A revitalized non-aligned movement could emerge from the war in Ukraine
RUSSIA’s invasion of Ukraine brought strong Western condemnation and sanctions, but many nations around the world chose not to join this united front.
Dozens of governments outside of Europe and North America have balked at censoring Russia, and many more have refrained from joining multilateral sanctions. China has tacitly backed the Kremlin since its February affirmation of a “boundless” Sino-Russian friendship. A few others vigorously supported Russia, including Belarus, which served as a base for the Russian invasion.
Meanwhile, other governments have sat on the fence. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has said his country “will not take sides”. Indian leaders have reaffirmed their policy of non-alignment, implying that their nation will seek to stay out of the fight. South Africa, Pakistan and many other countries are following a similar path.
As a scholar of international politics, I think the responses to the recent Russian aggression have shed light on how governments in the so-called Global South are likely to behave if a new Cold War takes hold. shape. Unless governments are directly threatened, many seem content to espouse non-alignment – a policy aimed at avoiding strong support for the West or its main rivals in Moscow and Beijing.
Non-alignment may be a sensible strategy for individual countries as a way to preserve autonomy and avoid costly choices between great powers. However, I believe that international peace and security will suffer if too many states refuse to take sides in cases like Ukraine.
Meanings of non-alignment
The concept of non-alignment emerged in the 1950s. It involved a refusal to join the rival Cold War blocs led by Washington and Moscow. The concept was pioneered by a group of post-World War II leaders, including Indian Jawaharlal Nehru, Indonesian Sukarno, Egyptian Gamal Abdel Nasser, Ghanaian Kwame Nkrumah and Yugoslav Josip Broz Tito.
Although they represent a wide range of political ideologies, they all saw non-alignment as a way to resist colonial and imperial powers, preserve independence, and stay out of the Soviet-American conflict.
These ideas led to the creation in 1961 of the Non-Aligned Movement, a loosely organized group that soon included most of the world’s countries and people. Several fundamental principles have guided the movement, including anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism, respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, non-aggression and non-interference.
Yet the movement faced a dilemma from the start. When a powerful state violates fundamental principles like sovereignty and territorial integrity, should members of the Non-Aligned Movement take sides to oppose it?
The various members of the movement sometimes took strong unified positions. For example, they joined in opposition to colonial rule in Rhodesia and apartheid in Namibia and South Africa. When superpower interests were more directly at stake, however, the non-aligned states could not agree on when to take sides.
Left-wing leaders in states like Cuba and Vietnam viewed Western powers as neo-imperial threats and clearly sided with Moscow despite their membership in the Non-Aligned Movement. Conservative states, such as Saudi Arabia and Morocco, consistently leaned toward Washington. Many sought relative neutrality. But all of these states have remained in the movement, which has no agreed standard for the degree of acceptable alignment.
Differences between members of the Non-Aligned Movement have undermined their ability to exert collective influence, even when superpowers have flouted norms of sovereignty and self-determination.
In 1979, for example, members were deeply divided over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Fifty-six voted to condemn the Soviet invasion at the United Nations, but nine backed Moscow and 26 abstained. These numbers are remarkably similar to recent votes on Ukraine. Divisions sparked by the Soviet war in Afghanistan weakened the Non-Aligned Movement and undermined its ability to uphold international norms and influence Soviet policy.
The movement’s relevance waned after the Cold War, as its diverse members struggled to define its role in a world no longer shaped by a Soviet-American standoff. Yet the movement survived, and its 120 members recently celebrated the group’s 60th anniversary in Belgrade.
The Non-Aligned Movement faces new challenges today as the war in Ukraine continues.
For many governments in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America, non-alignment remains attractive. Most are heavily dependent on trade, aid and investment from Western powers and China (if not also Russia). Choosing sides could therefore be crippling economically. This danger is evident in Belarus, which faces severe Western sanctions for aiding the Russian war effort. Countries opposed to Russia also risk debilitating power cuts. Sitting against China in any future scenario, such as a dispute over Taiwan, would be even more costly.
The relative non-alignment is also attractive from a security point of view. It allows governments to obtain weapons from multiple sources and limits dependence on a single power. This is a major factor for India, which remains heavily dependent on Russian weapons, and to a lesser extent for countries like Vietnam.
Non-alignment also helps keep diplomatic doors open. This appeals to governments that fear losing their political autonomy if they rely too much on a powerful state or bloc for political support.
For all of these reasons, misalignment is likely to remain common. In fact, its strategic appeal is arguably stronger today than it was during the Cold War due to greater global integration. Unlike the 1950s, most countries now have strong economic, political and, in some cases, military ties with East and West.
Non-alignment may be a sensible policy for individual states, but it could cause problems for international security. Russian President Vladimir Putin shattered the illusion that territorial conquest and wars between great powers were a thing of the past, and in doing so put his fist on the defining principles of the Non-Aligned Movement. Reluctance to take sides in such an overt case of aggression can weaken international norms and undermine global security.
At this point, most members of the Non-Aligned Movement condemned the Russian attacks. Yet only one, Singapore, has imposed sanctions. Others pass the buck, making the war in Ukraine a burden for the United States and its key allies to bear.
By doing so, they make it easier for the Kremlin to support a brutal military campaign. They send the message that aggression and territorial seizure by the great powers will be tolerated. I think this represents a major missed opportunity to uphold the anti-imperial norms at the heart of the Non-Aligned Movement. Members of the movement have a deep interest in reaffirming these standards on behalf of Ukraine, as they are among those most likely to be next. – The conversation
John Ciorciari is an associate professor of public policy at the University of Michigan. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.