Ramzy Ezzeldin Ramzy
Former Egyptian Ambassador and Senior UN official.

Will Great Power Competition Revive the Non-Aligned Movement?

The notion of “Great Power Competition “was introduced by the Trump administration in its 2017 National Security Strategy NNS and subsequently confirmed by its 2018 National Defense Strategy NDS. China was considered the main threat to US interests. Influenced by the crisis in Ukraine, the new NNS to be released shortly by the Biden administration is expected to retain the same notion, describing Russia as the acute threat and China as the pacing challenge, implying that the latter remains the more serious threat to US interests.

Now with mounting realization that the war in Ukraine will not wind down quickly and as a consequence the Great Power Competition will indeed morph into a new Cold War, many developing countries appear to find their interests are better served by maintaining an equidistance from both the West as well as the China-Russia axis. Thus a nostalgia amongst developing countries for the revival of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM).

This hope is largely based on the voting patterns on the two resolutions adopted by UNGA on Ukraine. The first condemned the Russian invasion by a majority of 141 votes with 5 opposed 35 abstentions and 12 countries who chose to absent themselves. The second resolution suspending Russia’s membership in the UN Human Rights Council was passed by 93 votes with 24 against 58 abstentions and 18 absent, in other words 97 countries (excluding Russia and Belarus) chose not to censure Russia.

It is no surprise that the first resolution garnered an overwhelming majority because it dealt with the violation of two of the fundamental principles of the UN Charter: the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state and, the settlement of international disputes by peaceful means. It is also noteworthy that about half of those who voted for the resolution are currently members of NAM.

The voting pattern on second resolution is a different matter. It is more about politics than principle and, thus a more accurate reflection on where countries find themselves in the context of the rivalry between the West and Russia.
To discuss the feasibility of a revived NAM, we need to consider a number for matters: the rationale behind the rise to the movement, the nature of the international system today in comparison to the period in which it was created and, its leadership.

But first we need to make the distinction between neutrality and non-aligned. The former implies remaining equidistant without being proactive. The latter implies positive or proactive engagement as manifested in the concept of “positive neutrality” developed by Nasser, Nehru, Sukarno and Tito at the inception of NAM and before that at the 1955 Bandung Afro-Asian conference. It appears those who detect a revived NAM, are speaking of neutrality rather than positive and proactive neutrality.

Although NAM continues to hold regular conferences and issues statements on various political and security related matters at the UN, it is a mere shadow of its past. Nowhere is this better manifested than in the United Nations Security Council, where the NAM caucus, once a formidable player, has played a progressively marginal role for the past three decades. The heyday of NAM was between its first summit held in Belgrade in 1961 and its ninth summit also held in Belgrade in 1989 which coincided with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Some however will argue that the NAM started to unravel even earlier at the Havana Summit in 1979 when the Cuban presidency pushed the movement to adopt more pro-Soviet positions.

The 1960’s was the climax of the period of decolonization in Africa and Asia. Countries around the world wanted to chart their independent course from their former colonial masters in the West without entering into a dependency relationship with the Soviet Union. They managed with a certain degree of success, using the competition between the super powers to maximize their national interests.

While countries may have favored purchasing arms from one camp or the other, they avoided any military or security arrangements that restricted their ability to maneuver. In contrast today not an insignificant number members of NAM have military and security arrangements, including military bases.

During the period 1958-1971 China considered both the US and the Soviet Union as strategic rivals. Beijing however, since President Nixon 1972 historic visit to China, has been successful in balancing its economic interests with the West with its political and strategic interests with Russia. Today however given that the United States considers China as its primary threat, the emerging the new Cold War will be between the West on one side and China and Russia on the other.

Also during the Cold War, there were two competing economic systems: the capitalist model of the west and the socialist one dominated by Russia. While there were linkages between both systems, they were largely self-contained. A developing country could therefore pursue its independent course deriving benefits from both. In short the level of dependency between the developing countries and either of the two super powers was significantly lower than it is now.

With globalization, the West has come to dominate the strategic heights of the international economic system. Suffice it to mention that 97 percent of international reserves are held in US dollars, the Euro, the yen and the sterling pound. Until China is able to change that over the coming years that happens, NAM members will remain - at least in the mid-term - susceptible to the priorities and agenda of the West.

Second is the issue of leadership. Any international political movement requires a core of actors that provide a vision, diplomatic acumen and political direction.

The historic leadership of NAM was provided by Egypt, India and Yugoslavia. The importance of Yugoslavia should not be underestimated. As a European country, it underscored the universality of the movement, but more importantly it proved that regardless of the economic system of a country, it could pursue an independent course in its foreign policy. This holds true for a number of NAM members that pursued a largely capitalist mode of development such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Morocco, Nigeria, Kenya, Chile and Argentina (before it left the Movement in 1991). In other words, there was an over-arching common interest that overshadowed the diverse economic and political orientations amongst the members of the movement.

Yugoslavia is no more. The only European member, Belarus is a close ally of Moscow. In fact, that it is a member since 1998 undermines the credibility of NAM as an independent actor.

India is emerging as a world power in its own right. Its interests are no longer fully aligned with that of the majority of current NAM members. While its main strategic rival remains China, it can no longer depend on Russia as a counterweight as it did in the sixties and seventies. Over the past decades it has established closer military and political ties to the US such as the 2007 Quadrilateral Security Dialogue involving the US, Australia and Japan.

As to Egypt, it remains preoccupied putting its internal house in order and, dealing with the pressing and immediate strategic threats surrounding it from all sides. Until it is able to emerge from this condition, it will be unable to provide the kind of leadership a revived NAM requires.

While there are other countries that have the potential to provide leadership. Given the prevailing international economic structure and the nature of economic and military relationships of these countries with the West on one side and China on the other, it is difficult to conceive of a new constellation of countries with converging interests that can collectively create a critical mass for leadership.

While most members of NAM would like to avoid taking sides in the great power competition and would rather chart a balanced course that would serve their interests, they might find this extremely difficult given the economic realities of the global economic system in which the West continues to dominate. Neither China, nor for that matter Russia, are in a position to provide an alternative economic relationship to the one that the West offers the developing countries, at least in the medium term.

As much as many would like to see NAM revived as an effective platform that serves the interest of developing nations in the era of great-power competition, it appears it is more of wishful thinking than a practical and feasible proposition.

This does not mean that a revival of NAM is impossible. Nor should we be discouraged from making an effort to regain its effectiveness. However, for such a venture to be successful, a core group of influential countries need to provide a new vision for the movement that captures the new realities that are shaping the international order and at the same time cater to the interests of its members. The challenge is to articulate a revised policy of positive neutrality to navigate the complex matrix of a declining West and an ascendant China over an extended period of time. This is no easy feat.