With us or with them? In a new Cold War, how about neither

Governments representing more than half of humanity have refused to take sides between the US, China and Russia. PHOTO: AFP

BANGKOK (NYTIMES) - As the bonds of traditional alliances fray across the globe, the Royal Thai Army, the United States' oldest treaty partner in Asia, has cast a wide net.

This year, with the world reeling from Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Thai soldiers hosted US troops for Cobra Gold, annual military exercises that are one of the largest shows of force in the Asia Pacific. A few months before, they participated in Shared Destiny, peacekeeping drills run by the People's Liberation Army of China. And in 2020, the Thais hedged their bets further, signing an agreement for their cadets to receive training at a defence academy in Moscow.

The geopolitical landscape after the Ukraine invasion has often been likened to that of a new Cold War. While the main antagonists may be the same - the United States, Russia and, increasingly, China - the roles played by much of the rest of the world have changed, reshaping a global order that held for more than three quarters of a century.

Governments representing more than half of humanity have refused to take a side, avoiding the binary accounting of us-versus-them that characterised most of the post-World War II era.

In a United Nations General Assembly vote this month to suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council, dozens of countries abstained, including Thailand, Brazil, South Africa, Mexico and Singapore. The resolution succeeded anyway.

Once proxy battlegrounds for superpowers, swathes of Africa, Asia and Latin America are staking their independence. The return of a bloc of non-aligned nations harks back to a period in which leaders of the post-colonial movement resisted having their destinies shaped by imperialism. It also points to the confidence of smaller countries, no longer dependent on a single ideological or economic patron, to go their own way.

"Without a doubt, the countries of Southeast Asia don't want to be pulled into a new Cold War or be forced to take sides in any great power competition," said Zachary Abuza, a security specialist at the National War College in Washington. "As they say in Southeast Asia, when the elephants fight, the grass gets trampled."

Having to align themselves with one power or another, Abuza added, left many nations around the world "desperately poor and underdeveloped at the end of the Cold War." As a result, even the United States, the Cold War's victor, cannot count on the support of some of its traditional partners in vocally condemning Russia for its attack on a sovereign, democratic nation.

The Nato-led intervention in Libya in 2011 and the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 have only heightened mistrust of the West. Both military actions left countries in those regions struggling with the political fallout for years after.

"The crux of the matter is that African countries feel infantilised and neglected by Western countries, which are also accused of not living up to their soaring moral rhetoric on sovereignty and territorial sanctity," said Ebenezer Obadare, senior fellow for Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Indonesia, a sprawling democracy once ruled by a dictator favoured by the United States for his anti-communist stance, has said that it will welcome President Vladimir Putin of Russia when the country hosts leading rich and developing nations at the Group of 20 meetings this year. It, too, abstained in the UN vote to remove Russia from the Human Rights Council.

"Our government has adopted the questionable strategy of trying to ignore the biggest geopolitical earthquake in 70 years in our agenda as this year's G-20 president, which kind of blows my mind," said Tom Lembong, a former trade minister.

Other US allies have characterised their decision to diversify as a function of American absenteeism. Last year, as China spread its vaccine diplomacy around the world, the United States was seen initially as hoarding its pandemic supplies.

Before that, during Donald Trump's presidency, the United States pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an expansive trade pact that was meant to counter China's way of doing business. Countries like Vietnam that had staked their reputations on joining felt betrayed, once again, by Washington.

Mexico, a longtime US ally, has emphasised its neutrality, and President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has rejected sanctions on Russia.

"Mexico's neutrality is not neutral," said Tony Payan of Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy. "Mexico is poking Washington in the eye."

Russia cannot count on automatic allegiance from its historical allies, either. Apart from a sense of autocratic camaraderie, ideology is no longer part of Moscow's allure. Russia has neither the patronage cash nor the geopolitical clout of the Soviet Union.

Venezuela, Russia's staunchest supporter in Latin America, received a high-level American delegation on the heels of the Ukraine invasion. Nicaragua, which became one of the first countries to back Russia's recognition of separatist regions in eastern Ukraine, has since tempered its enthusiasm.

During a March UN vote condemning Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Cuba abstained, rather than backing Moscow, although it and Nicaragua later rejected the effort to kick Russia off the Human Rights Council.

"They're trying to walk a fine line between certainly not celebrating the invasion, but also not clearly condemning it, arguing in favour of peace," said Renata Keller, a Cuba expert at the University of Nevada, Reno.

The most noticeable hedging has come from Africa, which accounted for nearly half the countries that abstained in the March UN vote.

"We don't know why they are fighting," President Samia Suluhu Hassan of Tanzania said in an interview, referring to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

She added that she was "not sure" there was a clear aggressor in the conflict.

For Thailand, the decision to train with the American, Russian and Chinese militaries, as well as to buy weaponry from each country, is part of its long history of balancing between great powers. Deft diplomacy allowed Thailand to emerge as the only nation in the region not to be colonised.

The current drift away from the United States, which used Thailand as a staging ground for the Vietnam War, also stems from the political pedigree of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha, who came to power in a military coup eight years ago.

"Though Thailand may currently appear as a democracy, it is at heart an autocracy," said Paul Chambers, a lecturer in international affairs at Naresuan University in Thailand. "A regime such as this will have autocratic bedfellows, including in Moscow."

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