Non-Alignment is Back in the Global South, Albeit in a Different Incarnation

Brasília, Brazil. Photo by Alline Cabral via Unsplash.

By Jorge Heine

Six weeks after taking office, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (“Lula”) visited the United States, where he was warmly received by President Joe Biden at the White House. Biden famously was one of the very first foreign heads of state to congratulate Lula on his election last October, they know each other well and share many common concerns. The fight against climate change and the protection of the Amazon were high on their agenda, as was the safeguarding of democratic institutions, threatened by both of their respective predecessors in the two largest democracies of the Americas.

Yet, they disagreed on one thing: Russia and the war in Ukraine.

While the United States would like Brazil (and other Latin American countries) to provide weapons to Ukraine, Brazil not only refuses to do so, but would like to mediate in the conflict with Russia—Washington will have none of that. In fact,  the unwillingness of Brazil to stand with the Group of Seven (G7) against Russia in this war is one of the few foreign policy issues in which there is continuity between Bolsonaro and Lula, much to the chagrin of Western capitals.

President Biden has argued that the war in Ukraine reflects what Washington considers the main international schism in the world today, namely, the one between democracies and autocracies, a perspective echoed in Europe. Given the traditional commitment to international law, and to the principles of national sovereignty and non-intervention existing in Latin America, a region with an overwhelming majority of democratic regimes, one would have expected a similar reaction to that of the United States and Europe.

This has not been the case.

Although no Latin American countries voted against the resolution to condemn the Russian invasion at the UN General Assembly in March 2022, nine countries abstained and three voted against a subsequent resolution to suspend Russia from the UN Human Rights Council. No Latin American country has supported the diplomatic and economic sanctions on Russia promoted by the United States and the European Union. The presidents of Argentina, Brazil and Mexico, although condemning the Russian invasion, have expressed their neutrality in the conflict.

What explains this apparently counterintuitive behavior of some of the main countries in the region?

Our new book, Latin American Foreign Policies in the New World Order: The Active Non-Alignment Option, published by Anthem Press provides an answer to this question. The concept of ‘Active Non-Alignment’ emerged in 2019 and was further developed in 2020 and 2021 as a guide to action and a framework for understanding Latin American countries’ approaches to the challenges posed by the US-China competition and has been described as Latin America’s “most significant foreign policy development since the end of the Cold War.” The clearest expression of these challenges was the pressure exercised by the Trump administration on Latin American countries to cut or reduce their business ties with China, which found little audience or success in the region.

Active Non-Alignment (ANA) calls on Latin American governments to not accept a priori the positions of any of the Great Powers in conflict. They must act, instead, in defense of their own national interest, without giving in to pressures from hegemonic powers.

The term “active” refers to a foreign policy in constant search of opportunities in a changing world, evaluating each of them on their merits. It recognizes the historical roots of the policy of Non-Alignment but adapts it to the 21st century. It requires an especially nimble foreign policy, one attuned to the many risks in the current international environment.

Reactions across the Global South to the war in Ukraine and to Western sanctions against Russia show that ANA is not limited to Latin America. Some of the world’s largest democracies, like India, South Africa, Indonesia and Pakistan, have stayed studiously neutral, leading to the conclusion that the real cleavage in the international system exposed by the war is not the one between democracies and autocracies, but rather the one between the Global North and the Global South.

It has been said that Latin America’s non-aligned stance on such a significant issue risks making the region irrelevant. In fact, the opposite is true. From a strictly prudential perspective, the notion that backing one side in a European war with an uncertain outcome, for the sake of placating Washington and Brussels, is a questionable proposition. Far from risking irrelevancy, Lula’s stance on the urgent need for the international community to mediate an end to the war, as opposed to the Western stance of “weakening Russia permanently,” shows precisely what Active Non-Alignment is all about: not just resisting pressure to side with the Great Powers, but putting forth constructive solutions to foster world peace.

Read the Book


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