Editor’s Note: The following is the first installment of a two-part series looking at the nonaligned movement amid and after Russia’s war on Ukraine. Part two will discuss why the nonaligned movement should condemn Russia’s invasion and continue to support the foundational principles of the international order.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has accentuated emerging geopolitical trends that have coincided with the rise and intensification of great power competition. The re-emergence of the nonaligned movement (NAM) as a geopolitical force is perhaps the most salient example. Indeed, this month’s edition of Foreign Affairs — a reliable barometer of key trends in international affairs — is dedicated to the “nonaligned world.” By definition, NAM states do not want to be forced to choose sides between the United States and/or Russia and China. But as we move into a multipolar era of accelerating great power competition, these states will find themselves caught between major powers.

Egypt’s foreign minister delivers remarks at the U.N. General Assembly, Sept. 24, 2022. Nonaligned countries like Egypt have been reluctant to “take sides” between Russia and the West regarding the war in Ukraine. (Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times)
Egypt’s foreign minister delivers remarks at the U.N. General Assembly, Sept. 24, 2022. Nonaligned countries like Egypt have been reluctant to “take sides” between Russia and the West regarding the war in Ukraine. (Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times)

Matias Spektor argues in Foreign Affairs that NAM countries can benefit from a "fence-sitting" approach, maintaining neutrality and avoiding direct alignment with any major power. The dozens of countries that have abstained from U.N. votes on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are an example of this fence-sitting. It may be true that NAM countries can benefit from this approach. As showcased throughout the Cold War, nonaligned countries were often able to leverage U.S.-Soviet competition for their own ends, without bending to pressures from either side. However, “fence sitting” and neutral geopolitical positions amid great power rivalry should never be an excuse for refusing to act, or even speak out, against violations of the most fundamental laws and norms of our current international order, like Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine.

Rethinking Neutrality and Nonalignment for a New Era

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has renewed discussions of state “neutrality” as a matter of law and policy. However, in a world where aggressive war has been outlawed, modern concepts of neutrality should be evaluated in conjunction with the evolving ideals of nonalignment, such as those professed by the NAM. An inquiry into the implications of the normative, legal and realpolitik deployments of neutrality for conflict dynamics around the world may help shape policies that seek to prevent a devastating spill over from the war in Ukraine or other potential conflicts that implicate major nuclear-armed powers. One question is how policymakers, particularly those from nonaligned states, may contend with the history and the evolving constructions of neutrality within the international liberal order and its contributions to preventing interstate conflict.

In war, neutrality implicates the classic legal obligations outlined in the 1907 Hague Conventions, among other legal instruments. Long-term or so-called “permanent” neutrality, as well as nonalignment, can both apply to peacetime relations with potential warring parties. Despite shifts in international law and international relations since Europe‘s 19th and early 20th century “age of neutrals,“ several political scientists argue that the concept has “remained a potent issue for domestic reasons that emerged or continued long after neutrality had outlived its original functions of providing security and stability in Europe.”

Soon after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, analysts explored Ukraine’s potential “neutralization” as a possible negotiated buffer to address Russian grievances linked to NATO expansion. Meanwhile, the NATO applications of Finland and Sweden, two states with a history of neutrality, has also raised questions about the future of neutrality in the modern era. Some observers have reviewed the terms of neutrality under international law, as it related to the supply of weapons and materiel to Ukraine to oppose Russian aggression.

But the center of gravity for less legalistic discussions of neutrality has emerged outside of Europe, coinciding with dynamic diplomatic, geopolitical and economic developments in the Global South. These conversations are a reinvigoration of the related concept of “nonalignment” — a term and designation that has evolved since its great prominence in diplomacy during the Cold War.

Nonaligned states, like permanently neutral ones, remain outside security blocs; however, nonalignment is not legal by bilateral treaty, by the multilateral 1907 Hague Conventions’ “neutral rights and duties,” or by customary law. Scholars often clarify that neutrality and nonalignment of the sort that emerged in the NAM, while related, are technically distinct. However, neutrality in normative and political terms can encompass the modern definition of nonalignment when applied perpetually in war and peace.

Today, the NAM includes 119 U.N.-member states, including many countries highly influential on the global stage like India, Indonesia and South Africa. In a world where realpolitik and great power rivalry increasingly dominate international relations, the core principles of peaceful coexistence that lie at the heart of the nonaligned movement are as important as ever. Wars of aggression like the one we see waged by Russia on Ukraine, are clear violations of these fundamental principles and should be unambiguously condemned by members of the NAM.

The Founding of the Nonaligned Movement  

To better understand the current inflection point for conceptions of nonalignment, it is important to review the evolution of the NAM. Since the beginning of the Ukraine conflict, many NAM members signaled worries that support for Ukraine would draw disproportionate international attention and resources in the face of many other pressing global humanitarian and security challenges. In recent months, many NAM members voiced further frustrations as food, fuel and financial crises, caused or exacerbated by the conflict, have disproportionately impacted nonaligned states. The recent tragic violence in Sudan offers yet another chance for critics to highlight the failed development and diplomatic interventions of the West and the broader international community in Africa. These understandable concerns are born of a rich history of advocacy for decolonized, decolonizing and developing nations, which have had to bear the hypocrisy and exceptionalism of great powers for the better part of a century.

The concept of nonalignment evolved in the latter half of the 20th century with the ideas of Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who promoted a “third way” for countries sympathetic to the idea of refusing to choose between the capitalist liberalism of the United States or the communism of the Soviet Union. The NAM was formally established at the 1955 Bandung Conference in Indonesia. Among the members, a “declaration on the promotion of world peace and cooperation,” incorporating the principles of the U.N. Charter, including territorial integrity, sovereignty and nonaggression, was unanimously adopted.

In subsequent years, what would become the NAM gained great momentum in countries deeply impacted by European colonialism. In the 1960s, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, a major leader in the NAM, popularized the term “neocolonialism,” which he used to explain the efforts by the former colonial powers and the United States to maintain dominion over newly independent states. Despite ideological and policy differences, the movement vigorously sustained the principle of united opposition to hegemonic interference.

By the 1970s, the NAM had grown significantly and began to splinter. Following the 1970 Lusaka Summit, some members moved to use the group to act as a formal voting bloc in the U.N. General Assembly; others disagreed. Additionally, while the NAM remained defined by its ambivalent policies towards the East and West, there was a noticeable shift to a more activist group of new leaders supporting aggressive advocacy for their economic demands. In 1989, with the end of the Cold War, the NAM largely lost relevance. However, its members continued to meet and often focused discussions on global economic equity and opposition to unipolar U.S. hegemony.

Nonalignment in the 21st Century

The NAM of the 21st century is pragmatic and instrumental but is also characterized by vocal opposition to issues such as the U.S. invasion of Iraq, reduced development assistance, climate and energy inequities and other “sins of the West.” For many NAM members and countries that have been supportive of the movement, like China, these historical grievances have made them reluctant — or at least hesitant — to side with the West in multilateral forums, which includes today an unwillingness to “take sides” between Russia and the West regarding the war in Ukraine.

This reluctance was on full display early in the conflict when the U.N. General Assembly put forward a resolution in March 2022 condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. While 141 U.N.-member states supported the measure, 25 abstained, including two influential NAM members, India and South Africa. The following month, when the General Assembly voted to expel Russia from the Human Rights Council, more dissenting voices emerged, with 58 member states abstaining and 24 voting against it. These abstentions included the surprising additions of several large nations, like Brazil, Mexico, Nigeria, Egypt and Indonesia, three of which are core members of the NAM.

Moreover, NAM members like India, the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, Indonesia and Malaysia have helped Russia sidestep sanctions by increasing their bilateral trade in goods such as semiconductors, arms, cellphones, fertilizers and other products. Russia recently announced that its oil sales to India increased 22 fold in 2022 and liquid natural gas exports to the country also increased significantly. In fact, Russia became India’s fourth-largest trading partner during the sanctions period with imports from the country increasing “five times to $32.9 billion” between April and December 2022.

Commentators note that the war has accentuated existing political, economic and cultural divisions and contributed to more illiberal politics. In addition to the reluctance to condemn Russia’s aggression — a sign of disrespect for the liberal international order — nonaligned countries have also responded to and been influenced by broader geopolitical changes, such as U.S. reductions in diplomatic and development programs since the global financial crisis of 2008 and subsequent shifts away from the Global War on Terror.

These trends have allowed leaders to centralize and concentrate power at home, often at the expense of fundamental liberal principles, evidenced most comprehensively by international human rights law violations. One strong indicator of a country’s infidelity to international human rights norms is whether the U.N. Human Rights Council has issued a special mandate to investigate human rights abuses within specific countries. Of the 14 countries with these “special procedures” in place in 2022, all but Russia and North Korea are members of the NAM.

Moreover, according to Freedom House, 21 of the 30 countries with the largest 10-year declines in freedom are nonaligned. Anecdotally, the NAM’s five largest members — India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Nigeria and Bangladesh — have in recent years been heavily criticized for growing human rights concerns. These trends follow a pattern that predates Russia’s aggression in 2022, as many nonaligned countries also elected to abstain from U.N. votes condemning Russia following its annexation of Crimea in 2014.

The NAM’s current grievances are legitimate, and the growing influence of members such as India, Indonesia and South Africa on the international stage is undeniable. As the world enters a new phase of state alliances and diplomatic relations, reviewing the international legal structures that underpin the existing order is necessary. Constructive developments in this arena must account for changing national identities, including struggles to find and agree on joint narratives and collective norms. At the same time, the rules of the international liberal order emerged out of a generation devastated by the scourge of modern warfare. Commitment to theses foundational liberal principles of territorial integrity, sovereignty and nonaggression was a cornerstone of the NAM’s creation. These principles must not be abandoned or eroded by power politics or shallow identity politics.

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