clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Why some countries don’t want to pick a side in Russia’s war in Ukraine

Superpower wars are back. Can the Global South find inspiration from the nonaligned movement?

US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield exits the UN after speaking at a special session on the violence in Ukraine on March 2, 2022.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Jonathan Guyer covers foreign policy, national security, and global affairs for Vox. From 2019 to 2021, he worked at the American Prospect, where as managing editor he reported on Biden’s and Trump's foreign policy teams.

The Biden administration has painted a world of allies united against Russia. But the numbers show a more complex picture.

Though Western Europe and NATO have found revived purpose in mobilizing against Russia’s war, many countries in the Global South — in Africa, Asia, and Latin America — have not taken as strong of a side.

In the first United Nations General Assembly vote in early March, 141 countries affirmed that Russia should “immediately, completely and unconditionally withdraw,” and in another resolution, 140 countries voted for humanitarian protections of Ukrainians.

But when the General Assembly voted in early April to expel Russia from the Human Rights Council, the majority was smaller. Ninety-three countries voted in favor, but 58 abstained and 24 voted against. The abstentions included Egypt, Ghana, India, and Indonesia, which were leaders of the Non-Aligned Movement — countries that created their own transnational grouping rather than back the US or Soviet Union during the Cold War. Brazil, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, and South Africa also abstained. China voted against.

The US and NATO have led unprecedented sanctions against Russia. But almost no countries in the Global South have signed onto them.

Analysts looking at these responses see a reinvigorated nonaligned movement. “When you see a return to what looks a lot like Cold War politics, then it’s quite natural that people start to reach for the Cold War conceptual toolbox,” Richard Gowan, the UN director of the International Crisis Group, told me. “It’s a mirror to the ‘NATO is back’ talk.”

The Non-Aligned Movement of the 1960s was not about neutrality. It put forward a unifying agenda for developing countries caught between warring superpowers. A similar platform for the 21st century hasn’t emerged yet, but with the majority of people in the world living in the Global South and the Ukraine war heightening tensions between two of the world’s largest powers, there are signs that it could.

South African Deputy Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Alvin Botes emphasizes the importance of “Global South solidarity.” He says that South Africa’s nonaligned position allows the country to have tough conversations with Russia and Ukrainian leaders in pursuit of mediation. He also emphasizes that, with five powerful countries permanently holding veto power on the UN Security Council, “the conscience of the under-developed South is the nonaligned movement.”

“The role of the nonaligned movement today is as relevant today as it is in 1961,” Botes told me. “For as long as you have a constellation of interests that is driven from the big powers — sometimes being completely oblivious to the interests of the underdeveloped South — there is a need for the nonaligned movement.”

Why Global South countries have avoided taking sides

On February 22, the Kenyan ambassador to the UN delivered a speech likening Russia’s war to colonial aggression, with the diplomat firmly supporting Ukraine. “Kenya and almost every African country was birthed by the ending of empire. Our borders were not of our own drawing,” Martin Kimani said. The remarks went viral, and a week later Kenya joined 140 other countries in the General Assembly in a UN resolution condemning Russia’s war.

Less attention was paid in April to Kenya’s abstention from the vote to remove Russia from the Human Rights Council. “Look before jumping is a good guide in geopolitics,” Kimani tweeted then, and went on to note that Libya was expelled from the council in advance of the destructive NATO intervention in the country. Kenya’s abstention exemplified the nuance, deliberation, and trade-offs with which many countries are trying to navigate a war between two great powers in Europe that will have wide-ranging effects elsewhere.

There are multiple, complex reasons why countries might want to abstain from a UN vote, or vote against Russia in the UN but then not want to participate in sanctions against the country, or take any number of positions that don’t fully align with US policy.

“It’s not just an African phenomenon,” Zainab Usman, director of the Africa program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told me. “We’re seeing similar patterns playing out among Arab countries in the Middle East and in parts of South Asia and Southeast Asia.”

Broadly, there are three buckets that help explain why countries are seeking an approach that is neither Russia nor NATO.

The first reason relates to economics and trade. Russia is a major exporter of energy, food, and fertilizer. Many countries can’t afford to cut economic ties with Moscow. India also depends on Russia for arms sales. Though Russian investment is not in the top of countries in Latin America, it’s still a factor. Usman cited recent comments from the financial ministers of Ghana and Nigeria. “There isn’t enough focus on the economic impacts of the war itself,” she told me.

Second, there remains skepticism toward the US and NATO. The US invasion of Iraq was a violation of international law, and many nations see the West’s other regime-change efforts in Afghanistan and Libya as similarly flawed with ongoing spillover effects, according to experts with whom I spoke.

That skepticism extends to sanctions. Latin American countries are sensitive to violations of sovereignty, and 28 out of the 34 countries of the Organization of American States voted to condemn Russia in a March UN General Assembly vote. But the sanctions on Russia were not UN-approved. The leaders of Mexico and Brazil spoke out against them. According to Reuters, the Bahamas is the only OAS country that has signed onto Russia sanctions.

As Guillaume Long, the former foreign minister of Ecuador, told me, “A lot of Latin Americans feel and think that sanctions are applied in a sort of selective, politicized way with a lot of double standards — basically, a tool of the US hegemony rather than a tool of global justice.” He cited the unpopularity across Latin America of the US’s coercive economic measures against Cuba and how civilians are negatively affected by US sanctions on Venezuela.

And it’s not just the unilateral positions staked after the September 11, 2001, attacks. It’s worth noting that the Cold War was not very cold in many developing nations. “History has taught [African countries] that becoming pawns in an international conflict they cannot control generates few benefits and massive risks,” writes the scholar Nic Cheeseman.

The third factor is enduring solidarity with Russia, given its anti-colonial positions at times during the Cold War, when it was still part of the Soviet Union. The USSR was a superpower itself, making strategic foreign policy choices in its own perceived interest. Among more left-leaning governments, Russia also has a legacy of supporting independence from colonial powers. In particular, the African National Congress in South Africa was close to the Soviet Union and looks fondly on Russia for its staunch anti-apartheid position. Botes noted South Africa’s connections to Ukraine, too, and told me that Odesa, when it was part of the USSR, hosted ANC training camps.

More recently, Russian President Vladimir Putin has aggressively reached out to the Global South.

Mark Nieman, a political scientist at the University of Toronto, says that too often the interests of countries in the Global South are overlooked. “It’s not just the Biden administration. This is kind of an outgrowth of a long-running US foreign policy of either ignoring Global South concerns, showing outright indifference, or acting in ways that seem to violate what those rules [of international law] are,” he told me. “The agency of the Global South is ignored.”

These buckets don’t capture the whole of each country’s calculations. Volumes could be written about each country’s position — China pursuing its complicated and sometimes contradictory interests, Indonesia as fence-sitter, India carefully navigating superpowers, Saudi Arabia hedging, and so forth.

There’s also geopolitics at play. Some countries may avoid choosing a side as an insurance policy in case Russia were to win over Ukraine. And Russia is an important force in the international system, especially in the United Nations. “If you’re a Latin American country, and you’re trying to get some votes at the UN, you know, 50 percent of the time you might get the support of Russia,” Long said. “But you can be sure that Ukraine will vote with the United States.”

For all of those reasons, something approximating a nonaligned position has begun to take shape.

The Non-Aligned Movement had a vision that wasn’t just neutrality

The 1955 meeting in Bandung, Indonesia, was the first major meeting of Afro-Asian countries during the Cold War. The host of the conference, Indonesian President Sukarno, expressed a hopeful vision of how small countries can assert a global vision.

“What can we do? The peoples of Asia and Africa wield little physical power,” Sukarno said. “What can we do? We can do much! We can inject the voice of reason into world affairs. We can mobilize all the spiritual, all the moral, all the political strength of Asia and Africa on the side of peace. Yes, we!”

It was a call that, together with leadership especially from Egypt, Ghana, India, and Yugoslavia, cemented the movement in the Belgrade Summit of 1961. The movement did not represent neutrality or abstention from world affairs, but instead a utopian outlook for the world that spurred transnational cultural collaborations and revolutionary ideas around third-worldism that continue to inspire activists and political movements.

The movement also put forward its own radical ideas. “During the Cold War, the Non-Aligned Movement was a forceful bloc that was pushing issues on the global agenda — the fight against apartheid and the situation of the Palestinians,” said Gowan.

“Nonalignment was not simply a reactive exercise in continually rebalancing between the blocs and finding a midpoint,” said Robert Rakove, a Stanford historian who authored Kennedy, Johnson, and the Nonaligned World. “It involved an affirmative agenda, including the pursuit of decolonization and economic justice.”

Indonesian President Sukarno during the Conference of Non-Aligned Countries in Belgrade, September 2, 1961.
Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images
Tunisian President Habib Bourguiba, right, and Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser at the first Conference of Non-Aligned Countries in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, September 1961.
Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Part of the legacy of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) is a commitment to mediation. The Belgrade gathering occurred amid the partition of Berlin, a particularly tense moment of the Cold War. And NAM dispatched two teams to meet separately with US President John F. Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. Rakove says NAM’s mediation efforts also continued during the Vietnam War.

The NAM was held together by leaders with huge personalities: Sukarno, Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia, Jawaharlal Nehru of India, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, among others. They weren’t all democrats, but they had populist credentials in standing up to great powers, which gave them great authority.

Together, they represented the post-colonial moment for the developing world, but their stance rankled Washington and Moscow, and the former worked to undermine them. Their successors were not as adept at stitching together the diversity of nonaligned countries. Later efforts to marshal and unite the bloc have not been as successful.

Still, the Non-Aligned Movement never went away, and the bloc of countries has endured since the end of the Cold War, much to the chagrin to US leaders, like then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice who in 2006 said dismissively, “I’ve never quite understood what it is they would be nonaligned against at this point.”

While the leaders of the Non-Aligned Movement of the ’60s were seen as representing the will of developing nations combating imperialism and colonialism, many of the countries today that have taken neutral positions are backsliding toward tyranny. India comes to mind, and Egypt is hardly a force of anti-colonial authority (despite its neutral UN votes) as it receives billions of dollars of US weapons annually. A reinvigorated movement might struggle to form a coherent philosophy and identity, then.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, meets with Senegal’s President Macky Sall, also chair of the African Union, in Sochi on June 3, 2022.
Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images

But the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and its clear example of the violation of sovereignty and the rights of a small country, is drawing attention to one core part of the nonalignment ethos. As Rakove says of the enduring relevance of NAM, “There’s a consistent desire to assert their sovereignty to forestall enlistment in one or another great power crusade.”

Botes told me that South Africa is “frowning” on the breach of Ukraine’s sovereignty. He added that great powers have not stood up enough for the sovereignty of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation and Western Saharans under Moroccan occupation. “What holds true for Peter must hold true for Paul,” he told me.

What nonalignment could mean for the 21st century

Even before the Russian invasion, practitioners like former Chilean Ambassador Jorge Heine have called for “active nonalignment” in response to global competition between the US and China.

“Over the long term, you are going to see a lot of Latin America not wanting to choose sides in this new Cold War,” said Long, who now works as an analyst at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, “because China is very present in Latin America now … you’re not going to have a Latin America aligning, like it did in the first Cold War, against the Soviet Union with the United States.”

It’s all the more muddled as President Joe Biden has framed the Ukraine war as a fight between democracy and autocracy — while the administration reaches out to autocracies like Saudi Arabia, where he’s likely to travel next month. In using the democracy-autocracy framing, the Biden administration challenges the world to choose, but not everyone will take the US position. Indeed the US may be alienating many countries in the process and, inadvertently, encouraging the creation of a new, nonaligned bloc.

The UN Security Council continues to meet almost weekly, directly or indirectly, on the Ukraine crisis, according to Gowan. But the General Assembly has been meeting less. “One of the reasons it’s quieting down is that, frankly, Ukraine’s allies just don’t believe that if you table more resolutions on the crisis, you’re gonna get the level of support that you got back in March,” he told me.

With echoes of Sukarno’s 1955 speech in Bandung, researcher Nontobeko Hlela last month called for a NAM reboot in the Kenyan publication The Elephant. “Only by standing together and speaking with one voice can the countries of the Global South hope to have any influence in international affairs and not continue to be just rubber-stampers of the positions of the West,” she wrote.

Significantly, a resistance to taking sides does not mean sitting out the conflict. The African Union, it might be noted, wants to play a mediation role in Ukraine. Senegal currently chairs the union, and Senegalese President Macky Sall visited Moscow last week to meet with Putin.

Sall holds a bigger vision for the group’s role than addressing the global food security crisis. He seems to be building on NAM’s historical commitment to diplomacy. As he said last month, “We do not want to be aligned on this conflict, very clearly, we want peace. Even though we condemn the invasion, we’re working for a de-escalation, we’re working for a ceasefire, for dialogue.”