An African proverb notes that: “When two elephants fight, it is the grass 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 UN Human Rights Council a month later, sent shockwaves 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.
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 1955 Bandung Conference urged developing countries to abstain from collective defence arrangements with great powers, while the now 120-strong Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) urged members to shun military alliances like NATO. Non-alignment advocates promoted “positive” rather than passive neutrality, aiming to strengthen institutions of global governance. 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 ally.
The three largest global economies by 2050 are predicted to be China, India, and the US. There is now more trade across the Pacific than the Atlantic. Despite the return of geo-politics 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.
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-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 practiced 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 Adebajo is a senior research fellow at the University of Pretoria’s Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship in South Africa.