As much of Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America has refused to line up behind the West amid its growing confrontation with Russia and China, the idea that these regions are returning to a policy of nonalignment has generated concern in Western capitals and a bit of excitement elsewhere. Both of these sentiments may, however, be misplaced. In the West, the debate over nonalignment is still haunted by the Cold War’s shadow, when “nonalignment” was often synonymous with an anti-Western stance. And for developing countries, the objective of building a non-Western or post-Western order—part of the ideology of nonalignment from its beginnings in the decolonization era—has been an enduring but elusive mirage.

Take a closer look, and you will find the ideology of nonalignment was dead long ago. And while it may not be entirely buried, it poses little threat to the West and does not offer much salvation to the East.

The responses of countries outside the West to the renewed great-power conflict today are too varied to fit neatly into a category. They have little to do with the notions of nonalignment that prevailed during the movement’s heyday following World War II, when newly decolonized nations found themselves right in the middle of a global conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union—and formed a loose third bloc as a result.

Nonalignment was never a coherent concept; it reflected a bouquet of distinct ideas on postcolonial engagement with the world. One of them was the proposition that keeping away from the great powers and their rival blocs was critical for freedom of action in the world. It did not take long for the idea of neutrality to crash against reality. One of the founders of the nonaligned idea, Indian Prime Minster Jawaharlal Nehru, had to abandon it with the outbreak of the Sino-Indian War in 1962. Whereas Nehru turned to the United States for military assistance, his successor and daughter, Indira Gandhi, entered into an alliance with the Soviet Union in 1971. It was the actual threat that mattered, not the abstract principle.

Nonalignment was never a coherent concept; it reflected a bouquet of distinct ideas on postcolonial engagement with the world.

India wasn’t just an isolated case. More broadly, as postcolonial nations encountered territorial and other conflicts with their neighbors and faced domestic challenges from rivals for power, many of them turned to one or the other superpower for support. Some occasionally switched from one side to another. President Anwar Sadat of Egypt, another founding country of the nonaligned movement, dumped the Soviet Union for the United States in the early 1970s. In the 1950s, Pakistan had signed on to the United States’ anti-communist alliance in Asia but quickly found common ground with communist China against India.

In other words, internal and external security challenges compelled most postcolonial states to align with one or the other superpower, even while maintaining the pretense of nonalignment.

A second element of nonalignment was strictly ideological: the morphing of anti-colonialism into anti-Westernism. Many in the developing world elite absorbed socialist theories of development and saw the capitalist West as neocolonial. The Soviet Union and China were good at exploiting this anti-Western resentment and offering economic and political support to newly independent regimes.

This sentiment peaked in 1979, when the Non-Aligned Movement—an organization that still exists today—declared at a summit hosted by Cuban leader Fidel Castro in Havana that the Soviet Union was the developing world’s “natural ally.” But for every leader who turned to Moscow for support, there was another who turned to the West for regime survival and regional balance of power.

A third dimension of nonalignment was the idea of a movement that would overturn the post-1945 order and build a new one that would be more equitable and fair. Rapid decolonization in the 1960s and the emergence of a voting majority of developing countries in the U.N. General Assembly seemed to provide a tailwind for those seeking to transform the world order all through the 1970s.

That era coincided with a widespread sense of Western decline and growing Soviet influence around the world. Like China and Russia today, the Soviet Union and its satellites—as well as a multitude of radical movements around the world—had convinced themselves that the post-Western moment had arrived. The U.S. defeat in the Vietnam War, the growth of protest movements in the West, OPEC’s triumph in dramatically raising oil prices and throwing the West into economic malaise, the general crisis of capitalism, and the Non-Aligned Movement’s sweeping rhetoric about a “new international economic order” produced a giddy sense of a world in rapid transition.

Moscow’s achievement of nuclear parity with Washington was coupled with major gains for Soviet-backed national liberation movements—including in Afghanistan, Angola, Cambodia, and Nicaragua. By the mid-1970s, Soviet-style ideologues were triumphal in their proclamation that the global constellation of forces was turning decisively in favor of socialism, uniting what were then called the Second and Third worlds against the First.

By the turn of the 1980s, however, Washington was triangulating nicely between Moscow and Beijing and had developed a strategy to push back against Soviet advances in the developing world. Many so-called Third World countries supported U.S. and Western efforts, and under the Reagan Doctrine, U.S. aid went to rebel and insurgent groups seeking to oust pro-Soviet radical regimes around the world.

Part of nonalignment’s demise was simple economics. Pragmatic leaders in the global south saw the Soviet model’s limitations, and by the 1980s, many of them were turning to Western capitalism and its system of global institutions for development. It turned out that it was socialism that was in deep crisis and that capitalism had considerable resilience. By the time the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, much of the developing world had already joined the Washington Consensus on economic development.

The West’s unfolding competition with the Sino-Russian alliance demands a decisive shift away from the Western preachiness of the last three decades.

That could have been the end of the story of nonalignment. But the seeds of today’s developing world indifference to Russia’s war in Ukraine were sown in the post-Cold War era. Having vanquished the Soviet Union, a complacent West now saw little need to cultivate good relations with the ruling elites of the global south. The new hubris was also reflected in policies that attempted to promote democracy and reengineer societies in the developing world as rich-world governments, organizations, and activist NGOs carpeted the global south with a vast apparatus of conditional aid. Political hectoring on issues from democratic governance to climate policy became a habit. Sanctions and aid cutoffs became preferred instruments to discipline developing societies that fell short of the benchmarks set by the West.

The conviction that the West and its development elite were serving a higher cause—much like the Christian missionaries of the colonial era—was an intoxicating one. But it ignored the fact that the heathens might not want to convert. Nor were Western wealth and power an endless bounty that could be drawn upon to produce preferred change in the rest of the world.

Despite these repeated failures and setbacks, the presumption that the rest of the world will march to a Western drum endures. It is no surprise, then, that the Western strategic community was so surprised when the rest of the world did not simply stand up to be counted against the Russian invasion of Ukraine.



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