Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, many African countries declined to take a strong stand against Moscow. Seventeen African states refused to vote for a UN resolution condemning Russia, and most countries on the continent have maintained economic and trade ties with Moscow despite Western sanctions. In response, the United States and other Western countries have berated African leaders for failing to defend the “rules based” international order, framing African neutrality in the Ukrainian conflict as a betrayal of liberal principles. During a trip to Cameroon in July 2022, French President Emmanuel Macron bemoaned the “hypocrisy” of African leaders and criticized them for refusing “to call a war a war and say who started it.”
But the truth is that the rules-based international order has not served Africa’s interests. On the contrary, it has preserved a status quo in which major world powers—be they Western or Eastern—have maintained their positions of dominance over the global South. Through the UN Security Council, in particular, China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States have exerted outsize influence over African nations and relegated African governments to little more than bystanders in their own affairs. The British-, French-, and U.S.-led bombardment of Libya in 2011, justified by a contested interpretation of a UN Security Council resolution authorizing a no-fly zone, stands out as a case in point. Before NATO intervened, the African Union was pursuing a diplomatic strategy to de-escalate the crisis in Libya. But once the military operation began, the AU effort was rendered moot, and Libya was plunged into a cycle of violence and instability from which it has yet to escape.
For decades, African countries have called for the UN Security Council to be reformed and the broader international system to be reconfigured on more equitable terms. And for decades, their appeals have been ignored. The current global order, dominated by a few powerful countries that define peace and security as the imposition of their will on others, is now at an inflection point. More and more countries in Africa and elsewhere in the global South are refusing to align with either the West or the East, declining to defend the so-called liberal order but also refusing to seek to upend it as Russia and China have done. If the West wants Africa to stand up for the international order, then it must allow that order to be remade so that it is based on more than the idea that might makes right.
For most of the last 500 years, the international order was explicitly designed to exploit Africa. The transatlantic slave trade saw more than ten million Africans kidnapped and shipped to the Americas, where their forced labor made elites in Europe and the United States exceptionally wealthy. European colonialism and apartheid rule were likewise brutal, extractive, and dehumanizing for Africans, and the legacies of these systems are still felt across the continent. The CFA franc, a relic of the colonial past that still gives France tremendous sway over the economies of 14 West African and central African countries, offers a daily reminder of this historical subjugation, as does the persistence of white economic power in South Africa. Both reinforce the perception that today’s international order still treats Africans as global second-class citizens.
Many Western pundits are quick to demand that Africa “get over” these injustices and stop harping on the past. But African societies do not see the past as past. They see it as present, still looming large over the pan-African landscape. Moreover, the tormentors of yesteryear have not changed their mindsets and attitudes—just their rhetoric and methods. Instead of taking what they want with brute force, as they did in the past, major powers now rely on preferential trade deals and skewed financing arrangements to drain the continent of its resources, often with the collusion of corrupt African elites.
And of course, major powers still use force. Despite claiming to uphold an international system based on rules, these powers and their allies have frequently imposed their will on other countries, from the NATO bombardments of Yugoslavia and Libya to the U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq to the Russian invasions of Georgia and Ukraine. In 2014, the United States, the United Kingdom, and France led a military intervention in Syria in support of rebel forces, which was followed, in 2015, by a Russian military intervention in support of the Syrian government. Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine is not a departure from this pattern but a continuation of the reign of the powerful over the less powerful.
Major-power interventions have steadily eroded the pretense of a rules-based order and made the world much less stable. For instance, the illegal invasions of Iraq and Syria stoked violent extremist movements, including al Qaeda and the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), which have since spread like a virus across Africa. Thanks in part to the chaos spawned by NATO’s intervention in Libya, Islamist terrorism has taken root across the Sahel region, affecting Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger. Similarly, in East Africa, religious extremism imported from the Middle East is undermining stability in Kenya, Mozambique, Somalia, and Tanzania, all of which are terrorized by an extremist group known as al Shabab. These threats are not acutely felt in Washington, London, Paris, Brussels, Moscow, or Beijing. Rather, they are faced by Africans who had little say in the interventions that ignited them.
The major powers have created a curious juxtaposition: on one hand, illegal interventions that have sowed terror across the global South, and on the other, international failures to intervene in humanitarian crises—in Rwanda in 1994, Srebrenica in 1995, Sri Lanka in 2009, and now in China, where more than a million Uyghurs have been imprisoned in camps. This discrepancy exposes the lie at the heart of today’s international system. Those who continue to call for the protection of an illusionary rules-based order have evidently not been on the receiving end of an unsanctioned military incursion. Many Africans see these voices as part of the problem rather than part of the solution.
The myth of a functioning system of international norms that constrains the whims of nations must now be discarded. World powers must acknowledge what African countries have known for decades: that the dysfunctional international order poses a clear and present danger to many developing countries. The United Nations’ system of collective security is slowly dying, suffocated by the egregious actions of some of its most powerful members. Not only does this system exclude a majority of the world’s population from international decision-making, but it also often leaves them at the mercy of hostile powers and forces. It is past time to rethink and remake the global order. That does not necessarily mean throwing the UN baby out with the bath water, but it does mean reimagining multilateralism and redesigning international institutions to create a more effective global system of collective security.