No cold war, please: How Europeans should engage non-aligned states

The Non-Aligned Movement is one of the largest international forums in the world. As the European Union finds its geopolitical feet, it should work to treat developing countries as individual states with their own interests and objectives.

The General Assembly adopts a resolution on suspension of the rights of the membership of the Russian Federation in the Human Rights Council during the 10th plenary meeting of the General Assembly Eleventh Emergency Special Session on Ukraine. The resolution was adopted with 93 votes in favour, 24 against and 58 abstentions.
The UNGA adopts a resolution on suspension of membership of the Russian Federation in the Human Rights Council during the 10th plenary meeting of the GA’s 11th Emergency Special Session on Ukraine
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Until very recently, non-alignment – and the Non-Aligned Movement – were all but forgotten in the international arena. That was before Uganda’s permanent representative to the United Nations tweeted the explanation for his country abstaining on the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) March resolution regarding Russia’s war on Ukraine: “As incoming chair of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), NEUTRALITY is key. Uganda will continue to play a constructive role in the maintenance of peace and security both regionally and globally.”

The resolution overwhelmingly passed – but the voting pattern of African nations left many European observers of Africa disappointed. Is the Non-Aligned Movement back? And what does it mean for Europe’s handling of the war in Ukraine? 

The Non-Aligned Movement is a loose coalition of mostly developing countries, formed in 1961 under the leadership of Gamal Abdel Nasser (Egypt), Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana), Jawaharlal Nehru (India), Sukarno (Indonesia), and Josip Broz Tito (Yugoslavia). Its members came together in a refusal to pick a side in the great power conflict of the cold war. With 120 member states, the Non-Aligned Movement is one of the largest international forums outside the UN. It has 53 members from Africa, 39 from Asia, and 26 from Latin America and the Caribbean, along with 17 observer countries and 10 observer organisations. Its only European members are Belarus and Bosnia and Herzegovina. It accounts for 4.47 billion people – nearly 60 per cent of the global population. Adding in the populations of the 17 observer countries – which include China, Brazil, and Ukraine – this rises to 6.39 billion and just over 82 per cent. In terms of potential, this is significant.

The Non-Aligned Movement accounts for 4.47 billion people – nearly 60 per cent of the global population.

Of the 35 countries that voted to abstain in the UNGA resolution, 28 are members of the Non-Aligned Movement. Of the five countries that voted against, four are non-aligned, and the fifth is Russia.

Many countries, particularly those that belong to the Non-Aligned Movement, are seeking to stay out of the conflict and refrain from picking a side. India’s external affairs minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, expressed this sentiment earlier this month when he said: “Europe has to get out of the mindset that Europe’s problems are the world’s problems, but the world’s problems are not Europe’s problems.” India voted to abstain in the March vote.

But even India, which was the greatest proponent of the Non-Aligned Movement at its peak, has distanced itself from the concept since the 1990s, sometimes offering ‘multi-alignment’ as its new policy response. It may be that leadership of the Non-Aligned Movement enabled India to take on an international role beyond its (then) means. But that phase is in the past. Similarly, fellow Non-Aligned Movement founder member and stalwart, Indonesia, voted its approval in the UNGA. Indonesia is also the current chair of the G20: like India, it may be using multiple forums to drive its foreign policy agenda. The grouping’s other great stalwart was Yugoslavia, which no longer exists.

For all the present worries about a re-emerging world of hegemons facing off against one other, it is important to note that the Non-Aligned Movement is not organised as a voting bloc at the UNGA. It has neither a formal constitution, nor a secretariat. Within the loose coalition, there is no consensus – as reflected in the votes of Non-Aligned Movement member states at the March vote on Ukraine. Indeed, the vast majority of non-aligned members voted in favour of the resolution. Europe may have been disappointed with that result, but Russia does not have much to celebrate.

A majority of non-aligned countries backed UN resolution on Ukraine

Nevertheless, European policymakers should take care not to assume that their African counterparts, for example, share their interests, values, and principles. To gather global support for their approach to Ukraine, Europeans should frame the conflict with the principles of national self-determination and territorial integrity. These are terms with which many external partners are more comfortable, and they are likelier to find success than using a morality-based narrative that stakes out Europe and its partners as ‘good’ and Russia (and anyone not condemning it) as ‘bad’. Moreover, their own historical experiences mean that many countries in the developing world and among the Non-Aligned Movement feel that Europe and its allies lack the moral high ground from which to issue any moralistic call to arms. To be effective, European policymakers should base engagements on interests and propose mutually beneficial partnerships. This also means Europeans need to shift from adopting generalist policies when dealing with African states and ensure they treat countries individually.

To complement this, Europe should counter any emerging cold war redux comparisons, which inevitably frame the conflict in terms of the great power politics that the Non-Aligned Movement was established to avoid. This is not easy given that Europe is quite clearly and deliberately ‘aligned’; Sweden and Finland have overturned their long-held policy of neutrality to join NATO. This also extends to rhetoric around competition with China, where the United States appears to be applying these lessons, as evidenced by Jake Sullivan, President Joe Biden’s national security adviser: “Competition does not mean confrontation or conflict. We’re not looking for a Cold War, and we’re not looking to divide the World into rival blocs and make every country choose.”

Russia’s aggression in Ukraine has shaken previous European assumptions about building a rules-based world order, and the European Union is, with some purpose, seeking to act geopolitically. Essential to becoming a geopolitical player will be to guide the narrative on what Europe stands for and why, as opposed to what Europe’s rivals claim and what potential partners’ preconceptions are. But winning the battle of narratives is important because these shape public opinion – and public opinion matters to foreign policy as it can enhance or impede the ability of governments to pursue and achieve their goals. Successfully working with formally non-aligned countries will require Europeans to learn to act geopolitically while treating their counterparts as real partners that have their own interests and objectives.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.

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