Awkward neutrality: The Muslim World and Russia’s war in Ukraine – Part IV

April 21, 2023

Emir Hadikadunic || 25 April 2023


Shared opposition to liberal international order 

As discussed previously, Muslim-majority countries have been reluctant to support the narrative from the West for domestic reasons. A similar point can be made if we shift our gaze from the domestic to the international order. Our assumption here is that the political elite from Muslim-majority states generally dislike what John Mearsheimer calls “a liberal unipole”, in which the United States, as a sole superpower in the international system, and a liberal democracy, pursues a policy of liberal hegemony — remaking the Muslim world in the image of liberal elites in the United States. Spreading democracy abroad has been a high-priority goal for almost all US administrations since the end of the Cold War. It was endorsed by the first Bush administration, with Secretary of State James Baker declaring in April 1990 that “beyond containment lies democracy”. In his 1992 campaign, Bill Clinton repeatedly said that the promotion of democracy would be a top priority of his administration. Once in office, he recommended a two-thirds increase in funding for the National Endowment for Democracy; his National Security Adviser defined the central theme of Clinton foreign policy as the “enlargement of democracy”; and his Secretary of Defence identified the promotion of democracy as one of four major goals.”[1] President George W. Bush used military might to a bid to turn Afghanistan, Iraq, and others across the Middle East into liberal democracies. He said: “By the resolve and purpose of America, and of our friends and allies, we will make this an age of progress and liberty. Free people will set the course of history, and free people will keep the peace of the world.”[2]

However, almost all non-Western civilisations pushed back against this pressure. According to Huntington, the greatest resistance to Western democratisation efforts came from Islam and Asia.[3] Indeed, the Muslim world has not accepted the supposed universality and superiority of liberal ideology that is pursued by the political liberal elite in the West. In practical terms, Muslim-majority states saw no benefits from military interventions that sought to spread liberal democracy in Afghanistan (2002-2021), Iraq (2003-2011), or Libya (2011). In each case, as argued by Mearsheimer, American policymakers thought they could put in place a stable democracy that would be friendly to the US and help it deal with serious problems like nuclear proliferation and terrorism. But they failed every time, bringing destruction to the greater Middle East and committing the United States to lengthy wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.[4]

In addition to what they generally oppose, Muslim-majority states have found alternative orders which are better fits their international ambitions. Their shared preference for multipolarity reflects their desire for a voice in the international system, and to move from the “periphery” of international politics to the “centre”. This has prompted core Muslim-majority states to call for better representation within the international system. Speaking at the “Dialogue Among Asian Civilisations” in 2001, then-Iranian President Mohammad Khatami proposed a permanent UN Security Council seat for the Islamic world. In 2013, Mr Erdogan used phrase “the world is bigger than five” to make a similar call. Last year, Al Farhan al-Saud, the Saudi Minister for Foreign Affairs, called for Security Council reform to enable it to be fairer and more representative of today’s world. For many other Muslim leaders, the prevailing order of contemporary global interactions is not acceptable. They want a multi-polar system, with one pole allocated for the Muslim world, as the fundamental organising principle of the inter-state order. In doing so, they are — perhaps unwittingly — echoing Huntington’s idea of multi-polarity.[5] According to him, core states from each “civilisation”, such as India, China, and Japan, should be represented at the Security Council. Civilisations lacking core states would have rotating seats; Muslim-majority members would be selected by the Organisation for Islamic Conference.[6]

This shared preference to move Muslim-majority states from the “periphery” of international politics to the “centre” facilitated gradual convergence on their foreign policy, including in international affairs. One by one, pro-American governments have given way to ones that  identify less with the West, or are even explicitly anti-Western. They have moved on from being dependent on and serving the foreign policy objectives of other great powers to a phase that former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan associated with “more dignity”, “self-respect” and “independence” in international affairs. Four diverse countries — Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia — illustrate this trend. Despite differing circumstances, all four have arrived at a similar outcome: Adoption of a multi-dimensional foreign policy that interacts with various great powers within the international system.

The Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) was the first among the four major Muslim-majority states to abandon its strong alliance with the United States. By rejecting the rules of bipolarity in 1979, the new revolutionary government wanted to become a dominant pole in the regional sub-system to attain “strategic depth”. Since it came into being, the IRI has also been strongly committed to what students of IR call “balancing”.[7] A new foreign policy of “neither East, nor West,  but the Islamic solidarity” reflected the new orientation. As Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said: “On the basis of this principle, our policy will not be subjected to any group, neither Eastern nor Western, and this is part of our principles and foundations.”[8] In practical terms, Iran gradually improved relations with other poles in the international system, China and Russia, to balance its enmity with the US. Their cooperation included regular bilateral exchanges, including joint military exercises, and weapons transfers.

Pakistan’s alliance with the US against the Soviet Union was a logical move in the bipolar era, particularly since the USSR invaded Afghanistan. As the US promoted liberal democracy abroad in the post-Cold War period, this alliance grew obsolete, and Pakistani reliance on other great powers, first China, and then Russia, become the new reality. Close relations between Pakistan, Iran, and China also crystallised in the early 1990s, with the visits of President Yang Shangkun to Iran and Pakistan, and that of Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani to Pakistan and China. Reinforcing this pattern, Benazir Bhutto visited Iran and China immediately after becoming prime minister in October 1993.[9] The development of this relationship has been strongly supported by those in Pakistan belonging to the “independence” and “Muslim” schools of thought on foreign policy.[10]

Turkey soon promoted independent foreign policy, too. Since the end of the Cold War, Ankara has gradually moved away from being periphery state in the Western bloc (Huntington calls it a torn state[11]) to a core one in the regional sub-system, projecting strategic depth in the Balkans, the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia. It accelerated its efforts to pursue a more multi-dimensional and multi-directional foreign policy as the international system evolved from a unipolar order into a post-unipolar era.[12] Turkey appears to have passed the point of what Huntington termed “its frustrating and humiliating role as a beggar pleading for membership in the West” to resuming its “more impressive and elevated historical role as interlocutor and antagonist of the West”.[13]

Over the past few years, meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has developed a flexible and ambiguous international posture, avoiding excessive proximity to Washington on one hand, and attempting to associate with other great powers on the other. Although Riyadh has long been a US ally, its recent stance on the crisis in Ukraine underlines an important shift to a new balancing behaviour in a new world order where Russia — and China — are important for its security and prosperity. China is now the Saudis’ second-biggest trading partner (after the United Arab Emirates) and is a destination for about one-fifth of its exports. Both sides also signed a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership agreement in December 2022.


[1] Huntington, The clash of civilizations?, 193.

[2] Bush speaking at the AEI Annual Dinner. On the Bush Doctrine, see The National Security Strategy of the United States; George W. Bush, address to the West Point Graduating Class, June 1, 2002; Robert Jervis, “Understanding the Bush Doctrine,” Political Science Quarterly 118, no. 3 (Fall 2003): 365–88; Jonathan Monten, “The Roots of the Bush Doctrine: Power, Nationalism, and Democracy Promotion in U.S. Strategy,” International Security 29, no. 4 (Spring 2005): 112–56.

[3] Huntington, The clash of civilizations?, 193.

[4] John J. Mearsheimer, The great delusion: Liberal dreams and international realities, Yale University Press, 2018., page 165.

[5] Glenn E. Perry, “Huntington and his critics: The West and Islam,” Arab Studies Quarterly Vol. 24, No. 1 (Winter 2002), pp. 31-48 (42)

[6] Huntington, The clash of civilizations?, 317-318.

[7] “In effect, this is a policy that Iran - decades before Khomeini and Khamenei - also tried to pursue in the early 1950s under the brief and unfortunate leadership of Dr. M. Mosaddeq. Within his larger foreign policy of nonalignment, he tried, and failed, to cooperate with the US to balance not only against British and Soviet influence in both worlds but also internal (Iranian) affairs. In this respect, Ayatollah Khamenei stated that Mosaddeq was naïve in his trust in the US.” See: Seyed Mohammad Marandi and Raffaele Mauriello, “The Khamenei Doctrine - Iran’s leader on diplomacy, foreign policy and international relations,” in Islam and International Relations, Politics and Paradigms, edited by Nassef Manabilang Adiong, Raffaele Mauriello, and Deina Abdelkader, Routledge (2019), page 44.  

[8] Seyed Mohammad Marandi and Raffaele Mauriello, “The Khamenei Doctrine - Iran’s leader on diplomacy, foreign policy and international relations,” in Islam and International Relations, Politics and Paradigms, edited by Nassef Manabilang Adiong, Raffaele Mauriello, and Deina Abdelkader, Routledge (2019), page 44.  

[9] Huntington, The clash of civilizations?, 239.

[10] Ibid.

[11] These are countries whose leaders want their countries to be members of the West but whose history, culture, and traditions are not western (Samuel P. Huntington, The clash of civilizations?, Penguin Books, UK, London, 1996).

[12] H. Tarık Oğuzlu, “Turkish Foreign Policy in a Changing World Order,” All Azimuth V9, N1, 127-136.
19 October 2018, (Abstract), DOI: 10.20991/allazimuth.464076

[13] Huntington, The clash of civilizations?, 178-179

Dr Emir Hadikadunic is a Senior Research Fellow at the Islamic Renaissance Front. He is currently visiting professor at the University of Sarajevo School of Science and Technology, and previously served as distinguished fellow at the Universiti Teknologi MARA (Malaysia) and visiting fellow at Istanbul Commerce University (Turkey). He has also served as Bosnian Ambassador to Iran (2010-13) and Malaysia (2016-2020). Dr Hadikadunic obtained a PhD in international relations from the International University of Sarajevo, and is the author of two books and several journal articles on peace-building, foreign policy, and international affairs. This essay first appeared in the Middle East Institute Perspectives, National University of Singapore at

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