The War in Ukraine and the Active Non-Alignment Option

July 03, 2022

About the author:

Jorge Heine, Research Professor, Pardee School of Global Studies, Boston University; Non-Resident Global Fellow, The Wilson Center; Former Ambassador of Chile to China (2014-2017)


The war in Ukraine is a turning point in world affairs. As the bloodiest confrontation in Europe since World War Two, and with no end in sight, it has brought the horrors of war back to a continent that many thought had left them long behind. Amidst the destruction, deaths and human suffering conveyed worldwide on the evening news from a land that is at the very core of the Eurasian landmass, “the World Island,” in the expression of Halford Mackinder, commentators have seen a silver lining: “the return of the West.”1 By this, they mean the unity of purpose and common will shown by NATO and other members of the hegemonic coalition led by the United States, like Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea, in supporting Ukraine. The swiftness with which the U.S. Congress approved a $40 billion package in mostly military aid to Ukraine is emblematic of this. The same goes for other massive transfers of heavy weapons from European countries to Ukraine. 


After what many perceived to be President Trump’s doubts about the wisdom of the US commitment to NATO, this has brought fresh energy and resolve to a Western alliance that in recent years had been known more for its internal bickering than anything else. Less convincing, though, are grander claims made about the effects of the Ukraine war on world order. To argue, as some have, that the war has brought to the fore the cleavage between democracy and authoritarianism as the main one in today’s world, is not accurate. Some of the world’s largest democracies, like India, Brazil, Indonesia, South Africa, and Mexico, have taken a studiously neutral stance on the war. In fact, if we add up the countries that have not sided with the West on this issue, they represent more than half of the world’s population. 


Over the past few years, a rapprochement between India and the United States took place. Prime Minister Modi and President Trump hit it off and exchanged visits in quick succession. PM Modi also visited the White House, invited by President Biden to take part in the first summit of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the Quad) in 2021. India holds center stage in the US Indo-Pacific strategy, Washington’s top foreign policy priority. Yet, India refused to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and is keen to buy more, not less, oil from Russia, despite the imposition of US sanctions on trade with Moscow. India discovered its Non-Aligned roots, and, in Europe’s biggest crisis since World War Two, acted accordingly.


Seventeen African countries, most prominently South Africa, abstained in the UN General Assembly vote on the issue. And many more, that voted in favor of condemning the invasion, have opposed the imposition of Western sanctions on Russia, fully aware that more people will die from hunger across the Global South from these sanctions than will in the war in Ukraine. According to the United Nations, 13.1 million people could go hungry because of the war. In Latin America, the leaders of the largest nations - Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico - have proclaimed their neutrality in the Ukraine conflict. Two of them made state visits to Moscow shortly before the war erupted. The Brazilian President said he was there “in solidarity” with Russia. 


In the past few years, Latin American countries have found themselves between a rock and a hard place, as they try to navigate the choppy waters of U.S.-China tensions. Issues like infrastructure projects, digital connectivity and the deployment of 5G technology have been at the forefront of these tensions, with Washington pressuring Latin American countries not to do business with China. Revealingly, even in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic and an economic recession, several Latin American governments from the Right, Left, and Center have walked the fine line that allowed them to keep their eyes on their own interests, without letting themselves be cajoled into mechanically siding either with Washington or with Beijing.


Exhibit A of this approach was what happened in late 2021, with the Summit for Democracies held in Washington DC on December 8-10, and the China-CELAC Ministerial Forum held in Mexico City on December 2-3. The overwhelming majority of Latin American countries participated in both meetings and saw no contradiction in doing so.2 Why should they?


The Active Non-Alignment Option


Welcome to Non-Alignment 2.0, or, as my colleagues Carlos Fortín and Carlos Ominami and I call it in our recent book, Active Non-Alignment and Latin America: A Doctrine for the New Century, Active Non-Alignment (ANA).3 As the world stumbles towards the Second Cold War, developing nations realize that if they want to safeguard their autonomy, the last thing they need to do is to align themselves with either of the great powers.




ANA draws on the honorable traditions of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), championed by the likes of Nehru, Nasser and Sukarno in the fifties and sixties. It is also inspired by the “autonomy school” in the Latin American International Relations literature, by scholars like Brazilian Helio Jaguaribe and Argentine Juan Carlos Puig. Mostly, though, it recognizes what the World Bank has called the “Wealth Shift” from the North Atlantic to the Asia-Pacific that has taken place in the new century.


In 2050, the top three economies will be China, India, and the U.S., in that order. Of the Top Ten economies in the world in 2050, seven will be non-Western ones. The diplomacy of the cahiers des doleances of the old Third World has been replaced by what Roberts, Armijo and Katada refer to as “collective financial statecraft.”4 This is epitomized by new multinational development banks like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the New Development Bank (NDB, the so-called “BRICS bank”) that have opened new vistas for countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.


The strengthening of regional mechanisms, a commitment to multilateralism, to regional coordination in global economic governance, and a reorientation of Latin American foreign policies towards these new realities, are all part of the measures needed to advance this Active Non-Alignment agenda.


The reactions across the Global South to the war in Ukraine and the subsequent Western sanctions on Russia showed that the Active Non-Alignment foreign policy option is by no means limited to Latin America. It has also gained traction in Africa and Asia, which is where the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) was originally born, mainly under the leadership of Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. The initial ANA proposal was largely driven by the impact on third parties of U.S.-China tensions, and what we refer to as an incipient Second Cold War between Washington and Beijing. The current U.S.-Russia conflict playing out in Ukraine has its own features, which are different from the former, but does share some common elements, including what has been dubbed “the West versus the Rest” dynamics.5


A key role in this is played by an informal group, an entity that is willfully ignored by Western media and opinion-makers, that is, the BRICS. The latter brings together Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, in a group that has held yearly summits since 2009, that has its own bank - the New Development Bank, NDB, founded in 2015, headquartered in Shanghai, and with a capital of $50 billion, that has lent $15 billion by now, and that is well-evaluated by credit-rating agencies. The BRICS has positioned itself as a critical interlocutor and voice within the Global South, creating links and networks among these non-Western heavyweights that cut across ideology. With the possibility of further expansion by adding other G20 members from the developing world, like Argentina and Indonesia, the BRICS embodies the New South that has emerged in the new century.6


In turn, this leads us to another critical element in the rise of the ANA option. There is little doubt that the United States has many advantages in its competition with China for the hearts and minds of people in the developing world. These include the primacy of the US dollar in the international financial system; its extensive alliances; and its dominance of the Bretton Woods institutions. Yet, as C. Fred Bergsten has observed, “China…may have more capability in the development finance arena than in any other.”7 Thus, the plethora of Chinese international institutional initiatives in this area: the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), the NDB, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and the Chiang Mai Initiative Multilateralization (CMIM). At a time when in Africa, Asia, and Latin America the critical issue - perhaps more than any other - is development, this puts China in a strong position, if not necessarily in the driver’s seat, in this competition.


ANA does not mean neutrality


Active Non-Alignment does not mean neutrality. The latter, by definition, entails an unwillingness to take positions on international matters. Switzerland, with its unwillingness to join the EU and, until 2002, even the United Nations, epitomizes this policy, although it may be worth noting that it has strayed from it in the case of the war in Ukraine. The ANA foreign policy option does not mean refusing to have a posture on certain international issues. What it signifies is a refusal to align automatically with one or another of the major powers. It means that governments will put their own national interests front and center, rather than those of foreign powers. In the heydays of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), non-alignment meant, at a bare minimum, not joining military alliances of either superpower, i.e., the United States or the Soviet Union. In the new century, in a much more globalized and interdependent world, a more flexible approach may be needed. India, the birthplace of non-alignment, is a case in point.


As mentioned above, India is a member of the Quad, a military alliance that brings together the United States, Japan, Australia, and India, an entity that was given a strong boost under President Trump, and even more so under President Biden. Yet, it is also a member of the BRICS and has not only refused to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine but has also opposed sanctions on Russia and has increased its purchases of (heavily discounted) Russian oil in the wake of the war.


In short, the war in Ukraine marks a before and after in world affairs. As often happens, it is the German language that provides us with the best way to describe it - a Zeitenwende, an epochal change. It is only fitting that at such a moment an emerging Global South takes a page from the initial stirrings of the post-colonial movement, adapts it to the challenges of the new century and embraces Active Non-Alignment in its various forms and incarnations.



1. H. J. Mackinder, “The Geographical Pivot of History,” The Geographical Journal 23, no. 4 (April 1904): 421–37,

2. Catherine Osborn, “Latin America Could Profit from US-China Competition,” Foreign Policy, December 10, 2021,

3. Carlos Fortín, Jorge Heine, and Carlos Ominami, El No Alineamiento Activo y América Latina: Una doctrina para el nuevo siglo (Santiago, Chile: Catalonia, 2021).

4. Cynthia Roberts, Saori N Katada, and Leslie Elliott Armijo, The BRICS and Collective Financial Statecraft (New York: Oxford University Press. C, 2017).

5. Angela Stent, “The West vs. the Rest: Welcome to the 21st Century Cold War,” Foreign Policy, May 2, 2022,

6. Jorge Heine, “How Many BRICS in the Wall?,” Global Times, June 1, 2022,

7. Carl Fred Bergsten, The United States vs. China the Quest for Global Economic Leadership (Cambridge, Polity, 2022).


Please note: The above contents only represent the views of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views or positions of Taihe Institute.


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