It would probably be too much to hope, at least in the short term, that the Russian invasion of Ukraine will lead to much of a general recognition of the importance of promoting and defending democracy worldwide. Our governments are much too set in their ways of turning a blind eye to authoritarianism and democratic backsliding.
You might have thought, though, that it would at least fortify those governments in their respect for the basic principle of international law that territory cannot be acquired by force: that you can’t just walk into another country (as Vladimir Putin has tried to do) and make off with some – or indeed all – of its territory. I noted a while back that “Breaches of that principle in modern times … are universally condemned and sometimes reversed.”
But not so. There’s been some comment in the last couple of weeks on the fact that support for Ukraine seems to have done nothing to make American policymakers question their unconditional support for Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land (which was what prompted the remark of mine just quoted), despite the similarity of some of the issues.
And now that attitude is spreading. The New York Times reported at the weekend that Spain has followed the American lead of moving towards recognition of the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara, with the Spanish foreign minister describing Morocco’s plan for the territory as a “serious, realistic, and credible basis” for its future.
We looked at the Western Sahara question last year. The former Spanish colony is a thinly populated tract of land in north-west Africa, rather more than half the size of Morocco itself. Morocco controls most of it, including all the major population centres; a strip of desert in the east is controlled by the Polisario Front, which claims the whole territory as an independent state, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.
Like Israel in the West Bank or Russia in Crimea, Morocco’s strategy has been to simply stonewall international efforts to end the occupation, hoping that the rest of the world would eventually give up and accept the facts on the ground. Donald Trump did just that in December 2020, a decision that the Biden administration has done nothing to reverse. Now Spain appears to be going the same way.
But every case that meets with this sort of international acquiescence, official or unofficial, just emboldens the aggressors and makes the world a more dangerous place. Morocco itself may not be planning any further imperial adventures (although it has previously made claims to some Algerian territory, over which the two fought a short war in 1963), but other countries will watch and notice that international law can be defied without significant penalty.
If Putin had not drawn that conclusion from the reaction to the annexation of Crimea, he would not have launched last month’s invasion, and Ukraine would have been spared the destruction of its cities and the death or displacement of its people. The west is now belatedly standing by Ukraine, but its failure to stand up to Morocco suggests that no general lesson has been learnt.
Nor is there any reason for Spain to take this particular plunge at the moment. Its coalition government has been traveling reasonably well, and the centre-right opposition is in disarray, with its leader, Pablo Casado, set to be replaced at a party congress next month. Prime minister Pedro Sánchez should focus on the defence of international law, not on undermining it.