Josep Borrell, the top diplomat of the European Union, has a brutal candor rare in his profession. On October 13, he addressed an audience of aspiring diplomats with a speech that contrasted Europe, which he described as a “garden,” with much of the rest of the world, which he condemned as a “jungle.” “Yes, Europe is a garden,” Borrell said. “We have built a garden. Everything works. It is the best combination of political freedom, economic prosperity, and social cohesion that humankind has been able to build—the three things together.” He added, “Most of the rest of the world is a jungle, and the jungle could invade the garden.” The purpose of diplomacy, by his account, is to defend the garden from the jungle. Borrell called on European diplomats to be “gardeners” who would “have to go to the jungle. Europeans have to be much more engaged with the rest of the world. Otherwise, the rest of the world will invade us, by different ways and means.”
Borrell’s remarks were quickly condemned, not just by public officials outside Europe but also by his fellow gardeners. The implicit racism of his metaphor speaks for itself. Borrell seems blithely unaware of the generations of gardeners who helped create “the jungle.” Yet, as with many scandals over controversial speeches, the real problem isn’t that the words are false, but what those words reveal about the underlying attitudes.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has opened up two seismic rifts in global politics. One is the obvious divide between Russia and the NATO countries, which are currently arming Ukraine. The other—more subtle but no less real—is the growing divergence between the West and the Rest. “The West,” of course, is an elastic concept but in the 21st century comprises countries that are sufficiently wealthy and militarily important to qualify as core allies of the United States: Let’s say the NATO countries plus Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and South Korea (the latter four firmly in the East geographically).
In focusing on Ukraine as a make-or-break issue, the West is adopting a haughty indifference to the countries of the Global South. We’ve created a Fortress NATO, one that inevitably appears suspicious or hostile to anyone outside the gates. In turn, many of the non-Western countries have been reluctant to accept the Western framing of Russian aggression as an unforgivable violation of international law. As The New York Times notes, “In United Nations General Assembly votes, a bellwether for how well Western allies are doing against Russia’s own diplomatic efforts, the European Union and the United States have struggled to rally support from African and Asian countries they would normally call allies. High-profile partners like South Africa and India have chosen to abstain on key votes, for example.”
Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s deputy prime minister and minister of finance, is a much more tactful diplomat than Borrell. Yet in an October 11 talk at the Brookings Institution, Freeland framed global politics in a way that called to mind his xenophobic garden metaphor. In the question-and-answer period, a speaker who identified as being from Africa complained, “The messaging we’re getting from the West is [Africans] are not going to get that much resources, because a lot of the money is going to Ukraine.”
Freeland responded, “One of the sort of profound lessons, I think, of the war in Ukraine is democracy can only be built by people themselves, for themselves. And a democracy can only be defended by people themselves, if they’re actually prepared to die for their democracy…. So, part of what I certainly believe is the in-between countries, certainly the countries of Africa—this is a choice they need to make for themselves.”
Like Borrell, Freeland was cogently criticized for her blinkered and colonialist view of history. Freeland talks as if Africans haven’t fought for freedom from both European colonialism and African-born despots. But again, the controversial nature of her remarks shouldn’t hide the fact that they reflect the underlying consensus of the West: the view that the African countries (and all the other countries of the Global South) need to fend for themselves. Fortress NATO has pulled up the drawbridge.
The attitudes of Fortress NATO have deep roots that precede the Russia-Ukraine conflict, but there’s no question that the war has intensified those sentiments. One can see this same militant indifference to the Global South in vaccine hoarding and in our failure to take adequate action on climate change (with US climate envoy John Kerry denying Western responsibility for the environmental crisis).
Even at the simplest level of diplomatic relations, a pattern of indifference reigns supreme. On October 23, Politico reported, “Over the past decade, China has increased its spending on diplomacy and even surpassed the United States in the number of diplomatic posts it has worldwide…. U.S. spending on diplomacy, meanwhile, has stayed effectively flat, as has the size of the U.S. Foreign Service, while funding, security and other factors have limited America’s diplomatic footprint abroad.” A Foreign Policy report from Africa also noted the contrast between a diplomatically assertive China and a United States that regards diplomacy as a burdensome duty best kept to a minimum.
The shape of the 21st century is starting to emerge: The West will protect its “garden” and leave the residents of “the jungle” to their fate. Trump and other right-wing populists are often accused of being isolationists who want to destroy the liberal international order. But the truth is that many of the so-called defenders of the liberal international order are isolationists in their own way: They want to maintain a gated community to shut out the Global South. But given the planetary nature of problems like pandemics and climate change, tending solely to our own garden will lead to disaster.