Anita Fuentes interviews professor Arlene B. Tickner about her perspectives on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, bringing her knowledge of Latin America into the conversation.
For the Security in Context podcast episode associated with this interview, click here.
Anita Fuentes: Arlene B. Tickner is a professor of international relations in the School of International, Political and Urban Studies and co-director of the Colombian Observatory of Organized Crime. Her main areas of research include security in Latin America, Colombian foreign policy and Colombian-American relations, critical social theory in International Relations and global South approaches to world politics. She has authored numerous edited volumes, book chapters, journal articles, and working papers. And, in addition to her academic work, Tickner publishes a weekly opinion column in the Colombian newspaper El Espectador on various international topics.
Arlene, thank you so much for talking to us today.
Arlene B. Tickner: Thank you, Anita.
Anita Fuentes: So I would like to start by asking you if you could introduce yourself and tell us a bit about your research, and perhaps how your research helps inform your perspective on the Russian invasion of Ukraine and its global implications with a specific focus on the global South.
Arlene B. Tickner: As you said, my name is Arlene Tickner. I am a US born scholar of international relations who has been working in Colombia for the past 35 years. My main areas of research include theorizing from the global South. I'm very interested in how lived experiences of the international community located outside the north translate into distinct or alternative types of views or approaches to global politics. I also work on security issues in the Latin American context. And I also work on foreign policy. And perhaps the three in combination explain how I read international events such as the war in the Ukraine, in the sense that I'm very keen on thinking about global problems such as these from a theoretical perspective, but given my work in Latin America I’m also very sensitive to other readings of this episode from a situated perspective in Latin America; a region that has had long standing relations with the United States, for example.
Anita Fuentes: So what would you say are the main issues at stake or that are missing from the mainstream coverage of the fallout from the current Russia-Ukraine conflict?
Arlene B. Tickner: I'm going to speak essentially from a Latin American perspective, which may or may not be my own. I think that one thing that's potentially missing from most analyses and discussions of the invasion and the war has to do with how we read different types of international intervention. And by this I mean to say that if you look at the history, even the recent history of Western or Northern interventions in different parts of the world, it's very hard to argue that there are some interventions that might be construed as benevolent and others, such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine, should be read as you know violent, disrespective of international law and whatnot. In my mind no intervention is benevolent, and I think we tend to miss out on this point when reading the events in the Ukraine exclusively from the vantage point of Russia invading a sovereign country without any type of provocation, which is actually a fact. And yet, in most media coverage of this terrible event, we tend to forget that there have been a whole series of other interventions that, when conducted particularly by the West, have been represented as benevolent, as seeking out more worthy enterprises, such as the promotion of democracy, state strengthening, protection of civilian populations, and whatnot. So this is perhaps one blind spot in most reporting on the war. And I gather that in a more historical perspective, when there's a little more distance between events on the ground in the Ukraine and media analyses, political analyses, this is obviously going to come to the fore. Even when we talk about the US invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, I think it's impossible to ignore how this may have set a precedent for Russia's own invasion of Ukraine. And so that would be kind of the first blind spot.
The second blind spot has to do, and this has been a bit more visible in at least critical media coverages, the ways in which the humanitarian crisis in the Ukraine has tended to make invisible or less important myriad other humanitarian crises going on around the world. And just to name one, the Venezuelan population has been severely displaced given the situation within that country. Colombia, where I live, hosts today nearly two million Venezuelans. And yet, given what's happening now in the Ukraine, that the Ukrainian situation is now tending to overcrowd and overshadow the different types of crises being experienced by migrant communities and refugee communities from other parts of the world. In the European context, for instance, it's quite clear how Ukrainian migrants or refugees have been read differently as compared to people from Syria or elsewhere, and so I think this is something else that, again, critical media coverage has tended to make visible but mainstream media has largely ignored, and it obviously lends itself to the question of how the international community tends to make visible, to prioritize, the needs of certain migrant communities or refugee communities and to make invisible or less relevant the needs of others. And this is obviously a question that theoretically speaking we could approach from a post-colonial or a decolonial lens of importance to thinking about the global from the South.
Anita Fuentes: So the countries of Latin America largely voted for the Human Rights Council expulsion of Russia. Brazil was among the few countries that abstained, and only a couple, including Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua, I believe, voted against Russia's expulsion. And, at the same time, there's the question of economic sanctions, which most of the global South has abstained from pursuing. In the case of Latin America, specifically, while some Latin American presidents have expressed their potential support for sanctions, as is the case with Iván Duque, other presidents, like the Brazilian and the Mexican presidents, have maintained their reluctance for applying these measures. And, similarly, Latin American policymakers don't support, in general, sending military equipment to Ukraine, arguing that these transfers might escalate the violence even farther. So what is your take on this official response of Latin American countries, and more specifically Colombia, to the Russian invasion of Ukraine? And what do you think are the drivers behind their reactions?
Arlene B. Tickner: Let me just say a few words about Colombia and the Duque government, which is clearly an outlier in all of this. Colombia has an atypical--atypical in terms of Latin America’s international traditions--has an atypical tendency in history to align itself with the United States on different matters of its foreign policy, and the crisis in Ukraine is no exception. The government of Iván Duque has essentially acted willingly as a soldier in the sanctions and in the global critique of Russia, speaking out even more forcefully than the United States or some governments of Western Europe within the United Nations. And this has been highly criticized within Colombia and within Latin America because, essentially, what it means is that Duque has taken sides in this conflict, overturning a very long-standing tradition in Latin America of trying not to take sides, in particular when two superpowers are involved in a confrontation as what is happening nowadays between the United States and Russia. The reasons why Duque has done this I think are myriads, but there's two that I just wanted to throw out. One is is his obsession with Venezuela and with the Maduro government in Venezuela. Russia, and Putin in particular, is very committed to supporting the Maduro government, and has sold a significant amount of equipment and weapons to Venezuela, and Duque has made use of this to criticize openly Russia's decision to invade the Ukraine, but it has much more to do in my mind with his attempts to counteract Maduro and Venezuela than actually with the Ukraine.
And, on the other hand, Duque is very keen, now that he is the outgoing president, to at least end his presidency on a high note in terms of his closeness to the Biden government and the United States. The relations have been tense, if not tense may be a strong word… distanced in some regards, given the involvement of Duque's Party Centro Democrático in the US presidential elections in the state of Florida, where its participation on behalf of Trump and the Republicans was deemed a decisive factor in affecting the Democrats voting in the state of Florida. And so the Biden government, when elected, started punishing indirectly the Duque government, given this situation. And so he has been obsessed with ending his presidency with specific photo ops and gestures from the Biden administration that would point to the closeness of relations with Colombia on the part of the United States. So we can just set him aside because Duque is not indicative, I don't think at all, of what the region has done in terms of this war.
So, when thinking about Latin America in general, I think there's several traditions that are coming to the fore in explaining the different reactions of the majority of the region. Those countries that have sided with Russia are very few, and are essentially Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba, that have all received direct support from Putin. Brazil has walked a fine line in terms of not committing openly to critiquing Putin. I think given a longstanding tendency of non-alignment, but even more so in this case, given Brazil's trade relations with Russia, and given Bolsonaro’s own admiration of Putin. These are two populist autocratic types, with a strong sense of their masculinity, that identify personally with each other. And so that's how I would explain Brazil. In the rest of the region, the tradition of non-alignment, neutrality and not taking sides, is quite long-standing as is through the tradition of insisting on peaceful, negotiated diplomatic, multilateral solutions to different crises. And in addition to this, a longstanding defense of sovereignty and non-intervention.
So the two of these combined lend themselves to the region trying to side with the Ukrainian population and government in terms of condemning the invasion per se, but some governments have not even done this openly, but at the same time maintaining an adequate degree of independence and non-alignment that could be construed mistakenly as the region taking sides. And I think this is a legacy clearly from the Cold War and the need to maneuver between two powers that on many occasions competed within the region in terms of counteracting each country's respective sphere of influence. So this is something that I think on this occasion explains Latin America's position, and I think in many cases of the global South. The same tradition of defense of sovereignty, defense of non-intervention, but at the same time adherence to non-alignment and neutrality as appropriate tools of maneuvering internationally when large powers are in conflict in areas of the world that don't necessarily affect those countries directly is something that is also a longstanding tradition there. So that is essentially how I would explain this.
Not applying sanctions and not being willing to send military assistance, I think, is quite natural in the global South. The global South in general should not get involved in conflicts such as these basically because… Well, first of all, most countries in the South are not in any condition to be sending military aid, nor should they be, because this would be essentially taking sides too. But also the types of punishments that could be doled out afterwards I think is something that plays heavily and in these types of decisions. And, finally, just going back to Latin America, the same in-betweenness of the region in distinct historical moments, in particular the Cold War, is something that taking sides tends to aggravate. And so, given the US's role in Latin America, not taking sides also opens up horizons of possibility for having amicable relations both with the United States but also potentially with Russia or China or whoever. And so I think this notion of, in Spanish we call it buena vecindad, good neighbors, is something that plays out too in Latin America's bids to not take sides, at least explicitly and emphatically.
Anita Fuentes: The last question that I wanted to ask you is more general about the global South, which is: for those interested in Global South issues, what else do you think should we be aware of as this conflict continues? And what issues should be brought to bear on the general discussion in the US or in the West that are currently missing or that we haven't touched on yet?
Arlene B. Tickner: I've intentionally left out this whole discussion of NATO enlargement and Western incursions into Russia's existential safe space because I think that has been discussed actually quite extensively in the press, but I think, inevitably, we have to ask ourselves how this has affected and played into Putin's reactions. But, setting that aside, I'll go back to the issues I mentioned at the beginning.
I think in the global South, a strong sense of history and histories of interventionism provides a healthy dose of reality for trying to think through this particular instance of intervention. And, again, perhaps today it's politically unpopular to maintain that perhaps the West as well, and the United States in particular have played into and fed into this moment by conducting their own interventions, construed mistakenly in my mind as benevolent, because no intervention can be benevolent. But this is something that, although politically unpopular, I think is crucial in the global South for thinking through this moment. I think the reactions to different groups of refugees and migrants also underscores deep-seated dynamics of racism, gendered lenses, and whatnot, that are important, again, when situated in the global South for thinking critically about this moment.
And something that I guess I didn't mention is this whole question of how this invasion has, if not provided kind of a lethal blow to the liberal world order, at least accelerated its process of disillusionment and weakening. And so this is something I think that within different countries of the global South we've been discussing and thinking about for some time. But, certainly, being able to invade another country unprovoked, and to get away with it, obviously puts into question many of the rules of the game by which what we call the “liberal world order” has been maintained since the end of the Second World War. And so I think this just feeds into critiques that are ongoing about the power dynamics that characterize the liberal world order, about the possibilities of alternative orders, and whatnot. And I guess in my mind, the alternative being offered today by China and Russia is not necessarily the only alternative nor the best one. And so I think this moment also underscores the need for countries of the global South to start thinking together about future alternative world orders that might be more amicable and convenient to their own interests and those of their populations.
Anita Fuentes: Thank you very much, Arlene.