Smaller nations caught between East and West are finding their voice
One of the lesser-discussed elements of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the large number of countries that have refused to take a side. While it may be comforting to imagine here in the West that the world is unified in its support for Ukraine, the truth is more complicated.
For one, as Glenn Greenwald noted in a recent debate with Antonio Garcia-Martinez, nine out of the ten most populous countries in the world (including Russia) have either equivocated over, or supported the invasion. And earlier this year, 67 UN countries abstained on the motion to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
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Officially, there are 120 nations (home to 55% of the world’s population) that are still formally part of the Non-Aligned Movement — an organisation founded at the inception of the Cold War in opposition to both the ‘first world’ of the US-led NATO security alliance and the ‘second world’, or the USSR’s Warsaw Pact.
The NAM was founded in Yugoslavia in response to the US-Russian proxy war in Korea. The organisation saw itself as opposing all forms of imperialism, advocating instead for self-determination and an end to global inequality. Though it failed on a number of key aims, the body was able to pressure both West and East on issues such as nuclear non-proliferation.
But post-1991, the idea that states could remain ‘unaligned’ diminished. The US was so dominant that most were expected to fall in line — any country that risked challenging America’s hegemony could easily be frozen out of the world order. By the time the 2016 NAM conference came around, only eight heads of state showed up.
But even as the US pressures countries to pick a side in the Russia-Ukraine war, only one officially non-aligned state (Singapore) has actually sanctioned Russia, while other major NAM members and observer states (South Africa, Brazil, China) tread lightly. Many of those who abstained on the UN vote backed a South African-penned resolution which made no mention of Russia’s role in the conflict. Outside Europe and North America, Putin is not faring so badly in the information war.
What good could come of a resurgent NAM other than bolstering a shower of strongman governments? The states delicately abstaining on the Russia question are no anti-authoritarian icons. China’s rise, in particular, complicates any application of the ‘three-world model’ to contemporary geopolitics.
But this was also true of the original Non-Aligned Movement when participants ranged from quasi-monarchist states like Saudi Arabia to USSR-backed Cuba and Vietnam. The supposed point of the NAM was not countries’ individual alignment with West or East, but their ability to pressure both great powers. A revived NAM could, for example, create pressure to reform the moribund UN Security Council.
What’s more, some policy aims of the NAM, such as the eradication of tranches of third world debt, could also be shown to benefit both the world’s superpower and the global economy. As the climate crisis worsens and inevitably leads to the restructuring of the global order, third world countries must also cooperate to prevent the burden of and blame for global warming being placed entirely on the Global South. They could instead promote the sustainable use of the vast natural resources that they command.
Whatever happens, the US and Russia will continue seeking influence among the global 55%. But in a multipolar world, weaker nations may join together to present a powerful bloc of their own.