Back to the Blocs: 21st Century Nonalignment and the New Cold War

Notes from the 60th anniversary commemorative summit of the Nonaligned Movement in Belgrade, Serbia


I expected the Nonaligned summit to be something else, something more hallucinatory. I expected something like what the residents of Belgrade saw the last time the summit was held here in 1989, when Muammar Gaddafi arrived on a plane carrying camels, a small corps of female bodyguards, and one ton of Libyan sand. I expected something entirely exotic, something that I as a Westerner wouldn’t have to take too seriously.

But last week’s summit of the Nonaligned Movement in Belgrade, which was both a high level annual meeting and a commemorative event honoring the 60th anniversary of the first such gathering in 1961, demanded to be taken seriously. And I think it’s worth thinking about what was said there. After all, the movement is the second largest multilateral body in the world after the United Nations. It represents two billion of the earth’s people. And while it’s true that NAM was founded in a very specific context — at the height of the Cold War during the period of decolonization, as a bloc of states independent from both the Warsaw Pact and NATO — delegation after delegation last week spoke of the need to recommit to the founding principles of the movement now. There was near unanimous agreement that the global pandemic, vaccine nationalism, and growing bipolarity require a multilateral response. 

Western commentators have been characteristically dismissive, even hostile. Lina Džuverović, a curator and academic based at Birkbeck’s Department of Film, Media and Cultural Studies at the University of London, thinks there’s a reason why.

“It is only logical that the hegemonic Western perspective regarding NAM would be filled with suspicion and distrust, even ridicule,” she wrote in an email. “NAM was, and continues to be, on the one hand a utopian and visionary project, and on the other, an economically and politically valid option, looking to challenge the supremacy and dominance of bloc politics 60 years ago and today’s economic and political hegemonies,” she said. 

Of course, Western powers were happy to praise NAM when it played to their advantage against the Soviet Union. As Henry Kissinger said in Peru in 1976, “The United States accepts nonalignment as a legitimate national course… our global interest is well served by a world of thriving independent states, secure in their national destinies against the hegemonial designs of any nation.”

The Nonaligned Movement has its roots in the Bandung Conference in 1955, also called the Asian-African Conference. That meeting brought together delegates from 29 African and Asian countries newly independent from colonialism. At the center of discussion was the concept of sovereignty, and how African and Asian countries might secure it. International law — written by the West — had since the late 19th century guaranteed sovereignty only to so-called “civilized states”. Bandung would seek to remedy that injustice by articulating a new approach to sovereignty for the states labelled part of the “Third World”. The vision was rooted in the concept of Panchsheel, or the Five Principles of Coexistence, drawn up as part of the Sino-Indian agreement the previous year. Those principles are (1) mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity; (2) nonaggression; (3) noninterference in internal affairs; (4) equality and mutual benefit; and (5) peaceful co-existence. 

Building on the concepts of Panchsheel, the 1955 Asian-African Conference produced the Ten Principles of Bandung. They are:

(1) Respect for fundamental human rights and for the purposes and the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.

(2) Respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all nations.

(3) Recognition of the equality of all races and of the equality of all nations large and small.

(4) Abstention from intervention or interference in the internal affairs of another country.

(5) Respect for the right of each nation to defend itself singly or collectively, in conformity with the Charter of the United Nations.

(6) Abstention from the use of arrangements of collective defense to serve the particular interests of any of the big powers, abstention by any country from exerting pressures on other countries.

(7) Refraining from acts or threats of aggression or the use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any country.

(8) Settlement of all international disputes by peaceful means, such as negotiation, conciliation, arbitration or judicial settlement as well as other peaceful means of the parties’ own choice, in conformity with the Charter of the United Nations.

(9) Promotion of mutual interests and cooperation.

(10) Respect for justice and international obligation.

It is significant that the final draft includes the term “human rights”. Many scholars have written that human rights are rooted in Western individualism, and as such, have been rejected in much of the so-called Global South in favor of economic, social and cultural rights. What is clear from the inclusion of human rights among the Bandung Principles, however, is that their authors believed — erroneously it would turn out — that human rights could also be used to protect colonized people from colonial violence. 

Founding leaders of the Nonaligned Movement from left to right: Shri Jawaharlal Nehru of India, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, Sukarno of Indonesia and Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia in 1961.

Six years after Bandung, the first conference of the Nonaligned Movement was held in Belgrade on the initiative of Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito. Yugoslavia had split with the Soviet Union in 1948 and was looking to carve out its own foreign policy independent of the superpowers. That first conference was attended by 25 states, and the principles of Panscheel and Bandung were reiterated there. 

In the years that followed, NAM’s membership quadrupled in size. It was not a socialist bloc, and was ideologically heterogeneous throughout the Cold War. Instead, member states were united in their opposition to all forms of colonialism. 

The Nonaligned Movement also opened up opportunities for unprecedented economic cooperation. Yugoslav construction firms were responsible for massive projects all across Asia and Africa. Yugoslavia built a 4000-seat convention hall in Zambia (designed and erected in just 107 days to accommodate the third NAM summit), the Sports Palace in the Central African Republic, an ophthalmology clinic in Nigeria, luxury apartments and nineteen ministries covering an area totaling 270,000 m2 in Kuwait, irrigation systems in Kenya and Saddam Hussein’s bunker in Iraq. 

The International Trade Fair complex in Lagos, Nigeria by Yugoslav architects Zoran Bojović, Predrag Ðaković, Milorad Cvijić and Ljiljana Bojović, and completed in 1977.

Serbia alone has sought to preserve this legacy. Other states of the former Yugoslavia have embraced the European Union and NATO largely to the exclusion of the rest of the world: While Serbia has 14 embassies in Africa, all other states of the former Yugoslavia  have just four combined. 

Last week, the same principles championed in Bandung were invoked in Belgrade. Listening to each of the 117 delegations in attendance — which included heads of state and many ministers of foreign affairs — it was evident that for the non-Western world, a global order that respects sovereignty, territorial integrity, and noninterference remains a dream. 

Guyana’s Minister of Labor, Joseph Hamilton, summed up this sentiment. “Some have called into question the continued relevance of our movement given our original focus on nonalignment in the context of great power rivalry,” he said. 

“In response, it is apt to point to the Bandung Principles on which the movement rests, principles which guide developing countries, promote peace, and peaceful cooperation in the world. Those principles will endure until we achieve the world we want.”

In one particularly emotional appeal, Palestinian Foreign Minsiter Riyad Al-Maliki implored member states not to kneel to “unilateral despotism” and instead urged them to “defend our common ground and ensure that NAM’s ability to influence international affairs is positively bolstered.”

“We must ensure that our group is not relegated to [mere] ceremonial rhetorics,” Al-Maliki said. 

On the sidelines, there were murmurings of a “new Cold War” — words Chinese President Xi Jinping has used — and questions about what such a conflict might mean for NAM.

Indeed, the presence of delegations from Russia and China, both observer states, was perhaps the most controversial part of the summit. Critics who see Russia or China as superpowers say their involvement means that NAM can no longer lay claim to nonalignment. 

What such critics do not say is that several members of NATO, including Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, and North Macedonia, also have observer status, and all sent delegations to the summit.  

As for China, it was granted observer status in 1992, when it was a more modest power than it is today. Foreign Minister Wang Yi offered a sentimental case for China’s ongoing place in the movement. “China will always be a part of the developing world, and our heart will always be with developing countries,” he said. 

Meanwhile, Russia only obtained observer status in July. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was in Belgrade for the conference last week. Moscow-based political analyst Andrew Korybko explained the Kremlin’s position on NAM in a private message.

“Russia received observer status in the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) over the summer because it wants to show the international community that it’s neutral in the ongoing New Cold War between the American and Chinese superpowers,” he wrote. 

“Although it’s more closely aligned with China at the moment and politically supports it on most issues (with the notable exception of its dispute with fellow BRICS and SCO member India where Moscow maintains a neutral position), it’s not that country’s ally like some have claimed,” he continued. 

Korybko said that the country’s “21st-century grand strategy” is to become “the supreme balancing force in Eurasia.”

“The ideal scenario from the Kremlin’s perspective is to pioneer a so-called ‘New Non-Aligned Movement’ (Neo-NAM) within the existing NAM,” he said. 

Meanwhile, Oleksandr Aleksandrovych, Ukraine’s ambassador to Serbia, had harsh words for Lavrov and for Russia. He reminded members that NAM emphasizes “noninterference in internal affairs, decolonization and deoccupation, and the peaceful settling of conflicts,” and called it “a shame” that Russia was present. He said that Russia occupies seven percent of Ukraine’s territory. 

For the host country of Serbia, meanwhile, the summit was a rich opportunity. Most flamboyantly, the Ministry of Defense held an adjacent military equipment fair where it sold artillery and armored vehicles to shoppers from NAM countries. 

The summit also seemed a continuation of the open, expansive tone the country set earlier this year during its big vaccination push, which saw President Aleksandar Vučić invite the region and the world to Serbia to receive a vaccine. Belgrade ended up with a surplus thanks to donations from allies China, Russia, and the EU, which some observers saw as a vindication of the country’s nonaligned path. 

As critics have pointed out, Serbia has used its longstanding relationship with NAM countries to lobby against recognition of Kosovo’s independence. Serbia still does not recognize Kosovo’s 2008 unilateral declaration of independence, which it secured with heavy backing from the United States. Three years ago, Serbia launched a “derecognition campaign” aimed at persuading mostly NAM countries to withdraw their recognition of what it views as its southern province. Kosovo’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs says that around 117 countries have recognized it as an independent state.

For its part, Kosovo has adopted the rhetoric of decolonization, including self-determination, in its campaign for independence. Kosovo now claims that it is freeing itself from “Serbian colonialism”. For NAM countries, this is a tough sell: Kosovo currently hosts around 3,400 NATO troops, is home to a permanent US military base, and has erected several statues to high-ranking US politicians, including Bill Clinton. For many NAM members, Kosovo represents a new outpost of US imperialism rather than a partner in the struggle against colonialism. 

Speakers at the NAM summit used the same language but had a very different story to tell the world.

“NAM was, and perhaps is, deeply destabilizing to the global political picture characterized by economic dominance of the few,” Džuverović said. “The very idea that those with less power and fewer resources can organize and develop a functional system of mutual support is extremely powerful and therefore threatening.”

She concluded: “The significance of NAM today is that it demonstrates that living solidarity is possible and that an alternative does exist.”


All photos of the Nonaligned Summit by Lily Lynch 

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Lily Lynch

Lily is co-founder and editor-in-chief of Balkanist Magazine. She lives in Belgrade, Serbia.