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Zakaria: The tension between global norms and national interests

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Russia’s aggression in Ukraine has unified Western democracies, at least in their robust condemnation of the action. But farther afield, one sees a variety of responses that foreshadow the great emerging tension in 21st-century international life: between global norms and national interests.

Consider the response of India, the world’s most populous democracy. New Delhi was mostly silent through the events of February and early March; it refused to support any sanctions against Russia, and its national security adviser declared that Russia had “legitimate” interests in Ukraine — all of which led Vladimir Putin to place a thank-you phone call to India’s prime minister.

India’s reaction can be explained by its deep ties with Russia. From 2009 to 2013, 38 percent of major weapons exported from Russia went to India, far more than to any other country (and more than triple the next-highest recipient, China, at 12 percent). And 75 percent of the major weapons imported to India came from Russia (just 7 percent came from the United States). Over the same period, Russia delivered to India an aircraft carrier and a nuclear-powered submarine — the only one in the world exported anywhere in those years.

In addition, as the United States withdraws troops from Afghanistan, India knows that Pakistan will try to fill that vacuum, using as its proxy the Taliban and other such groups that have often engaged in terrorism against Indian citizens. In this great game in northwestern Asia, Russia has historically sided with India, and China (and the United States) with Pakistan. Things are different now. The United States is the sworn enemy of the Taliban and has clashed with Pakistan on terrorism issues repeatedly, but old habits die hard.

More curious has been the reaction of Israel, the most pro-American nation on the planet. Israel, which has tended to support almost all U.S. foreign policy initiatives, has been determined not to do so on this issue. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was uncharacteristically circumspect: “I hope the Ukrainian thing is resolved, quickly, amiably, but I have enough on my plate, which is quite full.” Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman was more explicit, describing the United States and Russia in equal terms. “We have good and trusting relations with the Americans and the Russians, and our experience has been very positive with both sides. So I don’t understand the idea that Israel has to get mired in this,” he said.

Israeli officials say privately that they don’t want to alienate Russia because they need Moscow in their efforts to deal with myriad threats — chiefly Iran but also those emanating from the Syrian civil war. Some believe, though, that Israel can forge a special relationship with Moscow, fueled by the connection between the hundreds of thousands of Russian Jews who immigrated to Israel and have been gaining political power there. Lieberman said this week in Brooklyn that in the near future a prime minister of Israel would be Russian-speaking. (When Lieberman meets with Putin or Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, they speak in Russian, which is Lieberman’s first language.)

China, perhaps less surprisingly, was also unwilling to condemn or sanction Russia. But its position has been more nuanced, refusing to endorse Russia’s actions in any way and emphasizing its support for the “independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity” of Ukraine.

One could argue that in all three cases, the countries are misreading what is actually in their national interests. China shares a long border with Russia and should not want to support Moscow in efforts to “adjust” its borders by force. It would be foolish for Israel to compromise its relations with its closest ally for delusions of an alliance with Moscow. The fact that Lieberman speaks Russian has not stopped Moscow from shipping arms to Iran, Syria and Hezbollah (through Syria). India should want to forge a much tighter relationship with Washington as it confronts a rising China in its neighborhood.

But beyond these narrow considerations is a larger one: Do these countries want to live in a world entirely ruled by the interplay of national interests? Since 1945, there have been increasing efforts to put in place broader global norms — for example, against annexations by force. These have not always been honored, but, compared with the past, they have helped shape a more peaceful and prosperous world. Over the next decade or so, depending on how rising new powers behave, these norms will be strengthened or eroded. And that will make the difference between war and peace in the 21st century.

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