Tue | Sep 27, 2022

Adekeye Adebajo | Global South revives non-alignment

Published:Sunday | September 11, 2022 | 12:08 AM
Adekeye Adebajo
Adekeye Adebajo

In this 1973 photo then Prime Minister Michael Manley, is seen at the airport after his return from the Non-Aligned Summit in Algiers and his visit to African countries. With him is Mrs. Michael Manley.
In this 1973 photo then Prime Minister Michael Manley, is seen at the airport after his return from the Non-Aligned Summit in Algiers and his visit to African countries. With him is Mrs. Michael Manley.

An African proverb notes that: “When two elephants fight, it is the grass underneath that suffers.” The fact that 52 governments from the “global South” failed to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, and 82 Southern states refused to vote to suspend Moscow from the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council a month later – including abstentions from Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, Guyana, St Vincent and the Grenadines, and St Kitts and Nevis – sent shock waves across the Western world.

The Southern scepticism about Western inconsistency in applying international norms is profound. Many have cited the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, launched without UN Security Council authorisation. The global South is also expressing its collective frustration at decades of perceived Western heavy-handedness in international trade, global governance, and cross-border migration. Southern states are therefore advocating a renewed non-alignment to avoid becoming embroiled in great power rivalries involving future battles between a Pax Americana and a Pax Sinica.


Non-alignment was an approach employed by the newly independent Third World from the 1950s to balance between East and West in Cold War proxy wars. The Bandung Conference of 1955 represented the global South’s attempts to create new norms of intervention in the global governance regime in order to regain the sovereignty of Asian and African countries from Western imperial powers.

The clarion call was for universal collective security and universal sovereignty. Bandung sought to support the decolonisation of Africa and Asia, foster global peace, promote economic and cultural cooperation, and end racial discrimination and domination. The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) was born six years after Bandung in Belgrade in 1961. Members were urged to abstain from collective defence arrangements with great powers, and avoid becoming embroiled in superpower blocs.

NAM states were also required to shun joining military alliances such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), and to avoid signing bilateral security treaties with great powers. Non-alignment, however, did not advocate passive but rather “positive” neutrality, pushing Southern states to contribute actively to strengthening and reforming institutions of global governance such as the UN.

NAM states established new concepts of global governance in areas related to self-determination (Western Sahara); decolonisation and the right to use force in wars of national liberation (Algeria, Guinea-Bissau, and Southern Africa); and racial discrimination (declaring apartheid in South Africa to be a “crime against humanity”).

The landmark UN General Assembly Resolution 1514 of 1960 – the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples - had laid the foundations for the decolonization efforts at the UN in this process of norm-development. The unspoken Afro-Arab pact of this era involved the Africans agreeing to support the Palestinian struggle against Israel, in exchange for the Arabs backing black Africa’s struggle against white settler rule in Southern Africa.


The world has rapidly changed since the Cold War era ended three decades ago. The three largest global economies by 2050 are predicted to be China, India, and the United States (US). There is now more trade across the Pacific than the Atlantic. Despite the return of geopolitics to Europe, the future of international relations is inexorably shifting from Europe to Asia. Many in the global South are particularly irked by America’s Manichaean division of the world into “good democracies” and “bad autocracies”.

China, India, Indonesia, South Africa, Ethiopia, Algeria, Brazil, and Mexico – representing much of the world’s population – have adopted a non-aligned stance to the Ukraine conflict, with many seemingly accepting the Russian interpretation of the West “encircling” Moscow through a relentless NATO expansion. South Africa hosted the NAM summit in 1998, and has recently championed “strategic non-alignment” during the Ukraine conflict, advocating a peaceful resolution, but refusing to sanction its BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) ally.

Most Latin American countries have ignored Washington’s warnings to avoid doing business with China. The region’s scholars have recently developed the concept of “Active Non-Alignment”, urging governments to build more effective regional mechanisms to coordinate global economic governance and regional foreign policies. Further afield, India has abandoned its traditional Nehruvian non-alignment, and is no longer a credible leader of the NAM. Despite being an anchor of the US-led Indo-Pacific strategy, New Delhi has massively increased its purchase of subsidised Russian oil, and remains heavily dependent on Russian military hardware.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has demonstrated that non-alignment has as much to do with geography as strategy. Singapore sanctioned Russia over Ukraine; Indonesia condemned the invasion, but rejected sanctions; Myanmar backed the invasion; while Laos and Vietnam refused to condemn Moscow’s actions. Many ASEAN governments have historically championed non-alignment rhetorically, but practised a promiscuous “multi-alignment”, with Singapore and the Philippines forging close military ties with the US, and Malaysia and Singapore with Britain, Australia, and New Zealand.

This is a region in which governments simultaneously embrace and fear Chinese hegemonic economic assistance and military cooperation. Many ASEAN states thus reject formal military alliances with great powers, preferring to hedge their bets through overlapping and complex military and economic partnerships.

Unlike ASEAN, Africa has no large regional power like China that can dominate its continent, nor a global power like the US which plays an active regional security role involving local alliances. The continent would thus be best served by building local security capacity in close cooperation with the UN, promoting regional integration, and fencing off Africa from meddling external powers, while continuing to welcome trade and investment.

Professor Adekeye Adebajo is a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Pretoria’s Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship in South Africa. Send feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com