In recent decades, a segment of the global Left has looked upon the U.S. government as the Great Satan in international affairs, responsible for the world’s major ills. Thus, on those occasions when countries at odds with the United States behaved like brutal imperialist powers, these “campists” (as they were called thanks to their division of the world into an evil U.S. imperialist camp and its benign opponents) either ignored the action or blamed it on the U.S. government and U.S. allies.
This warped vision became particularly apparent during the Russian government’s military invasion, occupation, and annexation of Ukraine, when major organizations on the anti-American Left, although supposedly antiwar and anti-imperialist, focused their criticism on the U.S. government, NATO, and Ukraine.
But this position failed to generate widespread popularity, even on the Left. In the United States, progressives in Congress uniformly condemned the Russian conquest of Ukraine and voted to support Ukraine’s defense effort. Meanwhile, leftwing activists organized a Ukraine Solidarity Network that leafletted, distributed articles, and sponsored speakers. In March 2023, when the campists finally held a national rally in Washington, DC, whitewashing Russian military aggression, it drew a remarkably small turnout that even the admiring Chinese government news agency estimated as numbering only in the hundreds.
Leftwing apologists for Russian behavior in Ukraine also faced tough going around the world. Opinion polls found wide-ranging international hostility toward Vladimir Putin and his government. At the UN General Assembly, the Russian military invasion was quickly condemned by a vote of 141 nations to 5 (with 35 abstentions), while later Russian annexation of Ukrainian territory was denounced by a vote of 143 nations to 5 (with 35 abstentions).
In these difficult circumstances, the campists promoted a more popular idea, championed by Kremlin propagandists, that the unipolar world order dominated by the United States should be supplanted by a multipolar one. The United States had frequently meddled in or invaded weaker nations, they argued. Therefore, why shouldn’t Russia or others do the same? Thus, instead of advocating the abolition of imperialism, anti-American leftists called for admitting other nations to the imperialist club.
This support for “multipolarity” often pointed toward the rise of the BRICS nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa). Decades ago, they began working together to promote alternative investment opportunities. More recently, they formed a loose geopolitical bloc that, given their large populations and growing share of the world economy, provided them with considerable potential power. From the standpoint of anti-American leftists, this was a particularly appealing organization, for it included Russia and China and omitted the United States and its NATO partners.
In July 2022, Sara Flounders, a leader of the International Action Center and the United National Antiwar Coalition, two of the largest campist organizations in the United States, lovingly depicted a recent BRICS summit as devoted to “building an open world economy that . . . promotes cooperation.” She contrasted this with a summit of the Group of Seven (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Britain, and the United States)―“the countries responsible for the looting and colonization of Asia, Africa, and the Americas. They owe reparations for the genocide of Indigenous peoples, the enslavement of African people, and the devastating world wars of the 20th century.” Naturally, “this summit of the most powerful and wealthiest imperialist powers was focused on how to intensify sanctions on Russia and how to continue the war in Ukraine.” Behind them stood NATO, “the U.S. commanded military alliance that serves as a global enforcer of U.S. corporate power.”
Leading campist writers and lecturers devote considerable effort to lauding the BRICS nations as the humane alternative to U.S. imperialism. In a recent article, Medea Benjamin and Nicolas Davies insist that BRICS nations and other foes of U.S. policy will “show the world that other nations can actually bring peace and prosperity to countries and regions where the United States has brought only war, chaos and instability.” Scott Ritter, who insists that Putin is “one of the greatest leaders of all time,” exulted that American domination of the world was crumbling. “It’s not just Russia,” he argued; “the world is waking up.” NATO was “a paper tiger,” and “BRICS is now the major player in the world.”
In fact, though, the governments of BRICS nations―other than Russia’s―are not as enthusiastic about the Russian assault upon Ukraine as the anti-American Left contends and would like. They refused to support the Russian invasion in votes at the UN General Assembly, avoided selling arms to the weapons-hungry Russian government, and chided Putin when he threatened nuclear war. From the standpoint of providing a strong defense for beleaguered Ukraine, this behavior was insufficient. But it was far from wholehearted backing for Russian policy, either.
Furthermore, the public in BRICS countries has frequently been more critical of Russia’s actions in Ukraine than their governments have been. According to a public opinion survey in March 2022, shortly after the wholesale Russian invasion began, only 4 percent of Indian respondents and 8 percent of Chinese respondents expressed a positive view of Russia, while 71 percent in China supported or sympathized with Ukraine. That May, another survey reported that the share of Brazilian adults with a favorable view of Russia had dropped from 38 percent to 13 percent. In the fall, a YouGov poll found that only 28 percent of Indian respondents blamed Western countries for the Ukraine War, while 53 percent of South African respondents and 54 percent of Brazilian respondents thought a Russian victory in Ukraine would make the world a more dangerous place.
Indeed, a survey in early 2023 reported that large majorities of the public in all BRICS nations except Russia favored non-recognition of Russian-conquered Ukrainian land, trade sanctions against Russia, and Russian payment of war reparations to Ukraine.
Illusions have their limits.