The free world faces a troubling new challenge

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman welcoming Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman welcoming Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky

The club of countries that overtly supports Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine is minuscule and includes Belarus, North Korea, and Syria; hardly a group that anyone is clamouring to join. It is easy as a result to assume that the world is united in condemnation of Moscow. But beyond Nato and its reliable allies, much of the globe maintains a studied neutrality. In the case of China, and the African states with close ties with Moscow and Beijing, it even inclines towards the Russian dictator.

Volodymyr Zelensky is keenly aware of the delicacy of this position. The Ukrainian president has travelled to Saudi Arabia, marking a significant departure for an influence campaign more usually targeted at securing arms and aid from Western allies. Mr Zelensky was trying to convince his audience of the justice of his cause. “Unfortunately,” he noted, addressing the 22 members of the Arab League, “there are some in the world and here among you who turn a blind eye to… illegal annexations.” It is not just in Riyadh where he has such groundwork to do. At the G7 summit this weekend he will try to firm up Japan’s support and draw India’s Narendra Modi away from his more neutral stance. New Delhi has been the beneficiary of discounted Russian oil.

This reflects a troubling geopolitical picture for the US and Nato. Western countries have taken their eye off the ball as hostile powers have sought to pull wavering nations into their spheres of influence. Only yesterday Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, unveiled a grand plan for Central Asian development, while Beijing’s use of loans to keep developing nations in its debt is reaping rewards, including in the Commonwealth. It was China, too, which brokered a recent accord between Saudi Arabia and arch-rival Iran.

Astonishingly, one of the leaders that Mr Zelensky addressed in Riyadh was the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, who a decade ago crossed a US president’s “red line” by gassing his own people. He now finds that this act is no barrier to his regional rehabilitation, surely a sign of declining American influence in the Middle East.

Indeed, although Joe Biden has been solid in his military and financial support of Ukraine, his foreign policy has otherwise been characterised by retreat and confusion. Few will forget the damage to American credibility caused by the bungled retreat from Kabul. Mr Biden has also been accused of upsetting traditional allies.

America and the West need a much more coherent and robust strategy for uniting the democracies of the world behind a common mission, particularly in light of the rise of China. Let us hope that we do not have to wait too long before we see one.

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