Cold War 2.0 Is Ushering In Nonalignment 2.0

Countries in the developing world don’t want to choose sides—and don’t feel they have to.

Traub-James-foreign-policy-columnist17
Traub-James-foreign-policy-columnist17
James Traub
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation.
Modi stands alone in front of carpeted steps looking thoughtfully toward flags of India and Japan.
Modi stands alone in front of carpeted steps looking thoughtfully toward flags of India and Japan.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi waits for the arrival of Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida at the Hyderabad House in New Delhi on March 19. JEWEL SAMAD/AFP via Getty Images

Why now? Why has Russia’s war in Ukraine caused so many developing nations to break with the West and insist on a posture of neutrality between victim and victimizer, while diplomats and scholars clamor for a “new nonaligned movement”? As democracies in the West have imposed escalating sanctions on Russia and condemned its behavior at the United Nations, two of the largest democracies in the global south, India and South Africa, abstained on the vote to condemn the invasion, as did many states in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia; 58 countries abstained from the vote to kick Russia off the U.N. Human Rights Council. All have declined to join the sanctions, in some cases weakening them considerably by trading with Russia.

If there is one principle held dear by all countries in the developing world, it is the sanctity of borders and state sovereignty—the principle that Russia has now trampled underfoot. Yet it is only a slight exaggeration to say, as Jorge Heine, a former Chilean diplomat who now teaches at Boston University, did in a recent conversation, that “the real cleavage over Ukraine is not between democracy and autocracy but between the global north and the global south.” That’s a startling thought—and a very serious rebuke to U.S. President Joe Biden’s campaign to realign the world order around the contest between democracies and autocracies.

After speaking to former diplomats and scholars in Latin America, Africa, and Southeast Asia, as well as reading the literature of the new nonalignment, it’s become clear to me that the Western demand to close ranks on Ukraine did not provoke a backlash so much as crystallize ways of thinking that predated the war. The leading nations of the developing world not only do not want to have to choose sides in a new cold war but also—much more important—do not feel that they have to.

Why now? Why has Russia’s war in Ukraine caused so many developing nations to break with the West and insist on a posture of neutrality between victim and victimizer, while diplomats and scholars clamor for a “new nonaligned movement”? As democracies in the West have imposed escalating sanctions on Russia and condemned its behavior at the United Nations, two of the largest democracies in the global south, India and South Africa, abstained on the vote to condemn the invasion, as did many states in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia; 58 countries abstained from the vote to kick Russia off the U.N. Human Rights Council. All have declined to join the sanctions, in some cases weakening them considerably by trading with Russia.

If there is one principle held dear by all countries in the developing world, it is the sanctity of borders and state sovereignty—the principle that Russia has now trampled underfoot. Yet it is only a slight exaggeration to say, as Jorge Heine, a former Chilean diplomat who now teaches at Boston University, did in a recent conversation, that “the real cleavage over Ukraine is not between democracy and autocracy but between the global north and the global south.” That’s a startling thought—and a very serious rebuke to U.S. President Joe Biden’s campaign to realign the world order around the contest between democracies and autocracies.

After speaking to former diplomats and scholars in Latin America, Africa, and Southeast Asia, as well as reading the literature of the new nonalignment, it’s become clear to me that the Western demand to close ranks on Ukraine did not provoke a backlash so much as crystallize ways of thinking that predated the war. The leading nations of the developing world not only do not want to have to choose sides in a new cold war but also—much more important—do not feel that they have to.

The Non-Aligned Movement first convened in Bandung, Indonesia, in 1955, at a far more ideological moment than our own. To leading figures such as Jawaharlal Nehru of India and Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, nonalignment meant not only avoiding subordination to Washington or Moscow but also pursuing a socialist path between the shoals of capitalism and communism. The idea also satisfied the nationalist aspirations of former colonial states to fully free themselves from the Western powers.

Yet it was ideology that made the Non-Aligned Movement irrelevant, for the demand in the 1970s and ’80s for a “new international economic order” and a “new international information order” convinced the West, in the era of Britain’s Margaret Thatcher and America’s Ronald Reagan, that what was then known as the Third World had been captured by Cuba and other radical states and needed to be either confronted or simply ignored. The socialist path soon came to be seen as a dead end even by much of the developing world.

The old ideology has not died away altogether. A decade ago, a group of India’s leading policy intellectuals issued a white paper titled “Nonalignment 2.0,” which forecast—fantastically, it now feels—that India’s success as a prosperous, multiethnic democracy would “define future possibilities for human kind.” India remains the fountainhead of nonalignment theory—but without the grandiose aspirations that have fallen away along with its multiethnic democracy. In 2020, Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar published The India Way, which argued with blunt realism that in a “world of all against all,” India must pursue its own interests by “leveraging” the competition among rival great powers to extract maximum advantage for itself.

The spirit of the new nonalignment is pragmatic and instrumental, much though it is typically accompanied by bitter complaints about the war in Iraq, reduced development assistance, one-sided trade deals, and other past and present sins of the West. It is not the war in Ukraine but the rise of China that has shaped the new calculus.

This was a refrain in all my conversations. Adekeye Adebajo, a former U.N. peacekeeping official and now a scholar at the University of Pretoria, pointed out to me that China became Africa’s largest trading partner a decade ago, and the gap between the role Beijing plays and that of the West has only increased with time. Heine noted that although siding with the West during the Cold War conferred major advantages in trade and aid, the benefits now run the other way. “When Biden officials come to Latin America,” Heine said, “the message is, ‘Beware of China.’ When Chinese officials go to Latin America, they talk about bridges and tunnels and railways. You can imagine that the one approach goes down better than the other.”

I wonder whether Biden administration diplomats really make the same zero-sum demands as those former President Donald Trump’s team did; in his recent speech on China, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken made a point of saying that Washington doesn’t “seek to block China from its role as a major power” and isn’t “forcing countries to choose” between the two superpowers.

But if, as Blinken went on to say, the Biden administration wants to give countries “a choice,” the West did not help its case with the mad scramble to lock up COVID-19 vaccines or the failure to provide significant funding for climate change adaptation in the developing world. China has lavished tens of billions of dollars of infrastructure funds on the developing world through its Belt and Road Initiative. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, headquartered in Beijing, now has 105 members and $100 billion in capital. The West is belatedly playing catch-up: Last week Biden announced a $600 billion global infrastructure fund with Western backing.

In China’s long game, the global south’s continuing rise as an economic powerhouse and the West’s relative decline offer security against the kind of confrontation the West has now organized against Russia. China has long been a friend, though not a member, of the Non-Aligned Movement; now it is actively encouraging the movement’s renaissance. The current issue of the TI Observer, the English-language publication of the Taihe Institute, a Chinese think tank, is devoted to “Nonalignment 2.0” (and guest-edited by Heine). Articles include “Argentina’s ‘Third Way’ and Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine” and several articles by Chinese authors calling for a new nonalignment.

Real nonalignment, of course, would keep both Washington and Beijing at arm’s length. One way of thinking about the new doctrine is that many states that fear China as a geopolitical actor and continue to seek the security of Western alliances nevertheless regard China as an indispensable economic partner. The global south, as Adebajo put it, “won’t transfer support to China.” China’s active backing of Russia has not endeared itself to capitals that are appalled by the invasion of Ukraine. Of the United Nations’ 193 members, 141 did vote to condemn the invasion; the vote on removing Russia from the Human Rights Council was 93 to 24.

The most important lesson for Biden may be, as Kanti Bajpai, a foreign-policy scholar at the National University of Singapore, put it to me, that “the democracy-autocracy distinction is not going to evoke a lot of support and friendship in the global south.” Biden discovered that himself when he refused to invite autocracies—Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela—to the Summit of the Americas held in Los Angeles last month. Only 23 of 35 heads of state showed up; absentees included the presidents of Mexico, of the Northern Triangle countries, and of several Caribbean nations. (Another refusenik, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, changed his mind at the last minute and attended.) Biden told the gathering that “democracy is not only the defining feature of American histories, but the essential ingredient to Americas’ futures.” His democratic auditors may have been silently disagreeing.

What we have seen since the beginning of the Russian invasion is the coalescence of the West and the fragmentation of the rest. The West is quite right to view Russia’s brazen assault on its neighbor as an unprecedented challenge to the post-World War II order. But nations that see themselves as victims of that order as much as beneficiaries cannot be expected to share that view. Or perhaps they should, but it’s clear that they don’t. “[T]he existing order,” as former Indian National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon recently wrote in Foreign Policy, “does not address their security needs, their existential concerns about food and finances, or transnational threats such as climate change.” (India really does have a special vocation when it comes to nonalignment.)

If the West is not going to gain the loyalty of the global south through appeals to democratic solidarity, it will have to do so by delivering the goods. But the democratic appeal is so much cheaper. The kind of spending that would demonstrate a real commitment to the well-being of poor and middle-tier states is almost certainly not forthcoming any time soon; nor is, say, a reform of the U.N. Security Council that would more fairly represent the distribution of global power. The rising states of Asia, Africa, and Latin America will continue pursuing their economic self-interest even as they look for protection to the United States and the West. We’ll just have to get used to it.

Update, July 9, 2022: This article has been updated to include Adekeye Adebajo’s most recent affiliation.

James Traub is a columnist at Foreign Policy, nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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