Only a few weeks ago, a new intellectual superstition was flourishing in the West: the "Global South." A phrase long deployed by left-leaning institutions and individuals had attracted, with stunning speed, wide fascination among mainstream politicians and journalists in Europe and the US.
Bestowing unprecedented attention on the summit of BRICS countries in South Africa and the G-20 conclave in India, the Western press was full of speculation about whether India or China would lead the Global South. President Joe Biden made his own preferences clear by strenuously wooing Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a self-proclaimed advocate for the Global South. The Biden administration drew up various schemes involving India in alliances with Israel and rich Arab countries, aimed in part at stemming Chinese influence.
A report by the European Council on Foreign Relations echoed the new Western consensus: The West needed to woo friendly members of the Global South such as India and Turkey if it was to build a new world order.
Now that the globally discordant conflict in the Middle East is threatening to prematurely terminate this Western infatuation, it is worth asking what it was all about. Did the project of winning over emerging nations reflect wishful thinking and image-projection by Western elites?
Certainly, the romancing seemed to ignore the reality that its object might have contradictory interests — the fact, for instance, that India could not swiftly wean itself off cheap oil from Russia and manufactured goods from China, even as it pursued military deals with Western powers.
The West's overnight interest in the Global South was rooted more in expedient self-interest than sober understanding of its intricacies. The phrase "Global South" itself flourished only after Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, driven by the awkward realisation that non-cooperation from Asian, African and Latin American countries could doom the Western effort against Vladimir Putin.
As it happens, Putin's war machine, indirectly funded by both India and China, appears to have withstood Ukraine's counteroffensive, and support for Kiev is likely to ebb in coming months among even its biggest Western supporters. Meanwhile, the Biden administration failed to enlist any major country of the Global South in its cause.
Even worse, the conflict in Gaza may now have mortally damaged Western power and credibility in the Global South.
While Israel seems no closer to victory in its own counteroffensive against Hamas, the high death toll among women and children is leading even such stalwart European allies of Israel as France to call for a ceasefire. Some Global South countries are more vociferous, accusing Israel of genocide and the West of double standards.
Western commentators err in taking at face value such morally charged criticism. Pro-Palestinian sentiment had, in fact, receded globally in recent years, except among the young and non-white populations in the US and Europe. With its vibrant high-tech economy, Israel seemed irresistible, and the world, after all, quickly learns to love and embrace a winner. Indeed, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, presently a brazen champion of Hamas, was seeking close relations with Israel until October 7.
Yet Palestine, as George Orwell pointed out in 1945, has always been a "color issue." Israel's treatment of Palestinians has long outraged not just Muslim populations worldwide, but anti-colonialists in Asia, Africa and Latin America, as well as African-American leaders in the US, from Muhammad Ali to Cornel West. Even despots such as Erdogan or Saudi Arabia's Mohammed Bin Salman cannot defy inflamed public opinion at home.
More importantly, many potential partners of Israel in the Global South can cynically calculate that the country under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's leadership is very far from becoming a winner again. They can see that Hamas brutally shattered Israel's aura of inviolability on October 7 and, just as Hamas probably hoped, Netanyahu's retaliatory bombing of Gaza has brought a forgotten Palestinian cause back onto the stage of world history.
Israel now looks over-committed to a long war it cannot win, either on the battlefield or in the no less important court of international public opinion. Indeed, Israel's failure to define a viable future for itself and the Palestinians is now adversely impacting its closest ally, inducing bitter divisions in the US State Department as well as on university campuses and potentially endangering Biden's re-election in 2024. No wonder veteran establishment commentators such as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman are imploring the Biden administration to disengage from Netanyahu.
Few people love or want to embrace an adventurer who continues to recklessly gamble even as he loses. Biden's schemes involving Israel, Arab nations and India are already in ruins. The West's hopes of enlisting the Global South in building a new global order are likely to join them.
Pankaj Mishra is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is author, most recently, of "Run and Hide."
Disclaimer: This opinion first appeared on Bloomberg, and is published by special syndication arrangement.