Although the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) continues to exist to this day—indeed, the eighteenth summit was held in Baku, Azerbaijan from 25–26 October 2019—it can be argued that its relevance faded with the end of the Cold War around 1989. The wars of the Yugoslav succession from 1991 to 1999 also meant that a key founding member, socialist Yugoslavia, ceased to exist, splitting into several, contested, sovereign nation-states. In much of the post-Yugoslav space, NAM has been actively forgotten, at least at the level of formal politics, or else misappropriated by “observers” from the region keen to cloak their identitarian nationalist politics in a shroud of internationalist credibility. Nevertheless, recent years have witnessed a resurgence of scholarly and activist interest in NAM, understood as a very different globalization to the contemporary neoliberal one. A focus on NAM in the Cold War period is of much more than mere historical import. Rather, revisiting NAM and its “afterlives” offers a unique prism through which to address economic, political, social, and cultural imaginaries that challenged a dominant hegemonic order, reworked “core-periphery” relations and—crucially—advocated for self-determination free from the influence of one or other of the Cold War power blocs, led, respectively, by the United States and the Soviet Union.
Paul Stubbs is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Economics in Zagreb, Croatia.
This essay focuses on elements from NAM that are relevant to contemporary left, progressive, internationalism. It is an attempt at a work of recovery, reframing and remembering, a kind of conjunctural translation that does not suggest linear “lessons to be learned” but is a humble offering for a renewed internationalist ethics and politics of emancipatory solidarity, a “technique of negotiation and a strategy of survival” that “makes things otherwise-accessible”. What is, perhaps, of greatest interest here is how so many aspects of historical non-alignment resonate with theoretical and political debates on the Left today that are often presented as new: post-coloniality, anti-racism, intersectionality, and global social justice to name a few. Of course, there are many dangers in moving across time and space in this way—not least in terms of a hagiographic treatment of NAM that plays down its instrumentalities, contradictions, and silences—and, given my own situatedness within a historical sociology of socialist Yugoslavia and post-Yugoslav New Left activism, a failure to decenter Yugoslavia’s role in the midst of a continued fascination with its ambivalent positionality and “liminal hegemony” at the expense of perspectives more firmly rooted in the anti-colonial struggles of African, Asian and Latin American states.
Decolonialism and Anti-Racism
The Non-Aligned Movement was, from its very beginnings, both a product of and catalyst for the struggle against, and emergence out of, colonialism. A short history would focus on the rapid progress between the Conference of Asian and African states in Bandung, Indonesia in April 1955, the meeting between Tito, Nasser and Nehru on the island of Brijuni in July 1956, and the first summit of the Non-Aligned in Belgrade from 1–5 September 1961. A deeper, broader, and longer perspective on non-alignment and decolonialism would include a focus on the Congress Against Colonial Oppression and Imperialism held in Brussels in February 1927, leading to the formation of the League Against Imperialism and Colonial Oppression, as well as the Pan-African congresses organized by W.E.B. Dubois in the nine years before the Brussels congress.
It could be argued that the inexorable connection between anti-colonial, anti-imperialist, and anti-capitalist struggle was sacrificed in the context of the rise of Stalinism, with non-alignment instead emphasizing the inalienable right of “self-determination” and choice of development paths for new sovereign states. NAM advocated for independence for all colonial states, however small; supported, to some extent, those fighting against colonial domination; and even warned of the dangers of an institutionalized and internalized neo-colonialism. At the same time, the Yugoslav emphasis on “deideologization” and the avoidance of any hint of “radicalism and extremism” actually converged with India’s view that the phrase “the elimination of colonialism” in the draft communiqué from the Belgrade conference was “too strong”, although Tito remained frustrated with what he saw as Nehru’s residual loyalty to the British.
While it is possible to label the establishment of socialist Yugoslavia as a product of “anti-colonial struggle”, Yugoslavia’s support for the Global South derives as much, if not more, from former Partisan fighters’ affective affinities with guerrilla liberation movements as from a theoretical stance emphasizing the inter-connectedness between political independence and anti-imperialism. Kirn is, certainly, correct to see the intertwining of anticolonial and non-aligned emancipatory practices as having “opened new horizons and nurtured revolutionary political subjectivity on a global scale”. As such, this element of non-aligned internationalism merits a significant afterlife in the rather recent concern with the inter-connections between European and non-European socialist and post-socialist peripheries and postcolonial states.
Crucially for contemporary left internationalism, NAM’s focus on North-South relations included a strong and long-standing critique of racism and apartheid, particularly in South Africa. Samora Machel reinforced the movement’s view of apartheid as “an institutional form of violation of all human rights” at the eighth non-aligned summit in Harare, Zimbabwe in September 1986, and called for more support for the African National Congress and other democratic forces “in the implementation of their anti-racist policy”. The racialized politics of socialist Yugoslavia vis-à-vis the Movement is a controversial topic. Catherine Baker situates Yugoslav anti-colonialism within a set of profoundly ambiguous geopolitical and racialized identifications: as inside and outside of Europe, as outside of or as a victim of colonialism, as white but “not quite”, and as more developed or similarly underdeveloped in relation to other NAM member-states.
Global Socio-Economic Justice
In forms that prefigure contemporary debates, NAM had a focus, particularly in the context of the rise of globalized neoliberalism in the 1970s, on global socio-economic justice—albeit seeking, once again, to balance what were perceived as “radical” and “moderate” voices within it. The third NAM summit in Lusaka, Zambia in September 1970 noted “that the poverty of developing nations and their economic dependence on those in affluent circumstances constitute a structural weakness in the present world economic order.” It argued that “the persistence of an inequitable world economic system inherited from the colonial past and continued through present neocolonialism poses insurmountable difficulties in breaking the bondage of poverty and shackles of economic dependence”, and urged the UN “to employ international machinery to bring about a rapid transformation of the world economic system, particularly in the field of trade, finance and technology, so that economic domination yields to economic co-operation and economic strength is used for the benefit of the world community”.
At the same time, Yugoslavia was at the forefront of a more moderate position, with Leo Mates arguing that “the gulf between the North and the South … is not a conflict of antagonistic social forces but rather a dispute between categories of countries having different immediate interests, but common long-term interests.” The argument seemed to be for a scaling up of the Yugoslav miracle of industrialization, modernization of agriculture, export-led growth, and a focus on those goods whose price ratios in the market were more favourable to exporting nations. Twin-track developmentalism was the method of choice, advocating for fairer trading relations for the majority of “developing countries”, and grant aid for the “least developed”. A Yugoslav Briefing Paper written ahead of the Algiers summit in 1973 stated: “As a socialist non-aligned developing country Yugoslavia … holds the position that the main responsibility for socio-economic development rests with the developing countries themselves and their national efforts in terms of developmental goals”.
The oil price shocks of the early 1970s also tested the movement’s unity, with Tito arguing for oil-rich countries to invest in a fund to help the twenty-five least developed countries. He had one eye on Yugoslavia’s own situation, calling for wider debt write-offs and special incentives for Yugoslav companies to trade with the least developed. Calls for a “liberalization of market relations” and emphasis on regionalization of trade and priority to infrastructural projects with “greater opportunities for short-term accumulation” linked socialist Yugoslavia’s vision of an emerging international economic order with economic policies at home. Notwithstanding Yugoslav instrumentalism, NAM as a whole did manage to shift the global debate—to an extent—from oil to the price of all raw materials, as well as open up issues of global finance, monetary policy, the role of multinational corporations, and access to scientific and technical innovation.
A confluence between “socialist” and “neoclassical” globalization was institutionalized, to an extent, in the G-77, UNCTAD, the UN Economic Commission for Europe (headed by Yugoslav diplomats from 1960 to 1982), and crucially in what become known as the New International Economic Order (NIEO). This adhered to what has been described as an evolutionist and state-centred vision of development, prefiguring the contradictions of contemporary debates around “sustainable development”, albeit with silence on climate change and planetary boundaries. While pushing neither self-management nor the Yugoslav social welfare model, visions of socio-economic justice, articulating forms of regulation, rights, and redistribution prefigured a space that, while not fully global, was far more than merely regional.
For a Peaceful, Non-Nuclear World
A day before the opening of the Belgrade Conference, the Soviet Union exploded a nuclear device in the Arctic Circle, announcing the start of a new test programme. There could be no starker reminder of the importance of opposing the division of the world into two powerful blocs and of the role of NAM as a “moral force”advocating for “general and complete disarmament”. NAM’s commitment to challenging superpower nuclear hegemony and an end to militarism and the arms race was linked firmly to the principles of self-determination, non-interference in other states, and, crucially, the freeing of resources spent on armaments for social and economic needs. At the same time, of course, socialist Yugoslavia was selling its own weapons to NAM states and liberation movements, and acting as a conduit for other arms sales.
Among NAM’s founding principles, based on those developed in Bandung, is an emphasis on the peaceful resolution of all conflicts in conformity with the Charter of the United Nations. NAM’s stance on nuclear non-proliferation and peaceful conflict resolution was always a combination of the principled and the pragmatic: sometimes offering support for armed struggles, all too often unable to broker peace when conflict broke out in or between NAM member-states, and inconsistent in defence of countries faced with military interference by the Soviet Union, the United States, China, and indeed NAM member-state Cuba. Nevertheless, principled opposition to nuclear proliferation and armed conflicts is as relevant in today’s world as it was at the time of the Cold War as is the movement’s long-standing concern with the Palestinian question.
Reforming the United Nations
It is now commonplace to assert that progressive economic and social policies, as well as peace-building in an interconnected world, requires a fit-for-purpose system of global governance and that the United Nations, as currently constituted, falls far short of that. Tito’s statement to Haile Selassie that “half the UN is here”, made on the fringes of the fourth summit in Lusaka in 1970, was somewhat premature. By the Algiers summit three years later, 76 NAM member-states participated at a time when total UN membership was 135. NAM was never a “sub-United Nations”; rather, as Amílcar Cabral phrased it as early as 1964, NAM worked for the “liberation” of the UN and radical reform and renewal of its structures in order to turn “a giant with its hands tied” into a body serving “the noble causes of freedom, fraternity, progress, and happiness for mankind”. The 1970 Lusaka Statement on the United Nations framed the issues with some clarity: “The Conference is convinced that special attention should be paid to improving the capability of the United Nations to play an effective role in the economic and social fields …. The participating countries urge that further efforts be made to ensure equitable geographical representation in the various organs of the United Nations as in the specialized agencies”.
NAM focused on the need for the UN to be universal and its bodies representative, albeit at a time when international financial institutions were playing an ever more important—and unaccountable—role. In the face of veto powers in the Security Council, NAM advocated for an increase in the number of non-permanent members, an increase in the membership of Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), and greater powers for both the General Assembly and ECOSOC in relation to the Security Council. The establishment of the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in 1964, the prioritization of the principle of self-determination in the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and even the readmission of the People’s Republic of China to the UN in 1971 can all be traced to the lobbying and bloc voting of NAM member-states, who coordinated their actions prior to UN General Assemblies. The work of Yugoslav state-oriented feminists such as Vida Tomšič during the UN Decade for Women (1975-1985) also shows the importance of linking progressive demands on women’s rights, labour markets, and social welfare.
Non-Alignment from Below: Cultural Exchanges
Finally, it is important to recognize the importance of “non-alignment from below” in terms of “exchanges in the realm of science, art and culture, architecture and industry … with at least relative autonomy from the political master narrative”, as well as decades of student exchanges. First held in Ljubljana in 2019, the exhibition Southern Constellations focuses on the historical and contemporary importance of artistic exchanges challenging Western art hegemony and cultural imperialism, encouraging cultural pluralism and hybridity. Tracing non-aligned cultural networks in an era in which the post-Yugoslav space has been labelled “peripheral” in relation to an all-embracing “Europeanization” is an important work of recovery and remembering. Visible today in terms of acts of solidarity and support along the so-called “Balkan route”, what has been termed “the afterlives of Yugoslavia’s global Non-Aligned entanglements” continue to question a world dominated by borders and exclusions, and allow for a continued concern with “other horizons of aspirations and action” in which “another world is possible”.
Studying the Non-Aligned Movement during the Cold War helps to disrupt the dominant narrative that a bipolar world has been replaced by a multipolar system. Although the idea that a top-down constellation of neutralist nation-states has a monopoly on opposition to hegemonic threats to self-determination now appears rather outdated, the lessons of non-alignment can still inspire emancipatory imaginaries today. First and foremost, the framing of resistance to global disorder in terms of the importance of rebuilding a “loose worldwide network of internationalist and anti-imperialist movements” is an important lesson from NAM’s heyday. At the very least, NAM reminds us of the urgency of a multilateral international order based on commonly agreed rules, and of the need to “rock the boat” whenever the gap between the ideal and reality becomes intolerable. In today’s multi-superpower world, a restatement of “politicized neutrality” and internationalist solidarities that question Northern and Western hegemony (as well as the imperial ambitions of China and the Russian Federation) and are not based on misplaced claims to the “superiority” of Eurocentric concepts, traditions, and practices is surely more important than ever.
 I wish to thank Catherine Baker, Loren Balhorn, Bojan Bilić, Chiara Bonfiglioli, Agustín Cosovschi, David Henig, Rada Iveković, and Vladimir Unkovski-Korica for helpful comments on an earlier draft of this piece. Responsibility for what follows is, of course, mine alone.
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