Don’t be in no man’s land between Putin and the West

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One of the purposes of wartime summits is the “family picture” – or rather the harmonious and resolute unity it is supposed to showcase. So it was at last week’s EU summit in Brussels and at this week’s Group of 7 meeting in the Bavarian Alps, and so it will be when NATO leaders will meet in Madrid in the coming days.

As with actual family photos, however, the real story is often who is standing where and with what body language. And sometimes it comes down to who should be in the picture but who isn’t.

The show of unity was the easiest to stage at the G7 summit. The group – representing the wealthy democracies – is small and homogeneous, and the mountains formed a suitably Brobdingnagian background. The photo signaled a strong and united front against Russian President Vladimir Putin – who attended these symposia when they were still called G8, until he was kicked out after his first attack on Ukraine in 2014.

Another summit photo needs a longer caption. It shows the same G7, but with the addition of leaders from “partner countries” in what is called the Global South. These are South Africa, Senegal and Argentina, as well as Indonesia and India – the hosts this year and next year, respectively, of the G20, a broader forum in which, awkwardly, Putin should participate.

G7 host German Chancellor Olaf Scholz called on these guests to urge their countries, and indeed their continents, to join the West in resisting Putin in particular, and global autocrats in general. But having them in the family photo is not the same as sparking that engagement.

During the Cold War, these countries were part of the Non-Aligned Movement. Its nations sided with neither the free bloc nor the communist bloc (the “first” and “second” worlds, so to speak) and thus became known as the Third World, although that term took more later a totally different connotation.

Now, again, many countries in Asia, Africa and South America are not exactly keen on helping Putin confront what they see as a far-off regional war that does not concern them. From their point of view, the G7 is generally not too concerned about regional wars in Africa or Asia either.

Captions will also be complicated under the photos taken in Madrid when the 30 NATO members congregate there. In staring at Putin, the transatlantic allies are more united than they have been since the Cold War. For example, they have reinforced their eastern flank and will adopt a new strategy to better protect Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

But, like other families, the alliance suffers from tensions. Turkey, in particular, has always been a difficult and mercurial ally – it acts more like an enemy than a friend to NATO member Greece. Since Putin’s assault on Ukraine this year, Turkey has also attempted a diplomatic “balancing act” between Russia and Ukraine that has now become “a tilt towards Moscow”, according to Yevgeniya Gaber of the Atlantic Council , a think tank.

Worse still, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is effectively holding two non-aligned Western nations hostage. Sweden and Finland – members of the EU but not yet NATO, and potentially in Putin’s sights – want to join the alliance. NATO also wants them as members, as the well-armed Scandinavians could help defend the Baltic nations. But Erdogan, largely for domestic political reasons, is threatening a veto.

This leaves the Swedes and Finns in a dangerous no man’s land. They have signaled their allegiance and intention to join NATO – angering Putin – and yet they still lack the security of the alliance’s mutual defense clause. They are neither inside nor outside.

Due to Erdogan’s short-sightedness, Turkey finds itself in another sort of no man’s land. Geopolitically, it is neither completely in the West nor out, neither truly democratic nor wholly autocratic, neither trustworthy nor hostile. What kind of ally – if any ally at all – will he be?

Other countries in the region are also in uncertainty. Several Balkan countries – along with Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia – want to join the EU but know they will have to wait decades, provided the EU says yes even then. How will Serbia, for example, position itself between Europe and its old friend Russia in the meantime?

Then there’s the rest of the world, from Asia to Africa and South America, home to most of the world’s population but so modestly represented in the Bavarian Alps this week. For now – as during the Cold War – these countries prefer to hedge their bets and remain non-aligned.

The leaders of the West, once they are done dashing between the peaks and posing for photos with each other, have a job to do. They have to get the rest of the world out of this no man’s land. So they should offer generous support – in dollars, euros and other forms – to countries that pledge to help defend global democracy against autocrats in Moscow and Beijing.

They should also remind these nations that non-alignment is not a permanent option. As the late Desmond Tutu, South Africa’s favorite Archbishop once said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its paw on a mouse’s tail and you say you’re neutral, the mouse won’t appreciate your neutrality. Today, Putin is the elephant, Ukraine the mouse. And no man’s land is no place to be.

More from this writer and others on Bloomberg Opinion:

• To save democracy and defeat Putin, abandon “the West”: Andreas Kluth

India cannot afford to lose world’s trust in trade: Mihir Sharma

• NATO should think twice before accepting Finland and Sweden: Emma Ashford

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Andreas Kluth is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics. A former editor of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for The Economist, he is the author of “Hannibal and Me”.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion

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