The Global South, Gaza and the rise of Active Non-Alignment

The sharp reactions across Africa, Asia, and Latin America against Israel’s war in Gaza, expressed in various United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) votes and through widespread support for South Africa’s case at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), highlight the degree to which Israel and the United States are increasingly isolated on the global stage as the war goes on and a deep rift between the West and the Global South is revealed.

South Africa’s case accusing Israel of genocide – and the ICJ’s provisional measures order – have been criticized as unwarranted by several Western powers. Olaf Scholz’s Germany had gone so far as to file a brief as a third party amicus curiae to support Israel’s denial of any genocidal intent. The optics of the contrasting attitude of Western powers towards the war in Ukraine, where far fewer women and children have died in almost two years of ongoing warfare than in four months in Gaza, while the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin (something that has yet to happen to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu), could not have been be greater. The essential difference, of course, is that Ukrainians are Europeans, whereas Palestinians are not.

Thus, in Gaza the Western grand narrative about the proclaimed universality of human rights and the importance of defending them wherever they are violated, has shown to be hollow. As Gaza illustrates, for the West, the defence of human rights only holds when it comes to protecting the rights of those considered Westerners, or when they can be weaponized against its adversaries. Otherwise, they are irrelevant.

Part of the legitimacy of that international order had been based on a grand, post-World War II narrative about promoting democracy and human rights as ‘forces of good,’ versus dictatorship and authoritarianism as ‘forces of evil.’ Reality, of course, was more complex than this black-and-white picture, with the West propping up dictators across the world, as long as they stood up against the ultimate bogeyman – i.e. Communism. Yet, by and large, the illusion of this grand narrative persisted, and appeared to find further confirmation in the fall of the Berlin Wall and the break-up of the Soviet Union after 1989. However, in the new century, that narrative is crumbling before our eyes.

The rise of the Global South

On the one hand, liberal democracy itself finds itself increasingly beleaguered in the West, as populism, often with strong authoritarian tones, raises its ugly head. In that regard, 2016 marked a turning point, with the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, and Britain’s decision to leave the European Union. It was reinforced by the rise of the far right across Western Europe, including with the recent election results in Italy and in the Netherlands. On the other hand, a massive wealth shift across the world has resulted in a radical reordering of intra-South hierarchies and of the global order as a whole. The emergence of Asia and the ensuing notion of the new century as an ‘Asian century’ is a signature feature of this new order.

This transformation is evident as the world’s geo-economic axis moves away from the North Atlantic to the Asia-Pacific. Today, there are more billionaires in Beijing than in New York City. Tellingly, the ditching of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) by the United States in 2017 was followed by the signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) in 2020, signed by fifteen states in Asia and Australasia (most prominently China), which became the biggest international trade agreement anywhere. This left the United States out of two of the world’s leading trade agreements.

The rise of China has been the most significant feature of this shift, but so has that of India, as well of that of other Asian nations, and Latin American nations such as Brazil and Mexico. The upsurge of these emerging economies has gone hand in hand with a greater presence of them in multilateral fora and with the creation of new entities that represent them. And 2023 has been the year in which the Global South has erupted into the international scene with special force.

In August, on the occasion of its Johannesburg Summit, the BRICS group announced its expansion, with the addition of six new members: Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (though eventually Javier Milei’s Argentina declined the invitation). In September 2023, the G20 summit was held in New Delhi, the African Union was invited to become a full member, and the meeting was widely considered to have been a diplomatic triumph for India. Later that month, the G77 and China summit took place in Havana, putting front and centre the demands of African, Asian and Latin American nations in a world still operating in a post-pandemic mode, facing financial indebtedness and feeling the impact of migration and armed conflicts of various kinds.

In an international order undergoing massive change, with Western states increasingly turning inwards, lacking interest in addressing development challenges and in tackling global issues such as climate change, and growing tensions between a declining hegemon (the United States) and a rising power that threatens this hegemony (China), what are post-colonial states to do?

Active Non-Alignment as a guide to action

Enter Active Non-Alignment (ANA). This is a foreign policy approach that arose in Latin America in 2019, as a result of what we have previously referred to as a ‘Second Cold War’ between the United States and China. The region was compelled to come up with an answer to this competition among the Great Powers, as both Washington and Beijing pressed Latin American states to side with them on various issues. ANA takes a page from the Non Aligned Movement (NAM) that arose in the 1950s and 1960s.

At the time, the newly independent countries of Africa, Asia and the Caribbean as they struggled to come to terms with the tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, opted for their own, autonomous course, and refused to take sides in that dispute. But ANA adapts non-alignment to the realities of the new century, one in which, as mentioned above, a poverty-stricken Third World has been replaced by a new, dynamic South. Now, collective financial statecraft stands for the diplomatie des cahiers des doleances of yesteryear, and new multilateral development banks like the Asian Investment and Infrastructure Bank (AIIB) and the New Development Bank (the so-called BRICS Bank) compete with the traditional, Western-dominated Bretton Woods institutions like the World Bank and the IMF.

In a series of journal articles, and eventually in a co-edited edited volume (whose paperback came out last month), entitled: Latin American Foreign Policies in the New World Order: The Active Non-Alignment Option, I, together with Carlos Fortin – an expert of the political economy of globalisation, and Carlos Ominami – a former economic affairs minister of Chile, have set forth what we consider to be the way forward for Latin America, a region hit hard by two major crises: the Covid-19 pandemic and the worst economic downturn of the region in more than a century.

It was the urgency of the Latin American crisis and the region’s growing marginalization from world affairs that led us to put together this volume. The project resonated so much that five former foreign ministers and a serving one from leading countries in the region contributed chapters to it.

Taking a page from the NAM traditions, but adapting them to the realities of the new century – one in which there are many more options available, ANA argues for putting the national interest front and centre. This interest has a strong economic development component, and should not allow the foreign policies of these countries to be swayed by pressures from the Great Powers. It thus requires high analytical capabilities to evaluate each international issue on its merits and proceed accordingly. ANA, however, should not be confused with neutrality, a legal term that usually conveys the position of states that are non-belligerent in times of armed conflict. Neither should it be defined as equidistance between the Great Powers, that is, as always aiming for a middle ground between the Great Powers. On the contrary, ANA is a dynamic concept that allows nations to stand closer to one of the Great Powers on some issues, and to another on a different set of issues.

Yet, perhaps the defining feature of ANA is its pro-active character, defined as its constant search for new opportunities in a rapidly changing world order. Much as traditional non-alignment was marked by the natural defensiveness of post-colonial states coming into their own in the international community and still finding their feet in the perilous land of Great Power and Cold War politics, ANA reflects a more confident behaviour of countries with both more established foreign policy traditions and greater economic heft. Brazil under President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s third term (2023-2027) is a good example of this.

In his first year in office, President Lula undertook a major peace initiative in Ukraine; hosted a South American presidential summit (the first to be held in the subregion in almost a decade); hosted a summit of the Amazonian Basin Organization; visited twenty-four different countries; and geared up to host the G20 summit in 2024 and the COP28 in 2025. ANA stresses regional cooperation and collective action, and looks for ways to stand up for the interests of countries that have too long been agenda-takers rather than agenda-setters, which is exactly what Brazil’s activities reflect.

Though initially launched in Latin America, ANA quickly caught on elsewhere. The February 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine – though rightly condemned by a vast majority of UN member states – also witnessed the refusal of most of these countries to further enlarging an already massive unilateral Western sanction system often targeting states and societies in the Global South, to support the unilateral Western sanctions against Russia, and a rebirth of the very notion of non-alignment, in Africa and in Asia. This has been led by countries like South Africa, India (which has refused to openly condemn the Russian invasion) and Vietnam. The latter boasts of its ‘bamboo diplomacy,’ balancing good relations with Washington, Beijing, and Moscow. The Western attempt to make a European war into a true global war, one in which every state should partake, was roundly rejected.

These heated debates in Latin America, exacerbated by the refusal of governments like those of Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Colombia in January 2023 to provide weapons to Ukraine at the formal request of the US and Germany, vividly illustrate a profound misunderstanding of the evolving shift in world affairs in our time. Why should Latin America get involved in a European war just because NATO members asked them to do so?

ANA is the best tool to confront external pressures such as these. It sends a clear message: pressures to fall in line with any of the Great Powers will not be welcomed — on the contrary, they will elicit pushback from states in the Global South. In turn, ambivalence on one’s foreign policy stance leaves states open to persistent pressures and conflicts. Fully aligned countries, on the other hand, do not even evaluate what their own interests would dictate on any given issue. They simply follow instructions from whatever foreign capital they side with.

The views and opinions expressed in the CGO blog posts are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the programme and its partners.
j heine

Jorge Heine is a research professor at the Pardee School of Global Studies and interim director of the Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future at Boston University. The paperback edition of his book, co-edited with Carlos Fortin and Carlos Ominami, Latin American Foreign Policies in the New World Order: The Active Non-Alignment Option, was published by Anthem Press in January 2024.