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Is Non-Alignment Dead? The Case for Countries Not Picking a Side

Guest: Matias Spektor, founder and professor at the School of International Relations at Fundacao Getulio Vargas

In a polarizing world of geopolitical power struggles, countries are hedging their bets. Better to be on no side at all. Who are the fence-sitters’, and what do they accomplish by being unaligned with global powers?  

Alliances are changing fast. The US, Russia, and China use their influence to rally support from previously neutral countries. Increasingly, nations — especially developing nations — are forced to pick a side. Is non-alignment possible in our increasingly polarized world? Who are the fence sitters and how long can they hedge their bets? Matias Spektor, founder and professor at the School of International Relations at Fundacao Getulio Vargas, joins us for a wide-ranging wonky discussion on where we are and where we are going.

Spektor’s recent article ‘In Defense of Fence Sitters’ in Foreign Affairs got much attention. Spektor said, “The Fence Sitters are a bunch of countries from the developing world that perceive the world to be way too uncertain, and therefore they don’t want to take risks. They want to avoid risk-taking. So, they don’t want permanent alliances with the powers that be; they would rather keep their options open for maximum flexibility.”

The ability to hedge rests on a multipolar international system – in this case, the poles are the United States, Russia, and China. How does hostility between these powers ripple through the rest of the world? “Great powers, what they do is they create regional spheres of influence. They try to retain these spheres of influence, and they try to prevent their peer competitors from developing their own spheres of influence. So, the United States is now engaging, trying to deny China regional hegemony in Southeast Asia, and Russia is now trying to deny the United States hegemony in Eastern Europe. And these are the main battles of our times. This is dangerous because it awakens the risk of war, which the rest of the world doesn’t want. But it also presents an opportunity because it means that now, these countries can try and secure some kinds of concessions from the great powers as they provide support for one of them or for the other.

How do these non-aligned countries compare to the Non-Aligned Movement founded in 1961? Spektor said, My argument about the fence sitters today is that these are large developing countries that are looking at the international system and they believe that their self-interest is best served by denying firm commitments to any of the major powers in the international system. They do not represent a coalition. They are not engaging in coalitional politics now. They do not share a common identity.

We discussed the powerhouses – Russia, China, and the United States. Then we discussed the unaligned fence sitters. But what about other powers in the world? For example, what about Europe? Spektor said, “Europe is not an independent power in the world. It depends on US protection and US leadership. Now in a scenario in which Europe gets attacked together and it develops some strategic autonomy along the lines that President Macron proposes, things may change. But things have not changed thus far. So Europe is in the camp firmly with the United States, and that’s why I don’t think we can call Finland and Sweden —the Nordic in general — fence sitters before they apply to join NATO. They were under the US security umbrella, but more importantly, they were members of what we call the liberal international order in ways that the large developing countries of the world never were — India, Turkey, South Africa, Brazil, and Indonesia never were.”

There is plenty of criticism about the US’ tenure as the global hegemony. Is US policy to blame for this shift to non-alignment? Spektor said, The reason why great powers rise, and fall, is partly to do with their strategic choices. And the US has made plenty of mistakes. But there’s something far more fundamental, which is changes in global capital and global capitalism. The fact is that the way capital has moved from the North Atlantic to the East and to some extent to the South was going to transform China in ways that are absolutely remarkable and that our generation has managed to witness.

Spektor told us that these countries could continue fence sitting as long as there is no direct, open hostility between global powers. Does he think we are heading towards that? Spektor said, I hope not. But the problem with multipolar systems is that everything is so unstable. We have a multipolar system in which the distribution of power is highly unequal. The United States is far, far, far more powerful than China, which in turn is far, far more powerful than Russia. The problem is that this breeds a lot of instability.

How long can these countries keep hedging? Find out more by listening to the latest Altamar episode, available wherever you get your podcasts. You can download the episode here

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Episode 153