Ukraine and the Contested Meaning of Nonalignment

Neutrality is not the answer. Internationalism is

By Rohini Hensman 

Rohini HensmanAlmost everyone seems to agree that the war in Ukraine has pulled into focus the notion of non-alignment among states of the Global South.

Observers have drawn parallels with the emergence of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) that formed in the wake of the 1955 Bandung Conference, seeking to organize postcolonial states into a movement for decolonization, nonaggression, and noninterference in the internal affairs of sovereign nations. The first summit of the NAM was convened in Belgrade by Jawaharlal Nehru of India, Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Sukarno of Indonesia, and Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia in 1961. One of its core principles in the context of the Cold War was that members should refrain from allying with either of the superpowers, the United States and the USSR.

With the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the NAM seemed to have lost its raison d’etre. Yet today, around the world and across the political spectrum, there is a sense that the NAM’s values are being resurrected, or must be, although the definition of these values is disputed.

Nonalignment is the topic of a recent Foreign Affairs special issue, and a book out earlier this year identifies, and celebrates, what its editors call “active non-alignment” as the emergent foreign policy framework of Latin America. The concept, according to one of the book’s editors, amounts to pursuing one’s own national interest, in concert with whichever of the big powers happens to make the better offer on a given issue, rather than being consistently aligned with one.

A columnist for the South China Morning Post celebrates a “renewed non-alignment of developing nations.” But it also refers to “the West’s proxy war in Ukraine against Russia,” echoing Putin’s position denying the agency of Ukrainians and suggesting that “non-alignment” is compatible with support for Putin’s war on Ukraine.

Fiona Hill, a former member of the U.S. National Security Council explains what has happened in these terms:

Countries across the globe have broadly acknowledged and condemned the facts of Russia’s aggression, including in multiple votes in the United Nations General Assembly. . . Moscow’s brutal conduct and atrocities alongside its military blunders and failures have diminished Russia’s standing. But how most states and commentators feel about the United States is their prism for assessing Russia’s actions.

Ukraine is essentially being punished by guilt through association for having direct U.S. support in its effort to defend itself and liberate its territory. . .

The Cold War era non-aligned movement has reemerged if it ever went away. At present, this is less a cohesive movement than a desire for distance, to be left out of the European mess around Ukraine. But it is also a very clear negative reaction to the American propensity for defining the global order and forcing countries to take sides.

So, is a new non-alignment emerging? And would it be recognizable to participants at the conferences of Bandung and Belgrade?

Divided Reactions amongst the Global South

Over 100 countries in the Global South voted three times to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine, while only four on each occasion—including severely repressive regimes in Syria, North Korea, and Eritrea—voted with Russia. Around 35 countries abstained each time, between them accounting for nearly half the world’s population, largely due to the contribution of China and India. (Whether the regimes in all 35 countries represent the views of their population is a different matter: several are undemocratic.) Abstention and opposition reached a combined 82 on a April 2022 motion to suspend Russia from the UN Human Rights Council. It nonetheless passed, with 93 votes in favor of suspension.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s January tour of three South American countries failed to secure military aid for Ukraine, but Argentinian President Alberto Fernandez and Chilean President Gabriel Boric condemned the Russian attack. The Russia-Africa summit in St. Petersburg this year attracted 17 African leaders compared with 43 who attended the summit in 2019, and even these leaders pressed Putin to renew the deal to allow the export of Ukrainian grain, which he had just torn up, and take their peace-making efforts more seriously.

Solidarity and Decolonization

The Russian invasion of Ukraine was not just a violation of the UN Charter’s prohibition of “the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.” It also attempts to revert to a relationship between an imperialist Russia and a colonized Ukraine that prevailed for many centuries before 1991, with only a brief interruption between 1920 and 1922. During this period, the Russian state several times inflicted genocidal violence on Ukrainians and indigenous Crimean Tatars. Putin’s speech before he launched the wholesale invasion of Ukraine expressed nostalgia for the Tsarist empire, a desire to reverse the Russian revolution of 1917, and a determination to destroy Ukraine and absorb its territory into the Russian Federation.

The NAM was itself born out of experiences of colonial rule and decolonization, especially in Africa and Asia. These experiences were diverse and gave rise to a politics that embodied both unities and internal tensions, for example between different definitions of colonialism and visions for the future of the movement. Recently, some left-wing commentators such as the Progressive International’s David Adler have claimed that neutrality was the sole defining quality of non-alignment.

But the Cold War NAM was neither take-no-sides neutral nor was its approach to anti-colonial struggles mere abstract calls for a new world order. At its 1970 conference in Lusaka, for instance, the NAM’s general resolution on decolonization offered more than thoughts, prayers, and schemes of a future world order to anti-colonial fighters. It offered solidarity through material aid and proposed a concerted campaign for sanctions on repressive colonial forces and their diplomatic isolation. (It is unclear how consistently individual states followed through on these commitments.) It did not shy away from directing these measures against specific colonial powers. The NAM offered “substantial” material aid to the anticolonial fight in Zimbabwe, despite the fact that rebels there were already receiving aid from Moscow and its then-rival Beijing. When doing so, the NAM never suggested that Moscow and Beijing had “provoked” the colonial authorities or that rebels should lay down their arms, declare an immediate ceasefire, and embrace “dialogue.” The NAM did not frame the conflict as an “inter-imperialist” one.

The NAM’s member states did not overestimate their own strength within the global trading system. Pragmatically, they resolved to impose sanctions against Portugal, Zimbabwe, and South Africa, but delegated to the Chairman consideration of steps against Britain, France, and the United States, among others. Overall, the delegates’ criticisms were stronger with regard to the ongoing U.S. intervention in Vietnam than the Soviet crushing of the Prague Spring two years earlier.

But in his speech to the conference, Botswanan President Seretse Khama condemned both Western and Soviet depredations in the same breath. “The delivery of arms to South Africa and the involvement of the country in Western security arrangements are not consistent with claims to defend freedom, just as the invasion of Czechoslovakia invalidated similar claims on the part of the Soviet Union,” he said.

It is not necessary to idealize the Cold War NAM. The reality is that particular national interests often took precedence over the principle of internationalism. Nonetheless, there is a world of difference between the politics of the NAM as expressed at the Lusaka conference and the version of “nonalignment” being promoted by leaders on the left and right today.

“We do not consider that [the Ukraine war] concerns us,” said the leftist Mexican president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador last year. “We are not going to take any sort of economic reprisal because we want to have good relations with all governments.”

This is nonalignment defined as neutrality, and within the thoroughly nationalist paradigm of state self-interest. There is no anti-colonial solidarity here or internationalism worth the name.


A useful way to examine this sort of “neutrality” is to look at Russia’s BRICS allies: Brazil, India, China, and South Africa. Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India and President Xi Jinping of China clearly support Russia, although they claim to be neutral, offsetting Western sanctions by buying vast quantities of Russian oil, among other things. It is easy to understand why they back Putin’s ultra-authoritarian regime, given their own brutal human rights violations, systematic destruction of democracy, and imperial ambitions. Their autocratic rule explains why public outrage at the disastrous mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic by Modi and Xi left them unscathed.

Cyril Ramaphosa and Lula da Silva, presidents of South Africa and Brazil respectively, are very different. Both have been trade union leaders and earlier played a progressive role in the struggle for democracy in their countries. Yet Ramaphosa’s ANC blamed the United States for the war in Ukraine and wanted to freeze the conflict with swathes of Ukrainian territory still occupied by Russia. It has been accused of supplying arms to Russia. Fortunately, a vibrant left-wing opposition within South Africa pointed out that over half of African countries and two-thirds of Asia-Pacific, Latin American, and Caribbean countries, many of which formed the backbone of the NAM, condemned Russian aggression—while the ANC position conflicted with South Africa’s constitutional commitment to democracy and non-alignment.

Lula blamed the United States and Ukraine for the war and welcomed Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to Brazil. His proposal that the Russian state be allowed to continue persecuting, ethnically cleansing, and murdering the indigenous people of Crimea because “the world needs tranquillity” is neither ethical nor rational: if Putin invaded the rest of Ukraine despite having annexed Crimea in 2014, what makes Lula think that he wouldn’t do it again after a negotiated ceasefire? Lula and his Workers’ Party belong to a section of the left that opposes U.S. imperialism and its allies but not Russian imperialism and its allies: a stance I characterise as “pseudo-anti-imperialism” in my book Indefensible: Democracy, Counter-Revolution and the Rhetoric of Anti-Imperialism.

Since the far-right opposition led by Jair Bolsonaro also does not side with Ukraine, it is left to Brazilian parties like the Socialist Left Movement and independent progressives to condemn Russian imperialism, support Ukraine’s right to national independence, and point out that this is what a genuine commitment to the ideals of non-alignment entails.

Siding with the Victims

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor,” anti-apartheid activist Desmond Tutu has written. What is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, killing tens of thousands of its citizens and destroying its infrastructure, but just such an injustice?

Feminists are familiar with the victim-blaming— the hints that “she asked for it”—that justifies such “neutrality” in cases of sexual assault. This, indeed, is how Putin sees what he is doing in Ukraine. In a press conference just before the 2022 invasion, he quoted from a Russian punk rock song about raping a dead woman to illustrate his plans for Ukraine: “Whether you like it or don’t like it, bear with it my beauty,” he said. Whether it’s the rape of a woman or a country, “neutrality” amounts to support for the rapist.

It is not surprising that a right-wing or centrist version of non-alignment emphasizes neutrality and the national interest. It is disappointing that some leftists have decided to head down the same path.

Former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis calls for a “New Non-Aligned Movement” that has “learned its lessons from the original Non-Aligned Movement’s failure.” Yet at an event organised by his party, MeRA 25, he argued that “Washington and Moscow must come to an agreement” over Ukraine: a position taken by Putin, who denies all agency to Ukrainians. Another speaker echoed Putin’s propaganda verbatim. During the Q&A session, a left-wing Russian peace activist who disagreed, along with his wife, the only Ukrainian in the hall, were physically thrown out.

Leaders in the Global South, whatever their politics, need to balance their international commitments with domestic obligations, in some cases framed by extreme poverty and nutrition crises. In some cases, participation in sanctions and arms transfers may be possible, in others it won’t be.

But at least such leaders should tell the truth about what is happening, namely that an imperialist power, Russia, is engaged in a brutal war of aggression against a former colony, Ukraine, which is fighting to retain its independence and territorial integrity. They should condemn the actions of the Russian state, not seek to divert blame where it does not belong, and express solidarity with the people of Ukraine.

It is certainly hypocritical to condemn Russian bombing in Syria and Ukraine without condemning U.S. bombing in Afghanistan and Iraq; but it is equally hypocritical to condemn U.S. bombing in Afghanistan and Iraq without condemning Russian bombing in Syria and Ukraine. Nor do we have to believe in Joe Biden’s commitment to human rights and democracy—completely vitiated by his embrace of Modi—to approve of U.S. armaments being sent to Ukraine. We only have to believe that all countries have a right to freedom from domination and colonization by more powerful states.

Rohini Hensman

Rohini Hensman is a life-long socialist and anti-imperialist activist from Sri Lanka, who now lives in India. She is the author of Indefensible: Democracy, Counter-Revolution and the Rhetoric of Anti-Imperialism. This is the third essay in a new series Ukraine and the World, a joint project of FPIF, European Alternatives, and Another Europe Is Possible. The first essay on Ukraine and energy can be found here and the second one on Ukraine and the world order here.