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US rivalry with Russia and China is reawakening the politics of non-alignmen

South China Morning Post (Hong Kong)
Syed Munir Khasru
January 23, 2023


Following the end of World War II, with the world split into a Western bloc led by the US and an Eastern bloc led by the Soviet Union, nations torn between the two established a new alliance known as the non-aligned movement. At the height of the Cold War and amid the rise of global independence movements, the first official summit of the non-aligned movement was held on September 1, 1961 as representatives from 25 countries and three observer states gathered in Belgrade, in part of what is now Serbia.

President Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia launched the movement with his counterparts Sukarno of Indonesia, Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, and prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru of India. The primary objectives of non-alignment were to make sure that countries did not centre their national interests around international politics in terms of ideological aims or goals established elsewhere, and to ensure that countries maintained strategic autonomy to pursue their national development goals, as the cornerstone for establishing a just and equitable global order.

The non-aligned movement supported the security and sovereignty of its members, who were primarily from the Global South and opposed colonialism, imperialism, and foreign intervention. In a bipolar world, the non-aligned movement gave newly independent nations ways to exercise their political and economic autonomy. When the Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, one of the founding premises of movement became infructuous. As the Warsaw Pact led by the Soviets dismantled, the US-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato) became the only remaining functional military alliance.

Three decades later, the world appears again split. This time, a binary has developed with China and Russia on one side and the West, led by the US, on the other. At the same time, however, most African, Asian, and Latin American nations are profoundly concerned by the prospect of having to pick a side, as evidenced by their responses to Russia’s war on Ukraine. China, India, Indonesia, Brazil, South Africa, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates are among the nations that have resisted giving up their own interests to punish Russia. Most significantly, many of these countries think that their negotiating positions in the new cold war could entice trade, technology, and arms agreements from the West. By 2030, the populations and economies of these eight nations will make up three-fourths of the world.

The international context in which the non-aligned movement was created has undergone a significant transformation. The movement must recognise and respond to this new reality, its focus shifting from balancing rival powers to maintaining global links in an era of economic interdependence.The non-aligned movement has been marginalised by international leadership organisations such as the G7 and G20 and their dominant roles in matters like global governance, peacekeeping, and international finance. Hence, in light of the political uncertainty that has emerged as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and sanctions by the West, non-aligned countries are attempting to negotiate within this new economic regime and find ways to benefit from it.

Three of the largest democracies in the emerging Global South – India, Brazil and South Africa – abstained from voting to condemn the invasion at a special session of the UN General Assembly last March, as did numerous countries in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. In addition, 58 countries abstained from the vote to suspend Russia from the UN Human Rights Council. Many have also chosen not to ratify Western sanctions in order to continue conducting business with Russia. China is similarly viewed as a crucial economic partner.

The international system is undergoing alterations in power, and by all accounts, a new cold war is around the corner. China and Russia have both been designated as threats by the US. Potential allies are hedging, and there is no effective coalition defending the interests of the vulnerable and poor. To reboot the non-aligned movement is to give it a new purpose. The current order does not address the needs of the Global South regarding security, existential concerns about food and other commodities, or global threats like climate change. Nations that view global polarisation as an impairment to their interests are drawn to non-alignment – or, to use its more contemporary phrase, strategic autonomy – in these unsettling times. The non-aligned movement’s mandate could be expanded to address current global concerns such as greenhouse gas emissions, cyberthreats, health vulnerabilities, rising debt and poverty rates, the food crisis, and unemployment.

In their fresh efforts to forge an autonomous path, postcolonial powers shouldn’t be undervalued by either the West or China and Russia. This new de facto non-aligned movement may prove more effective than the previous one, not least because of the fact that a large portion of the developing world has made significant progress since the Cold War and is now less vulnerable to external shocks.

These countries’ increased resilience is a result of advancements in their political, security, and economic architecture. Hence, a newly revamped non-aligned movement would need a well-defined geopolitical structure and strategic approach to position itself as a viable coalition of countries driven together by their common socio-economic interests as well as political aspirations.

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