“My country does not stand for the formation of blocs, because blocs mean isolation. We stand for a universal world,” spoke VK Krishna Menon, Indian diplomat, and chairman of the Indian delegation to the United Nations General Assembly, at the end of the 1960 UNGA session. What Krishna Menon was laying out, in essence, was a new approach to international affairs – known in shorthand as non-alignment. Although it was a widely prevalent political dispensation from the 1940s onwards, we know very little of non-alignment. The origins of non-alignment as a political philosophy are debated, and the global histories of the national projects it provoked are incomplete and unclear. So, what is non-alignment? Is it related to the Non-Aligned Movement? Is this orientation a relic of the past?
Non-alignment is most-widely understood as a foreign policy adopted by postcolonial nations against the backdrop of the Cold War, where the primary aim of these nations was to increase their room for manoeuvre in a bipolar system without having to throw their lot in with either of the camps – the security umbrella offered by the US, or the ideological universe offered by the Soviet Union. As the USSR disintegrated in 1991, in this version of its history, non-alignment all but ceased to exist at about this point because nations did not have to choose between the US and the USSR any longer, thus limiting the life of this idea to about four decades.
Due to this narrow understanding of non-aligned politics as a refusal to choose a political orientation, the non-aligned nations were also, for a large part of the 20th century, referred to as ‘neutralist’ or ‘uncommitted’ nations. Western commentaries on non-alignment from the 1950s often called non-alignment ‘immoral’ because these nations were not anti-communist. The Soviets came on board, making official pronouncements in support of non-alignment, before the Americans, who only ever reluctantly accepted non-aligned politics as a political fact rather than an ideal scenario. Yet, before Khrushchev’s tour of South Asia in 1955, the Russians too were labelling this political orientation ‘bourgeois,’ led by elite leaders of the Third World.
For their part, leaders of postcolonial nations in Asia and Africa argued that neither was non-alignment ‘neutralist’ nor was it ‘immoral’ and that understanding it through a Euro-Atlantic lens would hinder rather than help integrate the emerging Third World into a highly polarised world. Leaders such as Jawaharlal Nehru (freedom fighter and former Prime Minister of India) emphatically stated that non-alignment was, in fact, an anti-war position, and that newly independent nations were in no position to fight or wins wars, given their extreme resource poverty. Sirimavo Bandaranaike (also a freedom fighter and former Prime Minister of Sri Lanka) explained how this was not the start of a third bloc, but a plea to get rid of the two existing blocs, and the partisan mentality that accompanied them.
In my own scholarship on India’s non-aligned internationalism in the 1950s and ‘60s, my task has been to wrest this idea from its early retirement in 1991 and to understand it more broadly as a political project. Central to non-alignment is an ardent anti-racism, a decolonisation, a shedding of old ways of approaching international affairs, and a call to imagine new possibilities that are radical and unprecedented. In 1956, when simultaneous crises erupted at the Suez Canal and in Hungary, non-aligned nations such as India were actively involved in negotiating a conciliatory position between the US and the USSR. They achieved this by foregrounding Egyptian and Hungarian interests in either case, bringing the focus away from Cold War superpower antagonism, and preventing further escalation of conflict. The dominant non-aligned perspective at the time was to allow for states to think beyond the bloc mentality. World politics had become saturated with highly militarised thinking, and non-aligned nations, in most cases being newly independent, were more concerned with economic development, social progress and political stability.
There is, at present, a renewal of interest in this last-century political idea precisely because this is also the need of the hour in contemporary global politics. There is a widening disparity between nations not just in terms of resources but also in terms of the power they wield, and the independence that such power guarantees. These disadvantaged nations are disproportionately found in the Global South, so it might be worthwhile to pay more attention to the politics that emerged there not so long ago.
Historians have shown that non-alignment has intellectual and ethical sources in early- and mid-twentieth century Afro-Asianism. Afro-Asianist solidarity networks were built on anti-colonial, anti-racist, often socialist connections between people – journalists, lawyers, artists, writers, and freedom fighters. During the wave of decolonisation in the 1950s through the ‘60s and ‘70s, some of these already influential people became leaders of nation-states such as India, Indonesia, Egypt, Ghana, and Kenya. Nehru, Soekarno, Gamal Abdul Nasser, Kwame Nkrumah, and Jomo Kenyatta embraced non-alignment as the guiding light of the foreign policies of their newly independent nations. A series of conferences, the most important of which was the Afro-Asian Conference held in Bandung in 1955, made visible the Afro-Asianist outlook on world politics, eventually taking shape in the Non-Aligned Movement.
The Bandung Conference, pivotal to the cementing of these Afro-Asian solidarities on a state level, was dismissed by both blocs who saw this fellowship of new nations as short-lived fervour, only until they came to see it as a subversive, and therefore, dangerous postcolonial insurrection. To some extent, the non-alignment that followed Bandung was iconoclastic, demanding an overturning of the way in which international affairs was conducted, demanding that small states, ex-colonies, racially and ethnically diverse peoples, could all access, shape and use diplomacy and the United Nations and other international regimes to put forth their own new ideas of what was urgent and what was important. As Nehru put it in an interview to Playboy Magazine, “We cannot take the world on our shoulders and remodel it according to our heart’s desire – but we can help in creating a climate of peace which is so essential for the realisation of our objectives.”
Yet, it is unjust to have this revolutionary moment consigned to cosmopolitan optimism. The transnationalism inspired by Afro-Asianist non-alignment then extended to South America and across the world, with the expansion of non-alignment as a political orientation into its institutionalised form – the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), taking shape at the Belgrade Conference of 1961. Yugoslavia’s Josip Tito also became an important figure in the movement, showing how socialists could also be non-aligned. Along with Nehru of India and Nasser of Egypt, Tito ushered in a new age of non-aligned growth and outreach. Even though non-aligned nations also had to contend with maintaining territorial sovereignty and undertaking national reconstruction, they had considerable successes in the fields of diplomacy, mediation, and peacekeeping. A decade after the Bandung Conference, the Non-Aligned Movement took on a different orientation, with the Tricontinental Conference of 1966, held in Cuba, speaking of a global militant resistance to American imperialism, in response to the Vietnam War. By the 1973 NAM Conference held in Algiers, other initiatives such as the New International Economic Order (NIEO) had emerged, although with short lifespans. Nevertheless, the membership of the NAM continued to grow and has now reached 120 countries, by no means a small figure, and second only to the United Nations in strength.
Renewed calls for response and action during international crises have highlighted the shortcomings of the grouping but have also opened new avenues for effectiveness. Non-aligned nations have been berated for not responding with outright criticism, for instance, to the crisis in Ukraine, or to the war in Afghanistan. In their individual capacities, non-aligned nations take a stance in line with their own foreign policy objectives, but the Non-Aligned Movement is underutilised as a forum. What are directions in which the movement could now develop? What are the world issues on which non-aligned nations could offer non-partisan mediatory solutions? What can the Non-Aligned Movement offer the United Nations? To answer these urgent questions, the non-aligned manifesto must be revised and updated. Although its founding tenets are still relevant, it is time to translate its legacy into influence. The most successful outcomes of non-aligned action came not from the lush language of its founding figures, but from their ability to exert restraint, to deflect from militant responses to temper conflict. For this alone, histories of non-alignment matter.