Opinion Original Patrick Lawrence

Patrick Lawrence: The Return of Non-Alignment

The Chancellor Jeremy Hunt meets United States Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen at the G20 in Bengaluru. Photo by Zara Farrar / HM Treasury. Via Flickr.

By Patrick Lawrence / Original to ScheerPost

The Ukraine conflict as catalyst: I wonder how many people who pay attention understood a year ago that Russia’s intervention and the West’s extravagant support for the Kyiv regime would prompt fundamental shifts in the global order such that the world is now a very different place and the 21st century has a very new look. It escaped me, I have to say. I didn’t see last February that so many nations, so vast a proportion of humanity, would lean so swiftly into a new era, or that the principles of this new era would be so clearly defined.

I certainly did not see that the good old much-missed Non–Aligned Movement would re-emerge after many years languishing in the wilderness of post–Cold War geopolitics. No, not with a declaration such as that the NAM made first in Bandung, the Indonesian mountain resort where Sukarno hosted its members in 1955, or in Tito’s Belgrade six years later, when the movement formally declared itself as an organization, but in spirit, in the ethos non–Western nations now stand up to declare as theirs.

Let us watch. In my estimation the numerous non–Western nations gathering in support of the principles and demands first articulated by the gone-but-not-forgotten NAM will stand in coming years as the most significant, determinant turn in world politics we are likely to see in this century.    

There are lots of ways we can measure the wider consequences of the Ukraine conflict. There is Europe’s astonishing surrender of its interests to a voraciously coercive administration as it leads America into its late-imperial phase. Related to this, there are the regrettable pledges of allegiance sworn by Finland, Sweden, and Germany—three nations whose honorable but now-abandoned role was to serve as bridges between West and East.

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These are realignments, each in response to the Biden regime’s decision to make Ukraine the crucible of its defense of a fading hegemony.

This radical new subservience to Washington is freighted with consequence in its own right. Born of insecurity and a profound lack of vision and imagination, it is a very bad call on the part of America’s “allies and partners” and will leave them at a considerable disadvantage as our new century progresses. Can they not hear history’s wheel turning?

But the common cause non–Western nations have discovered among themselves this past year is vastly more significant. For them, Ukraine has proven a catalyst in the chemical-lab meaning of this term: It has clarified the solution, let’s say. The Russians, the Chinese, the Indians, the Iranians, the Turks, the Mexicans, the Argentines, many others: They are thinking differently and more clearly now. 

This is a realignment, too.

We can think of this realignment as the reemergence of nonalignment for the first time in many decades. To dot the “t’s” and cross the “i’s” here, which is how I prefer to do it, the NAM survives with 120 members and head office at the U.N. in New York. But its presence, if not its founding ideals, has been much reduced with the passing of its founding generation and since the Cold War’s end got the world past the East–West binaries of the previous 40 or so years.    

I am not writing of a secretariat or a bureaucracy or brigades of diplomats or any such thing. I mean to note the renewed prominence of the principles for which the NAM stood. Are we surprised,  as the U.S. seeks to divide the planet once again, that these come to the fore? I am not. I am more in the way of very pleased to see a new generation of leaders revive ideals first articulated during the postwar “independence era.” 

I have noted these ideals previously in this space. They are based on the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence Zhou En-lai drafted in the early 1950s and then took to Bandung. These are, simply stated, mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, nonaggression, noninterference in others’ internal affairs, equality among nations, and—the point of the other four—peaceful co-existence.  

Many non–Western nations have made it increasingly clear over the past few years that they adhere to these principles as the bedrock of a 21st century world order. I will once again note the Sino–Russian Joint Statement on International Relations Entering a New Era, issued—the timing is important to note—on the eve of Russia’s intervention in Ukraine. If you want a declaration of the Bandung or Belgrade kind, this comes close. The NAM’s principles run all through it. They are easily detected in the document’s insistence that international law and the U.N. Charter must be the basis of the new era named in the title. 

Did you follow the Group of 20 session in Bangalore last week and this? It is another case in point. Western media didn’t give it much coverage because it was a messy confrontation between Western and non–Western members, and the former came out looking utterly behind the curve, lost in an idea of their place in the global order that has little to do with emergent realities evident to anyone willing to look squarely at the world as it is in 2023.   

The G–20 first convened at the close of the last century and the dawn of this one. It was conceived as a step on from the Group of 7, bringing together foreign ministers, finance ministers, and central bank governors from 20 Western and non–Western nations to reflect the increasing importance of middle-income powers such as China, Russia, India, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, and South Africa. The theme of each session is common interests: financial stability, international trade, the climate, aid to the poorest nations, and so on.

Leave it to the Americans. Led by Janet Yellen, the Treasury secretary and a voluble exponent of the neoliberal orthodoxy, Western officials thought it was a good idea to use the occasion to bring other G–20 members in line against Russia and its intervention in Ukraine. So they spent their time cajoling others present—pretty much the rest of the G–20 not members of the Group of 7—to sign a communiqué denouncing Moscow and declaring their unified support for Kyiv.

G–20 foreign ministers convened Thursday, and it proved nothing more than more of the same. American media reports made much of Antony Blinken’s first encounter with Sergei Lavrov, the Russian FM, since Russia’s intervention began a year ago. Maybe more was said than the secretary of state let on, but I doubt it. So far as was reported, Blinken turned in another performance for the folks back home: I told him this was Russia’s war of aggression, I told him we will support Ukraine for as long as it takes, and so on. Nothing new from the man who has nothing to say.   

The Western contingent got nowhere in Bangalore. Non–Western members objected vigorously to the G–7 group’s attempt to force them to endorse the U.S.–led campaign to isolate Russia and align behind its support for Ukraine. In the end there was no communiqué—only a “Summary and Outcome Document” that acknowledges in so many words that the session was a bust.

Whatever you may have thought of Yellen when she spent her time fussing with interest rates as chair of the Federal Reserve, in matters of state she is a tone-deaf failure who simply cannot read the currents of global politics. Have you heard much lately about her oil-price cap, which was supposed to bring the world on board as Washington sought to impose a ceiling on what Russia could charge for a barrel of crude? No, well, I thought not. Why was she the Biden administration’s point person at this G–20 session? I suppose if Blinken was the alternative there is a logic to the choice.

In Bangalore they both seemed to assume that the pabulum the U.S. routinely deploys to obscure its intentions would carry the day. “Ukraine is fighting not only for their [sic] country, but for the preservation of democracy and peaceful conditions in Europe,” Yellen asserted. Of Russia’s intervention she said, “It’s an assault on democracy and on territorial integrity that should concern all of us.”

This is the Biden administration’s standard routine. Cast events as matters of ideology and sentiment and pretend politics and history are of no importance. So hollow and tired. So wanting in seriousness. 

Yellen’s rhetoric did not carry the day or anything else, to say nothing of Blinken’s. Between the two of them, their presentations in Bangalore could go down as marking the beginning of the end of the G–20. This would be another casualty of the new Cold War the Biden administration insists on dragging us all into, another change in the look of the 21st century.  

The non–Western nations present had made their position on the Ukraine crisis very clear well before Bangalore. It is important to note its nuance. No, we do not approve of the war in Ukraine. No, we are not going to condemn the Russian intervention. Yes, we understand that the West shares responsibility for provoking this conflict. Yes, sorry, but whether Russia has violated one of the Five Principles is complicated by the Western powers’ conduct leading up to this war. Yes, the West could and should have prevented it by diplomatic means before it started. Yes, we want to see this settled now via negotiation. 

This is the very essence of the NAM’s principles in applied, 21st century form. 

Talkfests such as the G–20 are of limited interest, I realize, but what happened in lovely, well-gardened Bangalore has something important to tell us. Three things, actually.

One, we find in it Washington’s absolute inability to see the world in other than Manichean terms. A lot of Democrats thought Bush II’s “You’re with us or with the terrorists” routine after the September 11 attacks was a crude formulation. Nonsense. This is precisely the frame of Yellen’s position in the Ukraine context. This is how those purporting to lead America insist on ordering the world, and to say it will get this nation nowhere in the 21st century is to put the point too mildly.

Two, Bangalore is a measure of the resolve with which non–Western nations are coming to resist Washington’s prosecution of Cold War II. While it is altogether sad to watch the world divide once again as it did during the first Cold War, conflict and confrontation are inevitable so long as the Western powers are represented by blunt instruments such as Janet Yellen.

Three, the U.S. and the rest of the West are not going to read at all wisely the informal reemergence of the NAM as non–Western nations advance its principles. Remember, during Cold War I, those declaring themselves nonaligned between the Western and Eastern blocs were dismissed as crypto–Communists, dupes of Moscow, or foolish wanderers. We’re seeing the same thing again, and let us not be surprised: We have understood for many years that among the things the neoliberal West cannot tolerate, nations that think for themselves in the interests of their people rank highest.  

Maybe you noted reports that South Africa and Russia—I think China is in on this too—began joint naval exercises off the South African coast earlier this month. This reflects the waxing of Moscow–Pretoria relations, and there is no surprise here: The Soviets supported the African National Congress, now the governing party, in its fight against apartheid, the West having stood on the other side.  Lavrov was in South Africa a month earlier for talks with his counterpart, Naledi Pandor.

So far as I understand it, “nonaligned” means “not aligned,” not with this side, not with the other. The Americans don’t speak this language, and it is worth noting how eagerly the Europeans haven’t either, since the Ukraine crisis erupted.  Washington and the European capitals are freaked out about the naval drills and altogether the strengthening ties between South Africa and the Russian Federation—which are, of course, entirely the business of Pretoria and Moscow and have nothing to do with “taking a side.” The South Africans are “moving further away from a nonaligned position,” an E.U. spokesman told The New York Times.

In this connection, let us not leave out Annalena Baerbock, Germany’s Green foreign minister, who is as hawkishly Russophobic as anyone walking around in Washington. Here she is speaking at the Munich Security Conference a couple of weeks ago: “Neutrality is not an option, because then you are standing on the side of the aggressor.” Yes, Virginia, there are as many stupid statesmen and stateswomen now as there were back then.

It was Newspeak during Cold War I and it is Newspeak this time around. You can call yourselves nonaligned as long as you align with the West. Otherwise, you are with the “them” in our “them or us” formulation: This is the commonly held Western position.

A few months ago, Cambridge University published the results of various surveys it had conducted in 137 countries to measure their views about the West, Russia, and China. A World Divided: Russia, China and the West is a 38–page report and can be read here. In sum, it found that of the non–West’s 6.3 billion people, 66 percent—what is this, three-quarters of the world’s population?— look favorably upon Russia; the figure for China is 70 percent.

It is important we take care to understand these figures. There are subtleties in them.

The sentiments they reflect derive in large measure from history. The Russians and Chinese stood with the non­–West as it decolonized. Both were prominent voices in the old NAM. Given America’s poor record on both counts, we can take this as a measure of how the past comes to bite Washington on its backside.

At the same time, we cannot read positive sentiment toward Russia and China as in essence anti­–American. Moscow and Beijing made this pointedly clear in their Joint Statement a year ago, and many others have said the same thing: The U.S. and its Atlantic world allies are to be welcomed as a new world order takes shape. What the non–West rejects is any suggestion of the hegemony Washington and its allies insist upon. The distinction is essential always to bear in mind, notably when we read over and over that the project is to subvert the West.

The scene in Bangalore will be repeated many times in years to come. These occasions are to be watched and understood for what they are and are not. They will reflect one of the most essential conflicts of our time. The original NAM failed to prevent Washington’s reordering of the world into hostile blocs; the West suppressed but did not extinguish its aspirations. Non–Western nations, stronger now even as the U.S. weakens, have a vastly better chance of success this time. Whether they are hostile to the Western powers is up to the Western powers to determine.

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Patrick Lawrence
Patrick Lawrence

Patrick Lawrence, a correspondent abroad for many years, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune, is a media critic, essayist, author and lecturer. His most recent book is Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century. His web site is Patrick Lawrence. Support his work via his Patreon siteHis Twitter account, @thefloutist, has been permanently censored without explanation.


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