Analysis

A New Cold War May Call for a Return to Nonalignment

Why a growing number of countries want to avoid getting stuck in a great-power tussle—again.

nonalignment-george-wylesol-illustration-lead
nonalignment-george-wylesol-illustration-lead
George Wylesol illustration for Foreign Policy
By , the chair of the Ashoka Centre for China Studies and a visiting professor at Ashoka University.

At first glance, the policy of nonalignment may seem irrelevant in today’s increasingly polarized world. The Western alliance is more united than since the Cold War, with even Finland and Sweden abandoning neutrality to join NATO. Other sharpening divides—between democracies and autocracies, rich and poor—dominate international affairs and contribute to the fragmentation of economies and polities.

Yet after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, nonalignment has become an attractive option for countries in the global south. Several states in Asia, Africa, and Latin America have displayed ambiguity toward the Western coalition, a reluctance to endorse sanctions against Russia, and discomfort with the idea of a new cold war. For these countries, the existing order does not address their security needs, their existential concerns about food and finances, or transnational threats such as climate change.

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At first glance, the policy of nonalignment may seem irrelevant in today’s increasingly polarized world. The Western alliance is more united than since the Cold War, with even Finland and Sweden abandoning neutrality to join NATO. Other sharpening divides—between democracies and autocracies, rich and poor—dominate international affairs and contribute to the fragmentation of economies and polities.

Yet after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, nonalignment has become an attractive option for countries in the global south. Several states in Asia, Africa, and Latin America have displayed ambiguity toward the Western coalition, a reluctance to endorse sanctions against Russia, and discomfort with the idea of a new cold war. For these countries, the existing order does not address their security needs, their existential concerns about food and finances, or transnational threats such as climate change.

The international system is in transition between orders. The unipolar moment that followed the Cold War was predictable, but the rise of China and other countries in Asia has redistributed economic power. The result is a globalized world where the sole but reluctant military superpower operates in an economically multipolar context. In such uncertain times, nonalignment—or, to use its more fashionable contemporary name, strategic autonomy—attracts leaders who see global polarization as harming their interests.

Nonalignment took shape as the world divided into two competing blocs at the start of the Cold War. The global order was shifting rapidly: The United States had just used weapons of unprecedented mass destruction for the first time, and freedom was in the air for the world’s colonized majority. For newly independent India, Indonesia, Egypt, Yugoslavia, and many other countries, joining neither NATO nor the Warsaw Pact increased their bargaining power with both blocs and limited their entanglement in others’ quarrels.

India was one of the earliest advocates of nonalignment; it was a natural impulse to protect the freedom of decision-making that came with its independence in 1947. It was also a realistic policy response, since neither NATO nor the Warsaw Pact was ready to meet India’s development or security concerns. Competition to prevent India going over to one side or the other ultimately resulted in some of its needs being addressed. Meanwhile, New Delhi benefited by cooperating with countries from either bloc that showed congruence with Indian policies. 

Nonalignment gained the most traction in the 1950s and early 1960s, when the policy achieved major successes in decolonization, disarmament, and fighting racism and apartheid. The Bandung Conference, a meeting of Asian and African countries held in Indonesia in 1955, included U.S. allies such as the Philippines and Iraq and Soviet allies such as China. In 1961, the policy was partially institutionalized in the Non-Aligned Movement, which today has 120 member states and 20 observers.

For Cold War crusaders such as John Foster Dulles, nonalignment was immoral—an attitude that has echoes today in some U.S. commentary as well as hard-line Chinese opinion. During the Cold War, the United States, as the stronger superpower, adopted a “with us or against us” attitude. Even before the death of its leader Joseph Stalin, the weaker Soviet Union instead quickly realized that cooperation with and co-option of the nonaligned countries were more productive than working against them. 

After the Sino-Soviet split in the 1960s and the U.S.-China rapprochement in the 1970s, the international context for nonalignment changed. The economic pressures of globalization and a marked decline in the effectiveness of the multilateral system—its primary area of focus—meant that nonalignment was less relevant to the immediate concerns of its adherents and less capable of delivering real-world outcomes. Export-led growth and new alignments in Asia replaced multilateral solutions. The end of the bipolar Cold War era cemented these trends; after 1991, some Indian thinkers even argued that the entire world was nonaligned.

Three decades later, the world again appears divided as it was at the start of the Cold War, with local balances of power shifting rapidly, particularly in Asia. This time, the binary has appeared between the United States and the West on one side and China and Russia on the other. But at the same time, the reaction of most countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America to the Russian attack on Ukraine suggests a basic disquiet at having to choose sides. 

Even regimes close to or dependent on Moscow or Washington have balked at or resisted calls to vote a certain way or to join in condemnation of the other side. Several of these states are preoccupied with the widespread debt crisis in developing countries, which the pandemic and the war in Ukraine have only exacerbated, and by the overall state of the world economy. The current world order—or its absence—does not seem to address their interests, and they seek alternatives. 

In Asia, the rise of China and a limited U.S. pushback have led countries on China’s maritime periphery to improve their own capabilities and to begin unprecedented security and intelligence cooperation with each other in the last 15 years. The United States should welcome this development, which means more capable and willing partners to counter China. The transformation of U.S.-India security ties, the upgrading of Japan’s and South Korea’s roles in the U.S. alliance system, and the changing function of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue all reflect a rebalanced effort to protect a rules-based and open Indo-Pacific region that is not dominated by any single power. 

When the international system is failing or absent, and when it seems to be each country for itself, it is no surprise that leaders turn to nonalignment.

Whether this approach can coexist with or accommodate China’s ambitions seems doubtful. Judging by Beijing’s rhetoric and propaganda, the conflict in Ukraine and the Western reaction to it have only strengthened the Chinese Communist Party’s conviction that the United States is determined to contain and prevent China’s rise. Strategic competition between the United States and China has sharpened; other countries, reluctant to choose between their major economic and security partners, are more likely to look for a third way and seek self-reliance. In any case, China and the United States represent two of the biggest trading partners for many countries—losing one or the other is simply not a viable option.

Furthermore, Russia’s war in Ukraine has highlighted the fraying of the international nonproliferation regime. Moscow has made nuclear threats, leading to widespread discussion about the possible use of nuclear weapons. The invasion has exposed the ineffectiveness of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, in which Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom pledged to respect Ukrainian territorial integrity and sovereignty in exchange for Ukraine’s accession to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and giving up nuclear weapons on its soil. 

When the international system is failing or absent, and when it seems to be each country for itself, it is no surprise that leaders turn to nonalignment. The more the United States, Russia, China, or other powers pressure other countries to choose sides, the more those countries will be drawn to strategic autonomy, which could create a poorer and crueler world as countries reduce external dependence and consolidate their homefronts. 

As long as countries see nonalignment as a logical complement to such policies, it is likely to find new adherents. How far governments and leaders take this logic will greatly influence our future. In the longer term, Russia’s war in Ukraine and the consolidation of the Western alliance today could lead to a new incarnation of the ideas, approaches, and policies pioneered by nonaligned countries more than half a century ago.

Shivshankar Menon is the chair of the Ashoka Centre for China Studies and a visiting professor at Ashoka University. From 2010 to 2014, he served as national security advisor to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

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