As much of Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America has refused to line up behind the West amid its growing confrontation with Russia and China, the idea that these regions are returning to a policy of nonalignment has generated concern in Western capitals and a bit of excitement elsewhere. Both of these sentiments may, however, be misplaced. In the West, the debate over nonalignment is still haunted by the Cold War’s shadow, when “nonalignment” was often synonymous with an anti-Western stance. And for developing countries, the objective of building a non-Western or post-Western order—part of the ideology of nonalignment from its beginnings in the decolonization era—has been an enduring but elusive mirage.
Take a closer look, and you will find the ideology of nonalignment was dead long ago. And while it may not be entirely buried, it poses little threat to the West and does not offer much salvation to the East.
The responses of countries outside the West to the renewed great-power conflict today are too varied to fit neatly into a category. They have little to do with the notions of nonalignment that prevailed during the movement’s heyday following World War II, when newly decolonized nations found themselves right in the middle of a global conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union—and formed a loose third bloc as a result.
Nonalignment was never a coherent concept; it reflected a bouquet of distinct ideas on postcolonial engagement with the world. One of them was the proposition that keeping away from the great powers and their rival blocs was critical for freedom of action in the world. It did not take long for the idea of neutrality to crash against reality. One of the founders of the nonaligned idea, Indian Prime Minster Jawaharlal Nehru, had to abandon it with the outbreak of the Sino-Indian War in 1962. Whereas Nehru turned to the United States for military assistance, his successor and daughter, Indira Gandhi, entered into an alliance with the Soviet Union in 1971. It was the actual threat that mattered, not the abstract principle.
Nonalignment was never a coherent concept; it reflected a bouquet of distinct ideas on postcolonial engagement with the world.
India wasn’t just an isolated case. More broadly, as postcolonial nations encountered territorial and other conflicts with their neighbors and faced domestic challenges from rivals for power, many of them turned to one or the other superpower for support. Some occasionally switched from one side to another. President Anwar Sadat of Egypt, another founding country of the nonaligned movement, dumped the Soviet Union for the United States in the early 1970s. In the 1950s, Pakistan had signed on to the United States’ anti-communist alliance in Asia but quickly found common ground with communist China against India.
In other words, internal and external security challenges compelled most postcolonial states to align with one or the other superpower, even while maintaining the pretense of nonalignment.
A second element of nonalignment was strictly ideological: the morphing of anti-colonialism into anti-Westernism. Many in the developing world elite absorbed socialist theories of development and saw the capitalist West as neocolonial. The Soviet Union and China were good at exploiting this anti-Western resentment and offering economic and political support to newly independent regimes.
This sentiment peaked in 1979, when the Non-Aligned Movement—an organization that still exists today—declared at a summit hosted by Cuban leader Fidel Castro in Havana that the Soviet Union was the developing world’s “natural ally.” But for every leader who turned to Moscow for support, there was another who turned to the West for regime survival and regional balance of power.
A third dimension of nonalignment was the idea of a movement that would overturn the post-1945 order and build a new one that would be more equitable and fair. Rapid decolonization in the 1960s and the emergence of a voting majority of developing countries in the U.N. General Assembly seemed to provide a tailwind for those seeking to transform the world order all through the 1970s.
That era coincided with a widespread sense of Western decline and growing Soviet influence around the world. Like China and Russia today, the Soviet Union and its satellites—as well as a multitude of radical movements around the world—had convinced themselves that the post-Western moment had arrived. The U.S. defeat in the Vietnam War, the growth of protest movements in the West, OPEC’s triumph in dramatically raising oil prices and throwing the West into economic malaise, the general crisis of capitalism, and the Non-Aligned Movement’s sweeping rhetoric about a “new international economic order” produced a giddy sense of a world in rapid transition.
Moscow’s achievement of nuclear parity with Washington was coupled with major gains for Soviet-backed national liberation movements—including in Afghanistan, Angola, Cambodia, and Nicaragua. By the mid-1970s, Soviet-style ideologues were triumphal in their proclamation that the global constellation of forces was turning decisively in favor of socialism, uniting what were then called the Second and Third worlds against the First.
By the turn of the 1980s, however, Washington was triangulating nicely between Moscow and Beijing and had developed a strategy to push back against Soviet advances in the developing world. Many so-called Third World countries supported U.S. and Western efforts, and under the Reagan Doctrine, U.S. aid went to rebel and insurgent groups seeking to oust pro-Soviet radical regimes around the world.
Part of nonalignment’s demise was simple economics. Pragmatic leaders in the global south saw the Soviet model’s limitations, and by the 1980s, many of them were turning to Western capitalism and its system of global institutions for development. It turned out that it was socialism that was in deep crisis and that capitalism had considerable resilience. By the time the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, much of the developing world had already joined the Washington Consensus on economic development.
The West’s unfolding competition with the Sino-Russian alliance demands a decisive shift away from the Western preachiness of the last three decades.
That could have been the end of the story of nonalignment. But the seeds of today’s developing world indifference to Russia’s war in Ukraine were sown in the post-Cold War era. Having vanquished the Soviet Union, a complacent West now saw little need to cultivate good relations with the ruling elites of the global south. The new hubris was also reflected in policies that attempted to promote democracy and reengineer societies in the developing world as rich-world governments, organizations, and activist NGOs carpeted the global south with a vast apparatus of conditional aid. Political hectoring on issues from democratic governance to climate policy became a habit. Sanctions and aid cutoffs became preferred instruments to discipline developing societies that fell short of the benchmarks set by the West.
The conviction that the West and its development elite were serving a higher cause—much like the Christian missionaries of the colonial era—was an intoxicating one. But it ignored the fact that the heathens might not want to convert. Nor were Western wealth and power an endless bounty that could be drawn upon to produce preferred change in the rest of the world.
Despite these repeated failures and setbacks, the presumption that the rest of the world will march to a Western drum endures. It is no surprise, then, that the Western strategic community was so surprised when the rest of the world did not simply stand up to be counted against the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
None of this means, however, that the backlash in the developing world will crystallize into a new nonalignment. That said, the West needs to learn a number of lessons if it seeks broader support—on Ukraine or other geostrategic issues—than it has been able to muster so far.
First, the West could have made a better case on Moscow’s war by framing the problem differently. Instead of defining it as a conflict between democracies and autocracies, it could have focused on the question of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. These ideas have much greater resonance in the developing world, not least because of an abundance of contested borders and simmering conflicts.
Second, distance matters. If Western and Eastern Europe can’t fully agree on how to respond to the war in Ukraine and if neither U.S. Republicans nor Democrats see Russia through the same eyes, why should one assume Latin America, Africa, and Asia will toe the current Western position on Ukraine?
Western leaders should ignore pundits’ rhetoric about a global south “unwilling to choose” and focus instead on the individual concerns and interests of key states in the developing world.
Third, support from the developing world on larger political issues will have to be earned by the West rather than claimed as an entitlement. Having neglected political engagement with the global south and having ceded much economic space to China in the pursuit of globalization, the West now needs to work hard to win back support. The experience of the 1980s tells us it can be done.
The first step in that direction is to recognize that the West’s unfolding competition with the Sino-Russian alliance demands a return to classical forms of diplomacy—of winning friends and influencing people. It would involve a decisive shift away from the Western preachiness of the last three decades. Paradoxically, the people who will find this the most difficult are those in the West who consider themselves friends of the global south, yet have exerted the most pressure on developing countries on a whole gamut of issues.
Second, restoring the importance of area studies in international relations would help Western governments and institutions better understand the complexities of different regions and countries around the world. The emergence of highly vocal single-issue groups in the West—along with their success in setting the agenda for governments and multilateral development institutions—has been toxic for relations with the developing world. Continuing on this track would be even more counterproductive in the age of heightened great-power rivalry.
Third, developing countries have much more political agency today than they did when nonalignment was last a topic during the Cold War. Their wealth, institutions, and confidence have grown, and many of their elites have learned the art of geopolitical bargaining between competing great powers. That presents opportunities the West would be wise to seize, especially given the far greater strategic challenge presented by China today compared with the Soviet Union in the past.
Finally, Western leaders should ignore the widespread rhetoric about a global south “unwilling to choose” and focus instead on the individual concerns, vulnerabilities, and interests of key states in the developing world. That is exactly what traditional diplomacy and statecraft did before ideological buccaneers hijacked Western foreign policies.
Meanwhile, the developing world is not dying to reinvent the failed nonaligned movement. Third Worldism—with its offspring ideologies of pan-Asianism, pan-Arabism, and pan-Islamism—was a big failure. Notwithstanding the clamor among a section of the global south’s own commentariat, few leaders in the developing world today delude themselves with the idea of collective bargaining against the global north. They are much wiser now and more adept at pursuing individual national goals.
C. Raja Mohan is a columnist at Foreign Policy, a senior fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute, and a former member of India’s National Security Advisory Board.
This article was originally published on Foreign Policy. Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.