NEW YORK — A big question as the annual U.N. General Assembly concludes is whether the Biden administration has managed to garner fresh support from the Global South to align behind U.S. priorities on the world stage, particularly when it comes to backing Ukraine against Russia.
Administration officials say they rallied key support at the whirlwind gathering from developing nations on the fence over whether to side decisively with Washington and its allies against a rival bloc including Russia, China and other autocratic powers.
Outside observers said Brazil, South Africa, Vietnam, India and others that refused to publicly condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and flouted U.S. economic sanctions against the Kremlin showed little movement.
China pulled off something of a public relations coup in New York by declaring itself an essential member of the Global South. This vaguely defined catchphrase describes dozens of nonaligned, militarily and economically weaker nations not committed to one superpower or the other.
Chinese Vice President Han Zheng, speaking for absent Chinese President Xi Jinping, told the General Assembly that Beijing identifies with those less-developed nations and offered them an alternative to what China’s ruling Communist Party has long-framed as U.S.-led “unipolar Western hegemony” over the world.
“As the largest developing country, China is a natural member of the Global South,” said Mr. Han, who made the case despite his country’s ranking as the world’s second-largest economy and its rapidly expanding military prowess.
China “breathes the same breath with other developing countries and shares the same future with them,” he said.
Mr. Han called for an immediate cease-fire and talks to end the Ukraine war, regardless of Russia’s ongoing occupation.
The Chinese rhetoric contrasted sharply with President Biden’s attempts to rally nations to confront Russia more forcefully.
Courting the fence-sitters
Mr. Biden touted U.S. efforts to increase lending by wealthy nations to developing countries during his address to the General Assembly last week, but he made no direct mention of the Global South.
He did not call for a cease-fire or dialogue to end the Ukraine war. Instead, the president said, “Russia alone bears responsibility for this war, Russia alone has the power to end this war immediately, and it is Russia alone that stands in the way of peace because Russia’s price for peace is Ukraine’s capitulation, Ukraine’s territory and Ukraine’s children.”
“If we allow Ukraine to be carved up, is the independence of any nation secure?” Mr. Biden asked. “I’d respectfully suggest the answer is no. We have to stand up to this naked aggression today and deter other would-be aggressors tomorrow.”
Administration officials say the message resonated with nations on the fence.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken boasted to reporters on Friday that countries “from every region condemned Russia’s war on Ukraine” at a special U.N. Security Council meeting. He suggested that they had aligned with Washington by “affirm[ing] Ukraine’s right to sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
Mr. Blinken said he was in meetings “with more than 90 countries” over five days in New York, including with Mr. Han of China, and believes the international community looks to the United States to bring countries together and uphold basic U.N. standards such as protecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of countries, including Ukraine.
“We delivered on that,” Mr. Blinken said. “We’re going to build on the momentum from this week as we go forward.”
Some analysts said the administration fell far short of the mark if it thinks it swayed developing nations in Africa, South America, Asia and the Middle East to change their tune on the Ukraine war.
“Moving the needle this week at the United Nations did not happen,” said Sarang Shidore, head of the newly established Global South Program at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a Washington think tank.
“I won’t say things got worse than they already were,” Mr. Shidore said in an interview. “But the way President Biden spoke in his General Assembly address made it harder in some way because he reiterated the same positions that have actually been a barrier to U.S. efforts to win over the Global South.
“Biden framed the Ukraine conflict once again in a very moralistic way — as a battle between democracies and autocracies, good versus evil, right versus wrong — and that’s where he loses most of the Global South nations,” he said. “[They] don’t see the Western campaign against Russia as a high-minded global struggle between the good and evil. They see it as a European civil war.”
The Biden administration’s posture, Mr. Sidore said, makes Global South nations worry that the U.S. is ready to fight a long haul protracted war in which the biggest losers, apart from Ukraine, are Global because of blocked Ukrainian grain flows and unwieldy energy inflation that exacerbates economic crises already burdening the developing world.
Although the core interest of Global South nations is an end to the war, Mr. Shidore said, the Biden administration does have traction with them when he highlights territorial integrity — and how Russia violated it by invading Ukraine.
They may blame the U.S. for similar violations in the past, but it still resonates, he said. Most in the Global South “are weaker countries and they don’t want bigger countries to be allowed to do this.”
Mr. Biden devoted more than half of the address to Global South issues such as climate change, debt levels, health care and the need to support multilateral institutions. Still, the Ukraine-Russia passages dominated the headlines after the speech.
Statements by developing world leaders dovetailed partially, at best, with those emanating from the Biden administration.
No leaders of Brazil, Egypt, Vietnam, South Africa or other developing countries echoed Mr. Biden’s sharp condemnations of Russia.
The words “Ukraine” and “Russia” weren’t even uttered when Mr. Biden and Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva held a chummy meeting touting unity on promoting workers’ rights. When Mr. Lula addressed the General Assembly, he called for negotiations to end the Ukraine war and promoted himself as a neutral mediator.
The neutrality message was used repeatedly. Nearly every Global South leader emphasized the need to find an immediate road map toward ending the war without taking one side over the other.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry told the General Assembly that “the serious consequences of the conflict in Ukraine have proved we cannot guarantee the security and stability of any party exclusively of another.”
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said his country values “the importance of engaging all parties” and “we must do everything within our means to enable meaningful dialogue [and] refrain from any actions that fuel the conflict.”
Mr. Ramaphosa said “respect for the territorial integrity of every country should be upheld” but stressed that the goal is to end “the suffering of those most directly affected by the conflict, and the millions on our continent and across the world who, as a result of the conflict, are now vulnerable to worsening hunger and deprivation.”
Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh did not mention Ukraine in his speech, less than two weeks after Mr. Biden visited Hanoi to boost bilateral ties. According to The New York Times, internal Vietnamese documents show that the country is attempting to modernize its military by secretly paying for defense purchases through a joint oil venture with Russia.
Mr. Shidore said it is unrealistic to think the U.S. could ever achieve 100% alignment from the Global South, but “the needle could have been moved at the General Assembly if President Biden had clearly demonstrated a goal of ending the Ukraine war.”
“Biden was within his rights and correct to condemn Russia for its illegal invasion and to highlight the suffering of the Ukrainian people. But what he should have said also is that the U.S. understands the pain this war is creating for the Global South … and that we want a way to end it as soon as possible, and we support a diplomatic approach to complement — not replace — the military support being provided for Ukraine.”
Openly calling for an end to the war could help persuade major nonaligned countries, perhaps even China, to make an impact through private diplomacy with Russia — specifically by placing behind-the-scenes pressure on President Vladimir Putin to accept concessions.
“This could be possible because many of the most influential Global South nations are buying Russian oil and they do have relationships with Russia,” said Mr. Shidore. “But I think for them to get off the fence and work more closely with the U.S., they need to see some movement from the Biden administration, movement like making ‘end to war’ a major goal … and right now, you just don’t see that.”
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.