Like a violent earthquake, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine shook and changed the landscape of international relations. Bringing back war to peaceful Europe, this conflict has broadened the fault line between the Free World countries that support Ukraine and the revisionist powers that side with Russia. There is also an emerging new feature in this landscape: Developing nations embracing non-aligned status, not just over the war against Ukraine, but more broadly as a principle of international relations. The non-aligned movement of the Cold War was not a force for good. Neither would this one be.
Once and Future Non-Alignment
At a 1955 conference in Bandung, the capital city of the Indonesian province of West Java, representatives of mostly Asian and African nations formally birthed the Non-Aligned Movement. The gathering of mostly developing nations proffered an independent role in world affairs outside the strategic competition between the West and the Soviet Union.
Did it work? Arguably not. For one, the history of the Cold War was riddled with confrontation and conflict in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. If the goal was to sidestep having to choose, it clearly eluded most of those nations.
Furthermore, there is little question that many in the Non-Aligned Movement were not non-aligned. Moscow supported the initiative and used it as a tool for expanding its influence and marginalizing the West, all under the false flag of neutrality and sympathy for the developing world. In practice, even nations that committed to the Non-Aligned Movement as foundational to their foreign relations did plenty of aligning, out of necessity.
Post 1989, the movement largely drifted into irrelevance, reflecting the fact that much of the energy keeping it going came from the Soviet Bloc. Where non-alignment remained in fashion, it was mostly from nostalgia.
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Contemporary Country Groupings
Why might non-alignment make a comeback? For starters, because the war in Ukraine may speed the process of contemporary alignment. The Free World is certainly motivated by immediate security concerns: The North Atlantic countries do not want Russia to succeed in this aggression because it may trigger a broader war with NATO. The Asian Free World countries fear that a Russian success may embolden China in its expansionist designs, resulting in a war in Asia.
Beyond these immediate concerns, free nations oppose, as a matter of principle, territorial expansion by force. The world would be a much more dangerous place if big countries could invade peaceful neighboring countries with impunity.
The revisionist powers see the world differently. For years now, they have used their military might against their neighbors. China has had military clashes with most its neighbors. Russia occupied territories in Ukraine in 2014, in Georgia in 2008, and in Moldova since 1992. Iran’s military has been spreading terror in the Middle East, and North Korea is a constant military threat to its neighbors.
In the Ukraine conflict, China, Iran, and North Korea have not condemned Russia, and neither have the brutal dictators in Syria, Cuba, and Belarus.
The Non-Alignment Option
What are the prospects that more nations might resuscitate non-alignment as a middle path in global competition?
On March 2, the UN General Assembly voted on a resolution demanding that Russia “immediately, completely and unconditionally withdraw all of its military forces from the territory of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders.” Thirty-five countries abstained. On April 7, the UN voted to suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council. Fifty-eight abstained. Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, and Syria were among those opposed.
Do these votes reflect an act of immediate convenience or portend a long-term strategy? Maybe.
Russia and China will likely be proponents of a non-aligned movement. They still like to trot out the old Soviet-era anti-colonial, anti-imperialism rhetoric, which is often parroted by global leftists. They have a long track record of looking to coopt international and multinational forums for their own purposes.
Still another reason to grasp for non-aligned status is that there will likely be a lot more conflict to avoid. In Europe, for example, Putin still has a lot of future aggression buttons that he can push. No one really believes that reviving the Iran Deal is going to solve anything. The Middle East is going to become a more competitive space. As for China, there is already plenty of handwringing over what Beijing might do to Taiwan. That, however, is not the only concern. China already has laid stakes in Africa and South America that are bound to lead to more head butting with the Europeans and Americans.
There are also signs many countries would like the non-aligned option if it was offered. There are few more egregious acts of aggression than the Russian invasion of Ukraine. There are few more outrageous acts of genocide than the Chinese oppression of the Uyghurs. Yet, look how many nations failed to condemn them or support sanctions to punish them.
Not So Brave New World
In the end, the Non-Aligned Movement is a bad idea today for the same reasons it was a bad idea during the Cold War.
For starters, the movement would be yet another instrument to undermine the already severely damaged effort to build a sustainable, U.S.-led, rules-based order. The movement would quickly be subverted as an instrument for malign powers to legitimize their actions, just as the Soviets did.
For another, the movement won’t address the challenges of living in a world dividing between free nations that share commitments to human rights, freely elected governments and free enterprise, and those—like China, Russia, and Iran—that see those equities as obstacles to expansion of their power and influence.
There are no natural leaders for a contemporary non-aligned movement. India, a leader of the Cold War era non-aligned movement, has to balance bellicose China and will likely come eventually on the side of the free world. This makes it even more likely that, if the movement does emerge, it will be captured by the revisionist powers.
Likely as not, the nations that do embrace this concept will do so for the wrong reasons—buying the favors of revisionist powers, helping them find paths out of political isolation and bypassing sanctions in exchange for favors, guarantees, or maybe just cash.
For all these reasons, the Free World has a vested interest in making a concerted effort to preempt the emergence of a new non-aligned movement.
How the Free World Should Respond
Many of the nations that opted to join the Non-Aligned Movement during the Cold War did so because they were poor, strategically unimportant, and ignored by the Free World. The West had little to offer, or those offers were tainted with the legacy of colonialism.
Today, development based on free-market principles is key. Nations that are more free, secure, prosperous will want to align with the Free World, simply because Free World countries prosper and Revisionist countries do not. That’s not to say free markets are a magic formula—we thought it would transform China, and it didn’t. We need to learn from our experience with Beijing and ensure that we push free-market principles in a more strategic way in the future.
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After over a century of Communist and kleptocratic authoritarianism, Russia’s Gross National Income per capita was $10,690 in 2020. After 70 years of Communism, China’s was $10,550. Both are caught in the middle-income trap of developing countries that make rapid early progress in addressing extreme poverty but cannot make it over the World Bank’s high-income threshold of $12,695.
In contrast, several of China’s formerly poor neighbors who chose free markets and democracy have made it. For example, Taiwan’s 2020 GNI per capita was $25,055 and South Korea’s $32,930. Likewise, several former Soviet Union republics that chose the freedom path to development, like Estonia and Lithuania, enjoy sharply higher GNI per capita: $23,270 and $19,620, respectively. The same holds true for former Soviet bloc countries like Poland ($15,260) and Czechia ($22,070).
The Revisionist powers are not good role models for the non-aligned nations. The surest path to prosperity was followed by nations that did not align with the likes of Russia, China, and Iran.
And yet this proven path toward wealth creation and freedom is undercut by today’s progressive development assistance paradigm. This approach rewards bad economic policies with more aid, is often laden with social agendas that are incompatible with the recipients’ cultural norms, and directs investments toward politically favored industries, such as renewables, that reward elites and leave the poor poorer.
Foreign assistance and development cooperation that offers a hand-out in the hopes of giving a hand up—or is suffused with the political agendas of the donor nations—won’t cut it. Rather, development cooperation should recognize that adversarial powers will make every effort to ensure that the assistance effort fails. Thus, the cooperation must be organized specifically to survive in adversarial environments. Second, cooperation has to deliver real outcomes and not just throw money at the problem or focus on political agendas. Third, this is not about aid, but partnership.
Let’s get back to what actually works: free market-based reforms that attract private investment and mutually beneficial trade relations, underpinned by strong U.S.-led political partnership.
This piece originally appeared in 19fortyfive