A One-Way Ticket to Irrelevance: The Dangers of Active Non-Alignment by the Global South

The original Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) of the Cold War—which still exists, but is truly irrelevant these days—was born in a very different era, one marked by European decolonization and newly emerging, independent states.


Source: Milos Miskov/Anadolu Agency.

Active Non-Alignment is the term some analysts and academics have begun to attach to an aspirational policy that would promisingly guide the nations of the Global South between the Scylla and Charybdis of Great Power competition in the 21st century. In truth, it is more likely to cause a shipwreck or at least a few rudderless ships of state.

The active non-alignment argument goes something like this. Latin America and the Caribbean are currently irrelevant on the world stage. Summitry between the European Union and the region is on life support and the Group of Latin American and Caribbean States (GRULAC) is lost in the halls of the UN, absent from the major debates. To remediate this identity crisis, the Non-Aligned camp argues that the best course of action is to rigorously abstain from choosing sides between China and the United States—as well as between Russia and Ukraine. As evidence of “relevance,” but a refusal to align, proponents point to Lula’s recent offer to broker Russia-Ukraine talks.

While Active Non-Alignment may be an accurate portrayal of some countries’ foreign policies, it would be disastrous as a regional strategy for two fundamental reasons. 

  • Active Non-Alignment is anachronistic. Half a century ago, this approach relegated Latin America to “hermit kingdom” status, under development, and strategic irrelevance—and would do so again. 
  • Pandemics, migrants, and climate change are agnostic about a nation or region’s alliances or non-alignment. Instead, these challenges compel neighbors to act in a geographically aligned manner.

The original Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) of the Cold War—which still exists, but is truly irrelevant these days—was born in a very different era, one marked by European decolonization and newly emerging, independent states. As a convenient way to avoid becoming pawns in a nuclear NATO-Warsaw Pact confrontation, the NAM nominally served as a fig leaf. However, most of its discourse was decidedly anti-American, especially among Latin American adherents. For instance, Fidel Castro—who overtly aligned his country with the Soviet Union—chest thumped in the 1979 Havana Declaration that the purpose of the NAM was to ensure “the national independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity and security of non-aligned countries” in their “struggle against imperialismcolonialismneo-colonialismracism, and all forms of foreign aggression, occupation, domination, interference or hegemony as well as against great power and bloc politics.” 

Today, suggesting that not taking a stand on the Russian-Ukraine conflict is principled or supports sovereignty rings hollow. Talk to the Ukrainians about sovereignty when the Russian shelling stops. History is a harsh judge. Silence in the face of Russian expansionism and its state policy of war crimes and barbaric human rights violations, will only hurt Latin America’s voluntary benchwarmers. No one is asking for arms or money, but a symbolic UN vote for territorial sovereignty in a sovereignty obsessed region? This should not be a stretch. The Hemispheric South’s current reticence to criticize or castigate Russia’s unprovoked violation of Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty makes abstaining Latin governments look weak and unprincipled. Far more admirable—and memorable—will be the principled voice of Chile’s President Boric regarding Russia’s aggression. 

Ironically, this stance also casts the region as irrelevant among the very powers—the United States, the Western Europeans, NATO, and the UN Security Council—from whom the Active Non-Aligners seek relevance and respect. We all know the story of the kid who takes his ball and goes home so the game ends. This is the equivalent of a kid with no ball who just goes home. 

In the 21st century, the world does not care if you do not want to play—you have to or you do not eat. Lula’s instincts are right. Brazil should be a global player. However, as an unproven, extra-regional referee in a conflict steeped in centuries of mutual animosity, he is most unlikely to lead Russia-Ukraine negotiations. Despite this, Brazil could—and should—play an active allied role as a rotating member of the UN Security Council and keep pushing for a permanent seat. 

Compare the Ukraine situation to the challenge of climate change—where Lula’s leadership is desperately needed and most welcome. Here, Brazil has an undisputed and critical leadership role to play. To be successful it must align itself regionally with its neighbors and globally with Paris Accord signatories—including extra-regional partners. Fortunately, alignment with China, Russia, the EU, and the United States is quite possible on this issue. 

Similarly future pandemics compel aligned regional action. Ditto for migration. Frankly, were Lula to use his hard-won democratic credibility to broker negotiations between the Maduro regime and the opposition to hold free and fair elections in 2024, it would be a far more useful contribution to hemispheric stability. Colombia’s Gustavo Petro was first to accept this challenge, but appears to be making a bit of a mess of it. However, it would be exceptionally relevant for Brazil and the nations of Latin America—who have absorbed the 7 million desperate refugees who have fled chavismo’s impoverishing and corrupt reality—were Lula to broker some sort of deal to get Venezuela to hold internationally observed elections.

The new Non-Aligned advocates stress that Latin America does not want to have to choose between China and the United States. In fact, they already are threading that needle on trade relations. However, on fundamental issues of human rights and democracy, how Latin American and Caribbean nations choose their allies today will very much determine their fate and future prosperity. Pre-emptively choosing not to choose is a recipe for precisely the irrelevance they seek to avoid.

Amb. (Ret.) John Feeley is the Executive Director of the Center for Media Integrity of the Americas. He is a former career U.S. diplomat who served as Ambassador to Panama, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, Charge d’Affaires and Deputy Chief of Mission in Mexico, in addition to other postings in Latin America and the Caribbean. He is a former Marine Corps Officer.

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