Nonalignment emerged and developed in the years of the dominant bipolar pattern of great-power relations. It was a product of the rising tensions of the cold war and a reaction against the alignments formed at the end of the Second World War, when the split between East and West converted allies into rivals and then into enemies. It was the result of the desire to stay out of the developing conflict and have no part in the new alliances which later formalized the postwar division of the world. This desire was prompted not only by lack of affinity for the causes of the split, but also by the determination to preserve as much freedom of behavior in international relations as possible.

This attitude (which came to be termed nonalignment much later) reflected aspirations toward the greatest possible measure of independence, not only in international relations but even more in internal developments. From the very beginning the postwar period was characterized everywhere by an intense urge toward accelerated economic development. This craving was particularly strong in countries which, when they reemerged on the world scene as independent nations, had found themselves far behind those which were more industrially developed.

Unlike the first years of the past decade, the later sixties was a period in which cooperation among the nonaligned was at a low ebb even in matters connected with their own economic problems. In 1967 and 1968 a revival took place in connection with the second United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in New Delhi. Efforts were made, too, to plan for a third conference of the nonaligned as a sequel to the Bandung meeting in 1955 and the Cairo gathering in 1964.

Throughout the sixties the pattern of international relations changed profoundly. Its most significant aspects were the substantial lessening of tensions between the two superpowers and a loosening of ties within the two alliances. Though antagonism and rivalry between the two major powers remained, in practical matters they developed a better understanding of their problems. They recognized their mutual overkill capacity and on this recognition there developed a new modus vivendi. Indeed, they gradually became partners in a peculiar and quite unprecedented relationship. It appeared that their exalted position and the growth in their material strength, especially their military striking power, gave them an opportunity to preside over the affairs of mankind—provided they could work out an acceptable formula of cooperation.

But this trend, generally described as détente, did not bring about a general easing of tensions. Rather than opening an era of harmony and tranquility, it has been marked by a growth of disturbances, conflicts and upheavals, particularly in the third world. The major powers became entangled once again in conflicts and tense situations on all continents. But even when they faced each other as opponents, they never permitted themselves to be provoked into a degree of hostility comparable to the confrontation in the war in Korea in the early fifties. Moreover, they had to face new situations as they arose without the backing of their allies. In the war in Vietnam, the United States lacked the moral support and troop contributions from its allies which it had had in the war in Korea. The Soviet Union had to face China without the unwavering assistance of its allies in the Warsaw Pact.

The ability of the superpowers to influence the behavior of other and much less powerful states did not grow with the increasing superiority of their military power. Colonial empires crumbled at a time when the metropolitan powers had far greater material superiority than when they were establishing their empires through conquest. Moreover, a determination to strive for emancipation increased even among peoples who had not hitherto shown an inclination toward militancy.

It was in these general circumstances that a third power—China—started its ascent and began to seek recognition as a major world leader. China's challenge started with a split and confrontation within the Eastern bloc, in part due to the decline in cohesion in the bloc which accompanied the East-West détente, in part an escalation of a long-standing rivalry between Russia and China, and in part an expression of the ancient ambitions of a country which once considered itself the central power of the world. In any case, the strife has now intensified to the point where a reconciliation, in the sense of China's return to the fold under Soviet hegemony, appears impossible.

China's conflict with the U.S.S.R. was marked by acrimonious invective and hostility, yet at the same time it implied a recognition of affinity. The exaggerated accusation of collusion with "American imperialism" would have made no sense except on the assumption that the Soviet Union was ideologically related to Peking. Obviously the accusation was made in the hope it would create political and psychological difficulties for the U.S.S.R. in its pursuit of a rapprochement with the United States.


The emergence of China as an independent and undoubtedly major power made it even more difficult for the nonaligned countries to adjust to the great changes introduced by the détente and the ensuing local and regional disturbances. All earlier hopes of the third world proved greatly exaggerated if not altogether erroneous. The détente brought neither more stability and security for the less developed and militarily weak nonaligned countries nor economic aid in larger quantities. The position of these in the world market became still more unfavorable. Moreover, China, the major new power, had risen from the ranks of the less developed countries; she had been a partner in the first efforts to rally the underprivileged peoples in Bandung in 1955 under the banner of Afro-Asian cooperation, primarily with the aim of improving the lot of the new countries both politically and economically. Now China had, in a sense, defected from the group of nonaligned nations.

The conference of the leaders of the nonaligned countries in Cairo in 1964 demonstrated the internal differences provoked by these new circumstances. The divergences at Cairo had a dramatic follow-up at the end of the year when Indonesia, one of the "radicals" at Cairo, temporarily abandoned nonalignment and left the United Nations. However, the consequences predicted in Djakarta and Peking, i.e. the breaking up of the non-aligned group and the collapse of the United Nations, did not occur; nor did the idea of a new international organization under the leadership of Peking and with headquarters in Indonesia prove more than a dream. This was, nevertheless, the most extreme crisis the nonaligned group had yet undergone.

It is important to establish whether or not this crisis, which was felt for years after the debates in Cairo, resulted from the disappearance of the raison d'être of nonalignment or because of difficulties of a temporary nature. As already stated, critics have always thought that nonalignment had no prospect because of its insistence on standing aloof from the general trend of alignment around the major powers. In fact, the alliances proved to be less attractive to outside states than was at first believed. There have been defections from the ranks of the nonaligned but not to either bloc. Moreover, the overwhelming majority of new states that attained independence in the sixties, like those in the fifties, supported the nonaligned group.

However, the East-West détente brought hesitation and discord into the camp of nonaligned countries exactly at a time when the cohesion among them should have increased. They themselves were as surprised as the rest of the world to observe signs of disintegration following the reduction in tensions between the two blocs. This unexpected result provoked a new definition of the alleged impracticability of nonalignment. It was stated that the end of the cold war would remove the need for any nation to be nonaligned since no rigid alignment would be possible after the loosening of ties within the two blocs.

But actually the détente did not develop along expected lines; it caused no general relaxation of tensions. Furthermore, the nonaligned did not abandon their sense of belonging to a distinct category of states; nonalignment remained alive as an article of faith, as the expression of identification with a separate and distinct position in international relations. This was best exemplified by the renewal of activity among the nonaligned countries in 1969. The crisis was not characterized by the loss of a sense of belonging. Rather it was a crisis of inactivity caused by frustration and by the search for a line of action which would promise results. It was not a decline in the will to cooperate.

The emphasis on staying out of cold-war alliances, the literal interpretation of the word "nonalignment," had led to the continued insistence that the nonaligned countries act as intermediaries between the two sides even when this was no longer necessary. It led to the insistence on the need to abolish the blocs at a time when the two alliances were neither the main cause of tension nor a threat to the independence and welfare of the less developed countries. Most of the statesmen of the nonaligned countries, however, did not pay enough attention to the shifts in the world situation to realize this.

The one attempt to explain the changes taking place had no decisive impact on the policies of the group as a whole. It was a statement made by President Tito of Jugoslavia before the plenary meeting of the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York in October 1963. The passage referring to these problems is rather general but still sufficiently clear to show an understanding of the changing circumstances. He emphasized that "nonalignment is thus changing, both in quantitative and in qualitative terms, and is transforming itself into a general movement for peace. . . ." Tito even went so far as to suggest that the very term "nonalignment" was being "overcome by new and positive developments in international relations." He was aware that "we stand at a historical crossroads." This did not mean abandoning nonalignment but rather adjusting the concept to the new conditions that prevailed.

For despite the changes in the world power structure, the non-aligned countries had good reason to continue to feel that they were a separate species among nations. They were no longer needed as the promoters of the détente; indeed they suffered from its becoming a reality, and were frequently the battleground of new clashes. India had a confrontation with China on the mountain ranges of the Himalayas and a second war over Kashmir; Egypt had two outbreaks of war with Israel; Ghana and Indonesia were shaken by coups d'état; and Sukarno and Nkrumah, two of the distinguished leaders of nonalignment, were deposed. The intervention in Vietnam, which continued over long years, as well as the interventions in the Dominican Republic and Czechoslovakia, were additional signs that the nonaligned could not assume the role of a third party but had to reorient their line of action. They could no longer blame the blocs or cold-war tensions for the insecurity of small nations.

Moreover, the appearance of China on the stage introduced another complicating factor. The comparatively simple pattern of the cold war made understanding and coördination among the nonaligned relatively easy. In the new situation there was no such certainty. For instance, when the nonaligned launched a campaign to stop the war in Vietnam, it gathered little momentum. Only 17 countries signed the letter of April 1965, sent to the governments of the United States, the Soviet Union, China, France, Britain and to all parties in Vietnam. The situation was no longer so clearly defined as it had been during the cold war. One of the disorienting elements was the divergent assessment of the role and position of China. Politically it was considered a potential ally of the third world by some of the nonaligned, while others saw in it another disturbing element for domination in the world.

China, of course, did not have the military capacity to threaten either of the two thermonuclear superpowers, but it could and did successfully defy both of them. The superpowers themselves, though for different reasons, were not able to use their tremendous striking forces in open military conflict. Thus, a new pattern came to replace the earlier bipolar pattern. And other nations, allies of the big powers, nonaligned countries, or those living in the shadow of power, formed a background of considerable significance to the new triangular constellation. The divergence in the ranks of the nonaligned grew substantially; and this was particularly felt at the time of the second nonaligned summit in the fall of 1964, when China tried to outmaneuvre the nonaligned by efforts to convene a second Afro- Asian conference in Algeria.

The influence of China in the third world has since dropped substantially. But the triangularity of the pattern of power politics has remained an important element—even during those years of the Cultural Revolution when China turned in upon itself. For the nonaligned, it became increasingly difficult to play the role of moderator or mediator; such a role in the triangular pattern proved beyond the diplomatic skills of the nonaligned and may well be altogether impossible.

The change also affected the position of the major powers. They experienced a significant decline in influence, even over minor allies who were thought to be utterly dependent. The United States could not prevent the defection of Cuba, and the Soviet Union was unable to control Albania. Moreover, the individual major powers proved to be unable to impress their less powerful friends and influence their policies even when serious efforts were made either individually or in concert with others. The latest example is the war in the Middle East. American and Soviet policies did occasionally arrive at certain agreed points; but it was impossible to carry them out in view of the opposition of the states in the Middle East directly involved.

The ability to resist outside pressure, the ability to survive against incomparably more powerful military forces, as in Vietnam or Algeria, has introduced new elements into the relations between states and peoples. We should therefore approach the problem of the possible influence and role of the nonaligned countries in the light of these observations.


The nonaligned countries have never influenced international developments by relying on their military or economic resources. Their military capability is mostly of a strictly defensive character. They can sustain heavy military pressure and survive, but they are not likely to be efficient in offensive actions. This is probably one of the explanations of why they have felt and continue to feel secure without seeking formal protection in military alliance or from either of the two major nuclear powers.

India has had no reason to abandon its nonalignment because of the military conflict with China. Although the Chinese pushed back the Indian army from its positions at the border, they knew that this should not be confused with the bigger issue of the conquest of India. The cases of Algeria and Vietnam have had a profound effect upon a world already inclined to discount military reconquest of the lost colonial empires.

But the nonaligned counted on another factor even more. The major powers proved rather sensitive to repercussions of their behavior which occurred in the third world. One should not overestimate this factor, for no truly great power would jeopardize its vital interest because of loss in influence or prestige; nevertheless, the role of these imponderables should also not be underestimated. The Soviet Union may have been ready to sacrifice its prestige and influence in many places in the world when it decided to invade Czechoslovakia, but it made great efforts later to minimize the damage as much as possible.

Though public opinion has less influence within the U.S.S.R. than in the United States, some signs of dissatisfaction and protest were evident in Russia following the occupation of Czechoslovakia. But while the feelings of the Soviet masses could probably not be wholly ignored it is doubtful whether expressions of dissent did, or could in the future, influence the Soviet government's conduct of foreign affairs. However, the Soviets are not indifferent to the impact of public opinion in certain circles outside Russia. Of these, two are most important as areas where the Soviet government seeks approval and where dissent causes embarrassment. The first is, of course, the world communist movement The second is among the nonaligned countries in the third world.

The limits of the Soviet Union's economic development and the exigencies of its internal needs have markedly reduced its economic impact on less developed countries. Furthermore, its restricted ability to deploy classical expeditionary forces in remote places of the world where it might like to back up one side or the other makes it imperative for it to strengthen its global role by cultivating ideological and political bonds with the leftist movements in the third world. This also helps to explain the extraordinary bitterness of the polemics between the Soviet Union and China. It has been caused not so much by the territorial dispute as by China's attempt to replace the Soviet Union as the center of the world communist movement and to take over the leadership of the third world.

Thus, the nonaligned countries can, at least to some extent, influence the attitude of one or possibly both of the major powers. The ability to influence the behavior of the United States is less significant, but should not be ruled out. China's emergence from its self-imposed isolation during the Cultural Revolution opens up new possibilities in this respect.

The nonaligned temporarily exercised some influence on the Soviet Union's attitude in economic relations during the first UNCTAD conference in Geneva in 1964, but after the second one in Delhi four years later the U.S.S.R. became less sensitive to third-world problems. This very likely resulted from China's disappearance from the scene after the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution and also was connected with the failure of the third world to exact concessions from the West at Delhi. Lacking the competition of China and in view of the loss of influence of the nonaligned countries, the Soviet Union could temporarily disregard their vital interests. Further, the cautious and rather general expressions of disapproval that came from the nonaligned countries concerning the Soviet action in Czechoslovakia only increased Moscow's conviction that this element in world public opinion could be almost completely disregarded.

Recent developments have once again changed the atmosphere. In the first place, the opening of talks between the United States and the Soviet Union on strategic arms limitation demonstrates that the two superpowers understand certain vital questions of common interest. The opening of this dialogue was postponed by the crisis over Czechoslovakia, but it now looks as though there is a good prospect for the continuation and progress of these talks. Thus, a growing rapprochement has developed between two of the triangular powers. It started with their experiences in connection with the war in the Middle East and the war in Vietnam, neither of which produced exaggerated tensions between them.

The reactivation of China's world role after the Cultural Revolution has brought a new dimension to the relations between Moscow and Washington. The Soviet Union seized the opportunity after the death of Ho Chi Minh to start a dialogue with China over border questions before the beginning of the talks in Helsinki on arms reductions with the United States, At the same time, there were signs of a lessening of tensions between the United States and China with the reopening of ambassadorial contacts and the easing of American trade restrictions. China, on her part, initiated efforts to expand diplomatic relations with Western countries; even the normalization of relations with Jugoslavia was announced.

This favorable climate is not likely to last The détente within the Moscow-Washington-Peking triangle relies on the coincidence of a number of parallel developments. It would be wishful thinking to believe that it can remain a stable relationship among the three major powers. The same mechanics which have contributed to the détente could, at some future moment, produce the opposite effect.

There is and must be some interdependence in the behavior of the three pairs of partners. No one will permit too close a rapprochement between the other two. If such threatens, efforts will be made by the third power to drive them apart When this is not possible, the one which feels threatened with isolation will obviously try to repair its relations with the one or the other in order to avoid being left out in the cold. In this respect, a certain tendency to preserve the symmetry of the triangle develops. A rapprochement or disruption along one of the connecting lines tends to cause a reaction along the two other lines. For antagonism still divides all three powers.

Thus, the transformation of the bipolar into a triangular pattern does more than add one more contender at the summit. In the new triangular pattern a total breakdown of world order and a catastrophic nuclear war appear less likely. There is more room for maneuvring. There are more possible combinations, more variables which could be manipulated, more uncertainties which impose caution and restraint. Consequently there are better chances for the restoration of an equilibrium, since the threat always exists that one party will be outnumbered in a bilateral quarrel with the third party standing by. Such a pattern is not likely to produce lasting peace and harmony, but neither could the bipolar pattern. The more likely prospect would be an oscillation of periods of higher and lower tension within the triangle.

This triangle is an ominous reminder of the Orwellian vision of a world divided among three major powers and constantly at war, with two changing partners temporarily united against the third. In the reality of the contemporary world, though, there is a difference because we have the rest of the world in addition to the three major powers. This other group is of considerable consequence. Finally, while it is most unlikely that this group could be divided and absorbed into clearly defined spheres of influence by the major powers, neither should it be assumed that it could be totally ignored by them.


In the world today the trend toward emancipation is visible everywhere as people strive to assert their individuality and identity. If there are still spheres of influence, if it is still possible to crush rebellions against foreign domination here or there, these are more in the nature of rearguard battles of a lost cause than victories of advancing forces of history. Every time a reversal occurs, we are tempted to emphasize the momentary retreat and less inclined to compare the present with the situation a decade or two ago. The time of empires has passed and the fact that there are anachronistic survivals of old patterns should not prevent us from noting the trend.

The emergence of nonalignment as the political expression of the aspiration for emancipation in the third world is the best testimony to these changes. But it is also a new factor in international relations, By its origins and through its protagonists, it has had an important environmental influence upon the behavior of the great powers. If the nonaligned countries could adapt to the new pattern of world politics, they could again become the expression of the outside environment acting upon and reacting to the triangular powers.

In order to perform this function the nonaligned must discard patterns of thinking and behavior which have outlived their usefulness. Influencing the behavior of major powers locked in a triangular nexus is not the same as the effort required for moderating the tensions between two contestants in a bipolar world. At the same time, the new situation has become an unpleasant reality for the countries of the third world, for they are more exposed to all kinds of pressures and interventions from outside as well as more unstable within their own social and political framework. In the new pattern, they cannot afford to sit on the fence. They are and will be ever more directly involved in confrontation and conflict.

Since the new trends do not appear to be leading toward the rebuilding of blocs, nonalignment in the strict sense of the word certainly has lost its meaning. Furthermore, it does not appear that it is enough to be the "conscience of the world" in the sense of trying to restrain the major powers from plunging into an all-out war. The nonaligned must seek fulfillment more in concrete achievement than in loftiness of proclamation. In order to play a role in the decisive confrontations in the world, and in particular in developments within the big-power triangle, they must have a sufficiently strong material basis to overcome the debilitating dependence on outside aid.

During 1968 and 1969 efforts were made to reconvene another summit meeting of statesmen of the nonaligned countries. The initiative lay mostly with Jugoslavia, which should not be surprising in view of its role in past efforts to unite third-world states in political action or to enhance their economic position. Finally, in 1969, after much frustration, a consultative meeting of representatives of nonaligned countries assembled in Belgrade. It was followed by a meeting of the foreign ministers in New York during the U.N. General Assembly. There it was agreed to have a preparatory conference in Africa, where Tanzania would act as host, in order to prepare for a full meeting of heads of state or government in 1970 or soon thereafter.

As a first step it will be necessary to reestablish the unity and "the sense of belonging" of the nonaligned, or at least of the core members of that group. In the years since the summit in Cairo in 1964 links have been broken and friends have temporarily become alienated. In preparing for new ventures and for an active participation in world affairs, the nonaligned states will require a maximum of tolerance.

One of the most important requirements under the circumstances would be to break out of the somewhat closed circle of invited participants of the earlier conferences for the purpose of political action. Efforts to do so in the past two years have produced only moderate progress. The formula, advocated by Jugoslavia, of "nonaligned and like-minded" countries has not been adopted in its full meaning. Only a modest expansion of the ranks was accepted in the consultative meeting in Belgrade and implemented in the ministers' meeting in New York. This is understandable in view of the high priority given by most non-aligned countries to their economic needs. They are naturally inclined to regard the nonaligned group as the united front of the poor and as an exclusive third-world grouping. To accept this economic definition, however, contradicts the political definition of the group's role today when a wide range of countries, more or less developed, could find a common purpose in acting as a moderating influence upon the three major powers. In other words, the task of the coming meeting of the heads of the non-aligned countries should not be a mere repetition of the first two conferences in Belgrade and Cairo, but rather the initiation of new forms of international cooperation that would create an environment in which it would be easier to maintain peace and coexistence. To further this goal, the nonaligned will have to direct their attention in the first place to the internal problems of the third world; for it is instability in those parts of the world which is more likely to generate conflicts than the antagonism between great powers.

In the new pattern of triangular relations among the major powers, the nonaligned, if operating only as an exclusive group, cannot create a moderating environment. What is needed is not a crusading campaign of a select group fighting for general principles, but a steady and constructive approach to current world problems. For this purpose goodwill and readiness to cooperate in specific cases with all partners who are like-minded would appear to be far more important than belonging to any alliance.

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  • LEO MATES, Director of the Institute of International Politics and Economics, Belgrade; former Jugoslav Ambassador to the United States and to the United Nations; former Secretary General to the President of Jugoslavia and Undersecretary of State for Foreign Affairs
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