For 20 months, the Biden administration has attempted to stake out the moral high ground against Russia, condemning its brutal war on Ukraine for indiscriminately killing civilians.
The argument resonated in much of the West, but less so in other parts of the world, which viewed the war as more of a great-power conflict and declined to participate in sanctions or otherwise isolate Russia.
Now, as Israel bombards the Gaza Strip, killing more than 4,300 people since Oct. 7, the Biden administration’s unwavering support risks creating new headwinds in its efforts to win over global public opinion.
Speaking from the Oval Office on Thursday, President Biden tied American support for Ukraine and Israel together, describing both nations as democracies fighting enemies determined to “completely annihilate” them. Russia invaded and seeks to annex Ukraine, while Hamas, the group that controls Gaza and denies Israel’s right to exist, staged a terrorist attack that killed at least 1,400 people in southern Israel.
But Israel’s counterattack on Gaza, its threats to mount a ground invasion and America’s tight embrace of its most important Mideast ally, regardless, have prompted cries of hypocrisy.
Such accusations are not exactly new in the Middle East conflict. But the dynamics of the dual crises have gone beyond Washington’s desire to rally global support to isolate and punish Russia for invading its neighbor.
Increasingly, the Middle East region is emerging as a renewed front in the struggle for influence in the Global South — the collective name for the developing nations of Africa, Asia and Latin America — pitting the West against Russia and China.
“The war in the Middle East will drive a growing wedge between the West and countries like Brazil or Indonesia, key swing states of the Global South,” said Clifford Kupchan, chairman of the Eurasia Group, a New York-based risk assessment organization. “That will make international cooperation on Ukraine, like sanctions enforcement on Russia, even harder.”
President Joko Widodo of Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, which does not recognize Israel, has condemned the “ongoing injustices against the Palestinian people.” The Gaza war will only worsen the global situation, he said, threatening higher oil prices after the Ukraine war already slowed wheat exports.
President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil has criticized U.S. weapons supplies to Ukraine as “encouraging” the war but blamed both sides for the conflict and offered to mediate. Brazil, as president of the United Nations Security Council this month, drafted a Gaza humanitarian cease-fire resolution, which also explicitly condemned “heinous terrorist attacks by Hamas.”
After the United States vetoed the resolution because it did not mention Israel’s right to self-defense, Brazil’s ambassador to the United Nations, Sérgio França Danese, expressed frustration. “Hundreds of thousands of civilians in Gaza cannot wait any longer,” he said. “Actually, they have waited far too long.”
Arab leaders — including President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt, King Abdullah II of Jordan and the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud — all lashed out in speeches on Saturday at the Cairo peace summit at what they called double standards.
“Anywhere else, attacking civilian infrastructure and deliberately starving an entire population of food, water, basic necessities would be condemned, accountability would be enforced,” said King Abdullah. “International law loses all value if it is implemented selectively.”
Palestinians have criticized Western capitals for not expressing outrage over the bombing of Gaza similar to their labeling of Russian missile attacks against Ukrainian cities and infrastructure as “barbaric” and “crimes against humanity.”
When the war in Ukraine first broke out, Palestinians were elated by the tough stance taken by Western capitals against one country occupying another’s land, said Nour Odeh, a Ramallah-based Palestinian political commentator. “But it seems that occupation is only bad if the guys who are not on your side are doing it.”
In some ways the Gaza conflict has been a boon to the Kremlin, knocking the spotlight off the Ukraine war and burnishing Russia’s image in the Middle East and Global South. In recent years, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia has sought to restore some of the Soviet Union’s lost influence in the Middle East, intervening militarily in civil wars in Syria and Libya. He has greatly strengthened ties with Iran, a country which Israel considers a national security threat.
Russian support for Hamas has been seen as an extension of those efforts, with Mr. Putin comparing the siege of Gaza to the World War II siege of Leningrad, a sacred Russian symbol.
China has also been seeking to expand its influence in the Middle East, having recently mediated a deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia to restore relations. Russia and China have refused to condemn Hamas. They have instead criticized Israeli treatment of Palestinians, especially its decision to cut off water and electricity to Gaza and the civilian death toll there. They have called for international mediation and a cease-fire before Israel considers that its war has fully begun.
The Palestinian cause has long thrived in the Global South, so the Gaza war has only added to resentments in Africa, Asia and Latin America that the West is treating Ukraine as a special case because it is a European war. They denounce the money spent on arming Ukraine while international development goals are ignored.
There is a perception that the West “cares more about Ukrainian refugees, about Ukrainian civilians suffering, than we do when they are suffering in Yemen, in Gaza, in Sudan, in Syria,” said Hanna Notte, a Berlin-based Eurasia analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
That helps illustrate why the West has failed to woo countries like India and Turkey into supporting sanctions against Russia. Given the situation in Gaza, that effort is unlikely to succeed any time soon.
“It is a huge headache for Western diplomats because they have spent a lot of time this year trying to charm the Global South,” said Richard Gowan, the U.N. director for the International Crisis Group. “We have seen support and interest in Ukraine fading among U.N. members over the course of this year.”
In Europe, the discussion has played out largely on social media, where some commentators have lambasted Europe for hypocrisy for its different approaches to the wars in Ukraine and Gaza, while few politicians have commented directly.
Carl Bildt, the former Swedish prime minister, wrote on X, formerly Twitter, that most of the world perceives a double standard in Western policy on the two wars. “Rightly or wrongly, this is something we must deal with,” he wrote.
There are signs of that happening now. Josep Borrell Fontelles, the European Union’s top diplomat, said in a speech to the European Parliament on Wednesday that cutting off water supplies was a violation of international law no matter where it happened. “It is clearly stated that depriving a human community under siege of a basic water supply is contrary to international law — in Ukraine and in Gaza,” he said.
Some analysts suggested that hostility toward Western policy in Ukraine in certain corners of the world should be taken as a given but that it could still be dealt with tactfully.
During the Cold War, the United States often faced a hostile bloc of nonaligned nations, as well as the Soviet Union and its allies, and still managed to prevail, said John Herbst, a former U.S. envoy to Ukraine as well as a diplomat in Israel and the occupied territories, currently with the Atlantic Council.
The Gaza conflict may make winning support for Ukraine “marginally more difficult,” he said, but by no means impossible.
Israel’s goal of uprooting Hamas is probably too ambitious, he said, but it can greatly weaken Hamas’s military capability. The United States will take a hit in global public opinion for its support of Israel in the short term, but that will probably fade over time, he predicted, and should not dissuade Washington from continuing to make its case on Ukraine.
“We should explain that what Moscow is doing in Ukraine is dangerous for all nations because if the type of international order that the Kremlin is pursuing, and that Beijing is pursuing, becomes the international order, that means that all small, comparatively weak states would be at the mercy of their larger neighbors,” Mr. Herbst said.
Vivian Yee contributed reporting. Sheelagh McNeill contributed research.