On 4 September 2022, the Business Day published Professor Adekeye Adebajo's regular column on the global South's incoherent approach to condemning the Ukraine war.
An African proverb notes that “when two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers”. That 52 governments from the “Global South” failed to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, and 82 southern states refused to vote to suspend Moscow from the UN Human Rights Council a month later, sent shock waves across the Western world.
The scepticism about Western inconsistency in applying international norms is profound. Many have cited the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, launched without UN Security Council authorisation.
The Global South is also expressing its collective frustration at decades of perceived Western heavy-handedness in international trade, global governance and cross-border migration. Southern states are therefore advocating a renewed non-alignment to avoid becoming embroiled in great power rivalries involving future battles between a Pax Americana and a Pax Sinica.
Non-alignment was an approach employed by the newly independent developing countries from the 1950s to find a balance between East and West in Cold War proxy wars. The 1955 Bandung Conference urged developing countries to abstain from collective defence arrangements with great powers, while the now 120-strong Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) urged members to shun military alliances such as Nato.
Non-alignment advocates promoted “positive” rather than passive neutrality, aiming to strengthen institutions of global governance. SA hosted the NAM summit in 1998, and has recently championed “strategic non-alignment” during the Ukraine conflict, advocating a peaceful resolution but refusing to sanction its Brics ally.
The three largest global economies by 2050 are predicted to be China, India and the US. There is now more trade across the Pacific than the Atlantic. Despite the return of geopolitics to Europe, the future of international relations is inexorably shifting from Europe to Asia.
Many in the Global South are particularly irked by the US’ Manichaean division of the world into “good” democracies and bad “autocracies”. China, India, Indonesia, SA, Ethiopia, Algeria, Brazil and Mexico — representing much of the world’s population — have adopted a nonaligned stance to the Ukraine conflict, with many seemingly accepting the Russian interpretation of the West “encircling” Moscow through relentless Nato expansion.
Most Latin American countries have ignored Washington’s warnings to avoid doing business with China. The region’s scholars have developed the concept of “active non-alignment”, urging governments to build more effective regional mechanisms to co-ordinate global economic governance and regional foreign policies.
Further afield, India has abandoned its traditional Nehruvian non-alignment and is no longer a credible leader of the Non-aligned Movement. Despite being an anchor of the US-Indo-Pacific strategy, New Delhi has increased its purchases of subsidised Russian oil and remains heavily dependent on Russia for military hardware.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has demonstrated that non-alignment has as much to do with geography as strategy. Singapore sanctioned Russia over Ukraine; Indonesia condemned the invasion but rejected sanctions; Myanmar backed the invasion; while Laos and Vietnam refused to condemn Moscow’s actions.
Many ASEAN governments have historically championed non-alignment rhetorically but practised a promiscuous “multi-alignment”, with Singapore and the Philippines forging close military ties with the US, and Malaysia and Singapore with Britain, Australia and New Zealand.
This is a region in which governments simultaneously embrace and fear Chinese hegemonic economic assistance and military co-operation. Many ASEAN states thus reject formal military alliances with great powers, preferring to hedge their bets through overlapping and complex military and economic partnerships.
Unlike ASEAN, Africa has no large regional power such as China that can dominate its continent, nor a global power like the US that plays an active regional security role involving local alliances. The continent would thus be best served by building local security capacity in close co-operation with the UN, promoting regional integration and fencing off Africa from meddling external powers, while continuing to welcome trade and investment.
Professor Adekeye Adebajo is professor and senior research fellow at the University of Pretoria’s Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship.
This article first appeared in Business Day on 4 September 2022.