Nayef al-Hajraf, Secretary-General of the Gulf Cooperation Council, speaks at a conference on the Yemen conflict in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on April 7, 2022.

Nayef al-Hajraf, Secretary-General of the Gulf Cooperation Council, speaks at a conference on the Yemen conflict in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on April 7, 2022. Photo by FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP via Getty Images

The Middle East’s Indifference to Ukraine Is a Warning

What looks like international solidarity against a lawless invasion is something far more transactional and fragile.

We are now more than two months past the high-water mark of international solidarity on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Then, more than 140 countries voted in favor of a UN General Assembly resolution calling for an end to the Russian offensive, with 35 abstentions. A casual observer might think that the vote was proof that the rules-based international order that the United States had been nurturing for 75 years was alive and well.

Instead, the Ukraine crisis is a stark warning that the U.S. investments international order haven’t left much residue. The United States has spent trillions and sacrificed more than 100,000 lives, but for much of the world, a decision to support the United States or some semblance of international law is a present-value calculation. International support for sanctions is almost non-existent outside of Europe and Northeast Asia, and outside of those areas, there is no appetite for any further action to influence Russian actions.

Nowhere is this more evident than the Middle East. While the United States has few formal allies in the Middle East, the region has driven most of the U.S. military’s combat in the last half-century. A perceived Soviet threat drove the early U.S. efforts at regional engagement, as the United States sought to block Soviet efforts to access oil deposits and deny the USSR a warm-water port. 

With the Soviet Union’s demise, much of the U.S. focus shifted toward a more general effort to promote stability. Securing global energy flows, deterring Iran, and protecting neighbors from Saddam Hussein represented one side of the equation; protecting regional governments from transnational terror threats with roots in their own communities were the other. 

Seen broadly, the consistent effort was to enwrap the region into a U.S.-led rules-based order. For decades, the United States dedicated blood and treasure in pursuit of that goal. Yet amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine, U.S. partners in the Middle East don’t see much attraction in furthering the rules-based order with which the United States has justified its efforts in the region. Instead, they shirk from choosing sides in a superpower competition, arguing that their economic and security interests with Russia preclude their alliance with the United States. 

Some argue that this is all payback for an Iraq war effort that paid little attention to legality, while others argue it is payback for the Biden administration’s supposedly soft approach to Iran, or to its skeptical approach to Palestinian rights. More likely, though, it reflects the belief that the United States is a receding power in the region. In this way of thinking, the changing roles among outside powers requires regional states to adopt a more careful hedging strategy. Governments feel that the United States would not abandon them out of spite, and the rationale for a sustained U.S. commitment doesn’t hinge on how they behave toward Russia. Similar attitudes can be seen across the Global South.

For U.S. policymakers, the alarm bell should be sounding. The notion that there is widespread support for a U.S.-led, rule-based order is at the core of how the United States sees itself confronting an emerging challenge from China. Yet, for most countries in the world, including ones that have been close to the United States for decades, preserving the rule of law in Ukraine seems of little concern. They will seek to strengthen their bilateral relationship with the United States, but they have no interest in taking sides in superpower conflicts, and they feel no need to do so. 

It almost goes without saying that China is a fundamentally different kind of superpower, and different kind of rival, than Russia. China’s economic ties with most countries of the world—including the United States—dwarf the ties they have with Russia. With a few exceptions in northeast Asia, fear of a Russian threat rather than affinity to the United States seems a better explanation for why they have lined up against Russian aggression. The further countries are from Russia, the less they care. 

And that raises a very serious question: Is there any reason to think the world would line up with the United States in a future conflict with China?

Global indifference to Russia’s actions in Ukraine represents a victory for Chinese diplomacy, which argues countries need not choose between close ties to the United States and its superpower competitors. U.S. thinking that three-quarters of a century of global leadership will give it an edge in a confrontation with China is likely mistaken, if Middle Eastern attitudes toward Ukraine are any indication. Firepower and economic strength will still matter in the fight, but even some of our closest friends are likely to stay above the fray.

One could take a long view, suggesting that the world has always cycled between periods of order and warfare, and the relative order of the post-World War II world has run its course. One could see this narrowly, as a sign of the world’s uncertainty that the United States remains committed to maintaining a global order. One can see this specifically, that countries with more powerful neighbors need to calibrate their actions carefully. But it is hard to argue that the bipartisan alarm in the United States about the war in Ukraine, and the world’s general disinterest, isn’t a sign of a much deeper skepticism of U.S. global leadership. If the United States can elicit support only when countries believe it is in their direct interest to do so, we are in a much different world than we have convinced ourselves we are in.

Jon B. Alterman holds the Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy and directs the Middle East program at CSIS.