The Afterlives of Non-Alignment

“The Afterlives of Non-Alignment – Paul Stubbs in conversation with Srećko Pulig” (2022)

Paul Stubbs is a sociologist based in Zagreb, Croatia. His edited book Socialist Yugoslavia and the Non-Aligned Movement: social, cultural, political and economic imaginaries will be published later in 2022 by McGill-Queen’s University Press.

SP: In today’s world, and particularly in the light of the war in Ukraine, what is the contemporary meaning and afterlife of the Non-Aligned Movement?

PS: The war of aggression against Ukraine shows us how much we miss a strong, coherent, Non-Aligned Movement today. Of course, even in the heyday of the movement, in the 1970s, it was full of contradictions, and it was often better at rhetoric than in translating that rhetoric into action. Nevertheless, it was an important moral force and acted as a meaningful restraint against the aggressive intent of both power blocs.

There is no longer a Soviet Union, there is no longer a Warsaw Pact, there is no longer socialist Yugoslavia, and much of the hope of the decolonial moment of the Global South has faded, of course. At the same time, principles of “self-determination” and “peaceful resolution of conflicts” that were central to the Non-Aligned Movement are, of course, now needed more than ever. “Self-determination” and “non-interference” both rely on a nation state logic, albeit one derived as much from decolonial independence and statebuilding as from Westphalian bourgeois nationalism. Neither of these concepts have ever been institutionalized fully within the architecture of global governance, for many reasons.

Putin’s justifications for the war in Ukraine, ironically, subvert a language of “the responsibility to protect” (R2P) that had become the exclusive property of the West. Of course, the lies of his propaganda machine have also helped to produce a renewed fascism through expansionist impulses in which neighboring states and peoples are seen as objects of conquest and domination rather than as subjects for dialogue and peaceful co-existence. The Non-Aligned Movement aspired to create a new era of equality in international relations, based on sovereignty, independence, self-determination, and territorial integrity, promoting non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries, general and complete disarmament, and peaceful resolution of disputes on the basis of the UN Charter. It was an agenda borne out of anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist aspirations and struggles. Instead, today, we are faced with renewed, and ever more frightening, forms of neo-imperialism and neo-colonial domination.

SP: Decolonization and Antiracism played an important role in the movement. Where can we see the resurgence of colonialism and violence today?

PS: Colonialism, imperialism, racism and, as I suggested in answer to the previous question, fascism are, of course, very much still with us although it is extremely important to address their different forms in different contexts and conjunctures and not to collapse and conflate these concepts together. The Non-Aligned Movement was extremely concerned with the rise of neo-colonial social, political, economic and cultural relations that maintained the hegemony of the so-called global powers. The Non-Aligned Movement’s focus on racism was very much concentrated on opposing apartheid in South Africa and less concerned with forms of racism elsewhere.

In part, perhaps, we can trace Putin’s aggression to the loss of an empire and the erosion of Russia’s post-Soviet role as a global power in the shadow of NATO expansion. The mode of Russia’s integration into global capitalism was a rather toxic combination of casino capitalism and shock therapy, of course. At the same time, parts of the post-Soviet and post-Yugoslav space were promised “Euro-Atlantic integration” that, itself, reproduced neo-colonial forms of economic and political subjugation and the creation of a kind of European superperiphery marked by cheap labor and exploitation of raw materials.

In terms of racism, of course, initially, the response of countries in Europe to refugees from the Ukraine as an exception because “they are like us and easy to integrate”, along with the treatment at the Polish border of students from the Global South escaping the conflict are clear examples of racist hierarchies of deservingness. I am not sure, however, the extent to which current events will undermine the usual response of the Global North to migrants from Eastern Europe based on a framing of them as “white but not quite” nor how much the hospitality offered currently to those fleeing a “war on our doorstep” will be extended to those fleeing other global conflicts.

SP: The idea of global social justice or, as it was termed, “the new international economic order” has disappeared under the attack of neoliberal capitalism. How can we renew this idea?

PS: The new international economic order was an important contribution of the Non-Aligned Movement, the G-77 and others to the articulation of a kind of progressive alternative to market fundamentalism in the 1970s. It addressed the growing inequalities between developed and developing countries, primarily through the demand for radical reform of terms of trade and commodity prices, and the harnessing of financial instruments and technological innovation for more equal development. Yugoslav President Tito was committed to a global fund to tackle the problems of the least developed countries, for example although, in the context of successive oil crises, this was never established.

The new international economic order brought questions of equitable social development onto the global agenda and asserted the right of countries to choose their own social and economic systems. The extent to which global capitalism was viewed as a conflictual system that needed to be dismantled in the interests of the dispossessed or more as a system in need of reform through a new global social contract in the interests of both the developed and the underdeveloped world alike is debatable. Ideas of development were not all that different from the Yugoslav combination of rapid industrialization, modernization of agriculture and expert-led growth through harnessing the power of new technologies. At the same time, it did promote mutual learning and co-operation between the countries of the Global South, in architecture, construction, science, and mass media, amongst others.

A new global socio-economic model would, of course, need to pay much more attention to planetary boundaries and forms of global taxation and social provisioning in order to move away from an unending global logic of productivism and extractivism. In the context of the sanctions’ regime against the Russian Federation, more attention to the regulation of transnational finance, multi-national corporations and, crucially, transnational mercenaries and arms dealers will also be needed as a general feature of the global governance architecture, not as a conditionality applied only in exceptional situations. It is a tragedy that there is so little advocacy for a global welfare state. At the very least, arrangements need to be put in place to allow for the traditional pooling of risks and resources in national welfare states to be scaled up so that they can work transnationally. Regional welfare arrangements are also important in providing social protection to migrants, including those who cross borders frequently, with provisions governing the portability of social rights.

SP: Investment in active peaceful co-existence seems more necessary than ever. A world without an arms race and without nuclear weapons is needed, no matter how utopian that may sound.

PS: Definitely. Of course, the Non-Aligned Movement demand for “universal and complete disarmament” did not prevent some of its members from pursuing their own nuclear programs, often in secret, although the moral case for disarmament was clear. Indeed, calls for peaceful conflict resolution co-existed with arms sales, not only to national liberation movements but more widely, contributing to, and benefiting from, a global arms market. At the same time, the Non-Aligned Movement was, I would argue, amongst the first to recognize the dangers of nuclear proliferation and the possibility of a peace dividend through which defense spending could be redirected to socio-economic development.

SP: Do we need reform of the United Nations which has lost its important role that it had in the age of non-alignment?

PS: Reform of the United Nations, already described at the Non-Aligned summit in Cairo in 1964 by Amilcar Cabral, the independence leader of Guinea-Bissau, as “a giant with its hands tied”, was a key priority of the Non-Aligned Movement. Much was achieved in terms of making UN bodies such as ECOSOC more representative, the creation of UNCTAD and UNIDO provided important impetus to processes of national development planning in the Global South, and UNESCO began to advocate for decolonial cultural practices. At the same time, the Security Council was never reformed, with veto powers remaining in the hands of powerful countries, often the main perpetrators of global aggression. Crucially, the center of global economic and social governance moved away from the UN and its agencies towards the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization as global neoliberal orthodoxies took hold. For sure, then, global governance reform, with a stronger role for the UN, and for non-state actors within the UN structure, is needed more than ever before and, yet, appears more unlikely.

Perhaps as an aside, there has been a great deal of discussion in the media about the fact that many states in the Global South abstained on the first UN resolution on Ukraine. Although part of this is, no doubt, related to a sense that “this is not our war” and, indeed, may even come from a residual sense of loyalty for support received from the Soviet Union after independence, this could also be a kind of afterlife of the Non-Aligned Movement and a call for a way out of Big Power political bullying and for a new focus on consistent application of the rule of law internationally.

SP: The non-aligned remind us of the need for a multipolar world and a system of multilateralism. Is this not the most urgent task in a situation where we are threatened with a new Cold War?

PS: A multipolar world is, perhaps, necessary but not sufficient. I am not sure that a world dominated by several nation states struggling for dominance, including India and China, is preferable to a bipolar word in which non-alignment can operate as a countervailing force. I fear that a new Cold War marked by a kind of frozen status quo is, actually, less likely than continued wars of aggression at the moment. It may be utopian to seek a more pluriversal world in which local, national, regional and transnational actors, including social movements, work according to principles of peaceful co-existence, social justice and stewardship of the planet. The alternative, a realpolitik of “might is right”, is a pretty frightening one, as we now see.

Note: This is an expanded version of an interview published in Novosti, a Croatian political weekly, and is used with permission.

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