policymakers, and the press in the West rushing to the aid of a largely white Christian nation in ways unseen in their respective, largely Black and brown populations and communities. To them it seems like the West is apparently only capable of empathy with its own identity and type, frightened that war has hit so close to home and ready to rally resources that were heretofore unavailable to victims of other wars in other parts of the world.
We in the West can and must do better. The idea that the West can only muster empathy for similar histories or identities is undermining the West’s capacity for empathy. Imagine if the West’s publics, press, and policymakers rallied against all superpower invasions in the way it’s responding to this moment. What a different foreign policy we’d see, what a different defense budgeting we’d see, and what a different international law and order we’d see.
To be clear, the level of engagement when it comes to Ukraine is truly inspiring and desperately needed. We need all voices speaking out against this war. Now let’s just apply this social and economic pressure to all invasions by superpowers that undermine a nation’s sovereignty, all invasions that contravene international law and order, all invasions that are driven by fossil fuel dependency, and all invasions that kill, injure, or displace scores of civilians.
Rather than attempting to explain or justify this moment, this boogeyman, and this threat as somehow unique, let’s instead rally a moral consistency that applies to all human life, not just the life that looks or lives more like us.
The world is on fire with activism to prevent this awful war from worsening. What a powerful moment to lock in a new moral narrative and precedent for the prevention of future wars—whatever the color of their victims. Now is the time.
Dr. Michael Shank is an adjunct professor at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs and George Mason University’s Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution